The Reading List: George Saunders

July 7th, 2011 · 25 Comments · Cameos, Children's Books, Gifts, Culture, Kitchenlightenment, Posts by Andy, Uncategorized

I remember exactly where I was when I read the short story, “Pastoralia,” by George Saunders: I was finishing lunch at my desk, back when I had hair and worked at Esquire magazine on 55th Street. As soon as I finished, I copied it and – this was 2000, remember – faxed it to a couple of the writers I worked with, no cover note attached. I thought it would inspire them. A few hours later, the emails started coming in: “I’m never going to write again.” “Jesus, man.” “Why would you do that to me?” Would I do this again? I would. Because great writing is inspiring and George Saunders is a great and inspired writer. He has the distinction of being the author of some of my all-time favorite grown-up fiction (my favorite is the story collection, Pastoralia, but really: you can’t go wrong), my all-time favorite kid fiction (The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, for ages 6-12, which we have featured before), and some of my favorite non-fiction (collected, thank you god, here). He’s also a genius. (True story. He’s way too modest to tell you this, but he’s a winner of the crazy-prestigious MacArthur “genius” grant.) What I’m saying is, we love George Saunders, love his beautiful, generous view of the world, and love the fact that he is a friend of DALS. We asked him for a Summer Reading List for Kids, and here’s what he sent us. I don’t know about you, but I’m buying all of them. Take it away, George…

Well, to start with, an apology/disclaimer. Our kids are grown and I’ve been away from kids’ books for awhile, although I well remember the thrill, on a cold autumn night, of snuggling in with both our girls and feeling like: ah, day is done, all is well. Some of what follows may be old news, but hopefully one or two will be new to you.

Okay. Let’s start with Kashtanka, by Anton Chekhov and Gennady Spirin (Ages 9-12). I’ve written about this at length at Lane Smith’s excellent website, but suffice to say it’s a beautiful, simple, kind-hearted story with illustrations that are beautiful and realistic with just the right touch of oddness.

Speaking of Lane Smith, who is, to my mind, the greatest kids’ book illustrator of our time, I’d recommend all his books but maybe particularly an early one, The Happy Hocky Family (Ages 4-8). It’s funny and arch but at its core is a feeling of real familial love. With Lane, every book has its own feeling, and this one is sort of minimal and yet emotive – right up my alley.

Back when we were doing our book together, The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, Lane turned me on to The Shrinking of Treehorn, by Florence Parrry Heide (Ages 6-8). This is one of those books that stakes out its claim to greatness by showing something that, though harsh, is also deeply true: Grownups often don’t see kids and don’t listen to them. The illustrations are masterpieces of 1970s cool, by the great Edward Gorey.

I love The Hundred Dresses (by Eleanor Estes, illustrated Louis Slobodkin, ages 7-9) for a similar reason. On this ostensibly small palette of a kid’s book, Estes has told a deep unsettling truth, one that we seem to be forgetting; as Terry Eagleton put it: “Capitalism plunders the sensuality of the body.” Here, poverty equals petty humiliation, which drives a child, Wanda Petronski, to lie, and be teased for the lie, and then to create something beautiful – but the great heart-dropping trick of this book is that the other characters in the book discover Wanda’s inner beauty late, too late, and she is already far away, and never gets to learn she has devastated them with her work of art, and changed her vision of the world. This is a book that, I think, has the potential to rearrange a child’s moral universe in an enduring way.

I also love Millions of Cats, by Wanda Gag (Ages 4-8), for its eerie-funny Eastern European illustrations. I always mentally group this book with the equally Euro-Weird Caps for Sale, by Esphyr Slobodkina (Ages 4-8). After the latter, you will never see monkeys the same way again. Well, unless the way you see monkeys now as wily acquisitive thieves and plunderers who should all be put in jail forever, no bananas.

I love all Dr Seuss, especially The Sneetches (Ages 4-7) and the contained masterpiece, best if read in a quasi-Bela-Lugosi voice, “What Was I Scared Of,” which contains these classic lines:

I said, “I do not fear those pants
With nobody inside them.”
I said, and said, and said those words.
I said them. But I lied them.

I also love Seuss’s Sleep Book (Ages 4-7) which I believe contains the immortal line: “And that’s why I’m bothering telling you this,” which comes in very handy as a sort of efficiency-mantra in graduate creative writing workshops, as in: Let’s not forget to always ask, “Why are we bothering telling us this?”

I’d also recommend, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (on Rabbit Ears books, w/audio tape featuring scary-as-heck music, great moody illustrations by Robert Van Nutt, and a masterful reading by Glenn Close) if you want to terrify your kids so much that they will never leave home or go outside in autumn and will totally forevermore avoid the Catskills. And pumpkins. And Glenn Close.

Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices, by Paul Fleischman, illustrated by Eric Beddows (Ages 7-12). This is very cool: the poems here are presented in two columns. You take one part, the kid takes the other, and you do this sort of fugue-reading together. This, I promise, will bond you. Because even if done correctly, it’s sort of embarrassing. Your kid will see what you would have sounded like if you’d gone Total Thespian. But also, the two of you will occasionally blunder into moments of real beauty, and look at each other like: Whoa. And then go: MOM! (or DAD!) Come hear this!

When I was a kid, my grandmother had a bunch of those Little Golden Books around and these left a real impression on me. Whenever I rediscover one, it sets off this synethesia-like explosion of memories of Chicago in the early 1960s (Brillcream + lilacs + warm tube TV, etc etc). I especially remember I Can Fly, and The Poky Little Puppy and Mister Dog: The Dog Who Belonged to Himself (Ages 2-4). There’s something about the design and colors of these things that you just don’t see anymore – each one its own little unlikely beautiful universe. I think that from these I learned that art does not have to be strictly representational to be deeply and lovingly about the world.

Dear Mili, by Wilhelm Grimm, illustrated by Maurice Sendak (Ages 4-8), is a sad and deep little book about love and loss and time – a book that is not afraid to go toward dark, nearly intolerable truths. I think one thing I look for in a kids’ book is an avoidance of a too-pervasive all-is-well outlook, mainly because it tends to be anti-literary. I mean, a happy ending is all well and good, but many of the books I’ve recommended here go at it in a more complicated way, and don’t flinch at ambiguity, assuming, correctly, that kids can not only tolerate complexity and ambiguity, but crave them, because in their hearts they know the world is big and scary, and crave sound counsel.

Well, that and farting cats who wear suspenders.

And finally, in that spirit (the spirit of sound counsel, not the spirit of a suspender-wearing farting cat — or, as they call them in Germany, “FartenKatz”) —Once There Was a Tree, by Natalia Romanova, illustrated (again) by Gennday Spirin (Ages 4-7). A weirdly Zen eco-tale that doesn’t rush to any conclusion. And the illustrations make me want to move to Russia. In the nineteenth century.

Let me close by saying, from the perspective of someone with two grown and wonderful kids, that your instincts as parents are correct: a minute spent reading to your kids now will repay itself a million-fold later, not only because they love you for reading to them, but also because, years later, when they’re miles away, those quiet evenings, when you were tucked in with them, everything quiet but the sound of the page-turns, will, seem to you, I promise, sacred. — George Saunders


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25 responses so far ↓

  • 1 jen // Jul 7, 2011 at 8:41 am

    what a great list! thanks for posting about the sneetches – i have been racking my brain for the name of that and have been meaning to ask my sister – it was our “ghost story” when we were young and have been wanting to share that with my kids! (their favorite movies are corpse bride and nightmare before christmas so i think it’s right up their alley!! haha) some of the books i know and some are new to me so thanks for the list!

  • 2 julie // Jul 7, 2011 at 9:41 am

    I love George Saunders and his recommendations are amazing! Thanks for posting his New Yorker story last week. I’ve never laughed so hard.

  • 3 shannon // Jul 7, 2011 at 9:44 am

    Thanks, DALS! My girls love The Sneetches and I’ll be adding these to the library list today.

  • 4 Jen // Jul 7, 2011 at 10:15 am

    Thanks for the wonderful recs. Many of these are a departure from the what you normally see. We can’t wait to add them to our library list! Also, does anyone else have the problem of finding books for a reader who is lightyears ahead in capability, but lacking in maturity???? Please help me if you know of any good resources that catalogue books by maturity level and not “reading level”…Thanks!

  • 5 sherri@crunchtimefood // Jul 7, 2011 at 10:22 am

    Great list and recommendations. I just ordered The Hundred Dresses for my nieces because of George’s review. And Sneetches, in LA, is priceless. I think, if he’ll let me, I will read to my 11 yearold son tonight to deepen my own memories of us tucked together and the sound of page-turning. Thank you

  • 6 Kendra // Jul 7, 2011 at 10:22 am

    What an amazing post. I unearthed my copy of PASTORALIA and am promising to treat myself to the title story before bed tonight!

  • 7 Melissa@Julia's Bookbag // Jul 7, 2011 at 10:41 am

    What a GREAT list, I’ve been meaning to get “The Hundred Dresses’ for awhile now….I had someone tell me recently that she had never heard of the ‘The Poky Little Puppy’ — my jaw dropped! Thanks for this list, Hurray for Summer Reading!

  • 8 Amy // Jul 7, 2011 at 12:16 pm

    My 14 month old is borderline obsessed with I Can Fly.

  • 9 M // Jul 7, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    You’ve just changed my life. Thank you–so much.

  • 10 Tara // Jul 7, 2011 at 1:22 pm

    Great post. Thanks for all the suggestions. Some are new to me and some were blasts from the past. It’s such fun to be reminded of a treasured book that has gone missing in your mind. I love reading to our six and nine year-olds and they love to be read to. But I’ve been feeling nostalgic for many of our old picture books that are beginning to gather dust now that they are so much more focused on chapter books and graphic novels. This post is inspiring me to find a more prominent place for some of our favorites. Caps for Sale will be in that stack for sure. A series that is a classic for our family is George Selden’s “The Cricket in Times Square” series. I was looking at them recently for a blog post of my own and was struck by how they manage to be sweet without being cloying. We read them first when our son was six, but we keep returning to them and are never disappointed.

  • 11 654carroll // Jul 7, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    “No, no, Treehorn, there’s no shirking here. We all pull our own weight.” Possibly the best line ever written in a children’s book. Ever. Glad to see he’s getting some MacArthur Genius love.

  • 12 Meagan // Jul 7, 2011 at 1:42 pm

    Thank you so very, very much. I too love George Saunders and his list of children’s books only confirms the trust I intuitively put in him and his emotional/artistic/moral sensibility. I also think reading aloud with my children is maybe the very best part of being a parent. I can’t wait to check out the books on this list we haven’t read together yet!

  • 13 Tara // Jul 7, 2011 at 1:52 pm

    @Jen, re:maturity level, check out Common Sense Media (http://www.commonsensemedia.org/book-reviews). I use them all the time to choose movies and I noticed recently that they offer book reviews as well. My son is a very sensitive viewer so I find their in depth reviews of movies very helpful. They give lots of detail so you can make an informed decision and prepare your child for specific scenes and topics. Hope this helps.

  • 14 Caitlin // Jul 7, 2011 at 1:55 pm

    One day when I have children I will need to re-read every DALS post since there is just so much goodness here. Reading this I can hear my Dad in his best funny voice saying, “Caps, caps for sale, 50 cents a cap…”. Thank you for the great list, George. (and thank you Andy for letting me pretend that I am on a first name basis with George Saunders)

  • 15 Jane // Jul 7, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    How about some suggestions for adults?

  • 16 Appletree // Jul 7, 2011 at 4:25 pm

    this made me so happy today
    hitting the library tomorrow

  • 17 Dandy // Jul 7, 2011 at 6:46 pm

    Oh I grew up with Dear Milli and I always find people are surprised when they read it. It is a very sad and deep book for a child but I always loved it.

  • 18 Jamie // Jul 7, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    Thank you for reminding to listen to the quiet. I have small ones that love to be read to before bed and sometimes I can barely muster up the energy. The sound of the page-turning brought it all home for me. I’m going out for the Sleep Book tomorrow, that’s a Seuss we don’t have!
    http://chosenchaos.blogspot.com/

  • 19 Matt // Jul 8, 2011 at 9:23 am

    Bless you, bless you, bless you for posting this. George Saunders is one of my favorite humans on earth. Those pants with nobody inside them scared me as a boy, and now I’m scaring my son with them, too.

  • 20 Courtney // Jul 8, 2011 at 3:39 pm

    This is great – my son (4) absolutely loves ‘empty pants’ from ‘What was I scared of – he cracks up every single time we read the book. It was his choice for me to read to his preschool class. GREAT choices!

  • 21 Taylor // Jul 9, 2011 at 5:57 pm

    I love Caps for Sale and Millions of Cats! They are excellent as are (I’m sure) the rest of these recommendations. I have to tell you, the forays into children’s (and adult for that matter) literature are one of my favorite things about DALS. And yes, that may be because I’m a teacher, but it’s also because I was a kid once too, and I will always remember my Dad reading books to me; and sometimes now, even as a grown up I sit and read the same stories to myself. Mr. Saunders hit the nail on the head with his last remarks. Thanks for the lovely post!

  • 22 Kimberly // Jul 9, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    What an amazing post. I was familiar with a few of these books and love them so much that I cannot wait to check out the others that will be new to me as well as my son. Thank you DALS and George!

  • 23 Lauren // Jul 10, 2011 at 4:27 pm

    Happy I found your blog. I love this list. My boys are away at camp, is it wrong to order some of the books for myself?

  • 24 Michele // Jul 12, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    Can I just say I LIVE for these articles? There is really nothing on the web that satisfies me as much as having a book round-up from you open on one tab with my local public library’s catalog open on another and I’m just ordering away. It’s like shopping only free. And like researching literature but with significantly less work. I LOVE IT! Thank you!

  • 25 Holly // Jul 13, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    I am post-vacation and catching up on more than a week’s worth of DALS, and this post made my heart soar — I went to Syracuse and took several creative writing workshops with George, and I absolutely adored him. He is an extraordinary educator; one of the very rare ones that inspires the type of boundless creativity that stays with you no matter what sort of career you wind up in. He helped me discover terrific writers more than a decade ago, and now, I can’t wait to follow his cues for additions to my small daughter’s bookshelf as she begins to grow past — we hope! — the page-tearing stage. Thanks to you guys for featuring him, and hello to George, if he’s reading!

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