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