Just in time for summer reading, I’m delighted to present this guest-post by Catherine Hong, veteran magazine editor and writer, mother of two, and the Mrs. behind Mrs. Little, one of my most favorite book blogs for kids that you should be reading if you’re not already. Take it away Catherine! –JR
I know that plenty of great children’s books were published after my 1970s childhood. I’ve heard a lot about these so-called new classics, like The Giver, Holes, The Hunger Games and Harry something-or-other. Once in a while I even allow my kids to read them. But there is truly nothing more gratifying than seeing your kids fall for one of your favorite books from your youth. Can anything match the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you see your 10-year-old curled up with Harriet the Spy? (Bonus points if it’s your yellowed copy of Harriet with the original price of $1.50) It’s like a mother sheep recognizing her newborn by its smell — the feeling that says “this MUST be my child.” Sure, these old novels make references to telegrams and water closets, and fail almost every test of political correctness, but they’re so transporting they’ll keep your Clash of the Clans-obsessed offspring reading all summer.
ISLAND OF THE BLUE DOLPHINS (1960) By Scott O’Dell
When I re-read this recently it was as thrilling as I remembered it from fourth grade — but whoa! — much, much sadder. As you probably remember, the story is about a Native American girl, Karana, who finds herself alone on an island off the coast of California for many years after her people are forced to flee the island following a massacre. She has to figure out all the survival skills (hunting, spearmaking) that, as a female in the tribe, she was never taught. She battles hunger, weather, wild dogs, extreme loneliness and despair. O’Dell draws the landscape of the island so vividly you feel like you know every bluff and cove yourself.
What your kids will love: How Karana built a fence around her home using giant whale ribs tied with kelp to keep out the wild dogs.
What you only notice now: How crazy it is that Ramo (Karana’s little brother) is killed before they’ve been alone on the island a week. No kids’ book would let that happen today.
THE GREAT BRAIN (1967) By John D. Fitzgerald
My brother and I were crazy about this series, which is set in a Mormon town in Utah during the early 1900s. The main character is Tom, a precocious, money-loving 10-year-old who uses his “great brain” to swindle and con every kid in the neighborhood. Even when he does something heroic, like rescue two boys lost in a cave or help a crippled child to use his peg leg, he manages to come out with a silver dollar or two. (Some of the books in this series are now out of print — criminal!)
What your kids will love: How Tom masterminds his revenge on a schoolteacher by planting whiskey bottles in his bedroom and coat pocket.
What you only notice now: The boys were constantly whooping each other’s asses and the parents never once got involved. As the narrator, J.D. puts it, “It was just a question of us all learning how to fight good enough … After all, there is nothing as tolerant and understanding as a kid you can whip.”
Level: 4th & 5th graders
THE TWENTY-ONE BALLOONS (1947) By William Pène DuBois
Why has this incredible book not been made into a movie? It’s a fantasy-adventure about an explorer in the 1880s who stumbles onto the island of Krakatoa, where an ultra-civilized society of twenty families have invented their own calendar and government (a “restaurant government”) and live in unimaginable wealth, thanks to the island’s diamond mines. The book is wry, sophisticated and absurd, with fantastic illustrations (also by Du Bois).
What your kids will love: The fantastical Victorian-style inventions created by the Krakatoans, like the mechanical beds that rise up through the roof.
What you only notice now: It’s a children’s book that’s completely about adults. There are hardly any kids in the book, and the main character, a retired math teacher, confesses he doesn’t even particularly like children.
Level: 5th-6th grade
NICHOLAS (1960) By René Goscinny
Americans have Ramona Quimby, the French have Nicholas (or as he’s known there, “Le Petit Nicolas”), a spirited, perennially optimistic lad with a knack for getting into scrapes. Each chapter in the series — there are five volumes in English — reads as a self-contained story, usually focusing on an innocent escapade that goes totally awry. Each chapter generally ends in mild chaos or a slapstick-style melee; the tone is very Jacques Tati. A 5th grader could probably devour one of these books in an afternoon (it goes down like popcorn) but a 2nd or 3rd grader could also tackle these and be totally delighted.
What your kids will love: How Nicholas introduces the same friends in every story, as if we didn’t know them by now: Alec, “who is very fat and who eats all the time,” and Cuthbert, who “is top of the class and we’re not crazy about him, but we can’t hit him because he wears glasses.”
What you only notice now: The utter charm of the writing (even in translation), and how delicious those chocolate croissants that Alec is always eating must be.
MRS. FRISBY AND THE RATS OF NIMH (1971) by Robert C. O’Brien
As you surely remember, the story follows the plight of Mrs. Frisby, a widowed field mouse fighting to save her family from the farmer’s plow. When she asks for help from the mysterious rats living under the rosebush she discovers that they are a race of ultra-strong, ultra-intelligent escapees from a lab at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). There’s almost a Harry Potter feeling to this book in the way O’Brien creates a fascinating and complex alternate world that secretly exists in parallel to our own.
What your kids will love: The description of the rats’ headquarters, outfitted with carpets, colored glass and tiny electric lights taken from Christmas trees.
What you only notice now: It’s the rare kids’ adventure story where the mother — not the child — is at the center. It’s Mrs. Frisby, a somewhat anxious widow and mother of four, who over the course of the novel realizes her potential for bravery and heroism.
Level: 3rd-4th grade
THE WOLVES OF WILLOUGHBY CHASE (1962) by Joan Aiken
More gothic than Lemony Snicket and page turnier than Dickens, this overlooked classic has it all: An English country manor house, a high-spirited rich girl, her penniless cousin, a tragic shipwreck, forged documents, a wicked governess, loyal servants, a grim orphanage and a pack of wolves “grown savage and reckless from hunger” who roam the countryside. It’s loaded with atmosphere, plot twists and melodrama.
What your kids will love: The Scooby-Do moment when the cousins discover a secret passageway behind the fireplace mantle by pushing the mounted deer head to one side.
What you only notice now: The hilarious names of the characters. The evil governess is Letitia Slighcarp, her menacing partner in crime is Mr. Grimshaw and yellow-eyed owner of the workhouse is Mrs. Brisket.
ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY (1951) By Sydney Taylor
Everything I know about Judaism I learned not from attending Bar Mitzvahs in Great Neck, or even marrying my husband (a nice Jewish boy), but from Taylor’s series about a family of five girls growing up on the Lower East Side at the turn of the century. It’s charming, it’s heart-warming, it’s what Laura Ingalls Wilder would have written if she grew up eating kreplech on Delancey Street.
What your kids will love: Learning what treats you could buy back then for just a penny: a bag of broken crackers, candied tangerines on a stick, a cone of roasted chick peas, a juicy sour pickle or some sort of candy called “chocolate babies” that are evidently extra fun to eat in bed.
What you only notice now: Their favorite part of Coney Island was the freak show. “To their delight, one of the freaks emerged from inside the tent to be gaped out at the audience. It was the Bearded Lady.” (Also on view: a midget and the “Wild Man from Borneo.”)
Level: 3rd-4th grade
THE PUSHCART WAR (1964) By Jean Merrill
A book of total genius that I pray will never go out of print. Written in the style of a historical report from the future, it recounts the events of a “war” on the streets of New York between corrupt trucking companies and a rag-tag band of pushcart peddlers. Led by Maxie Hammerman (a soft-spoken third-generation pushcart builder with a gift for strategy) the peddlers hatch a plan: they will flatten the truck tires using pea shooters so that everyone can see that the trucks are the cause of the traffic problems. Tony Kushner has said The Pushcart War is one of the most important books from his childhood (he spent two years trying to turn it into a film).
What your kids will love: Those pea shooters (duh!) made out of plastic yellow tubing, pins and dried peas.
What you only notice now: The lefty politics, sophisticated satire and postmodern flourishes.
Level: 5th/6th grade
Level: 6th/7th grade (seems to be required reading for a lot of 7th grades, and 7th was definitely the year I read it in middle school)