A Kid's Search For Good Books
by Regina Doman
Occasionally I come across one of my much younger siblings reading an unsuitable book. Unsuitable to me means the kind of book that will give a child nightmares or depress him, or make him feel like he should go to Confession for reading it. Both types are quite common in the typical childrens' section of bookstores and libraries.
My mother taught me to read before I entered kindergarten, so I was reading above my grade level for a long time, and, since I hated 'realistic' novels (especially those about divorce, death, or murder), I frequented the children's section of the library for a long time. I read Judy Blume's first 'ground breaking' novels, neo-adult kids book that brought divorce and cruelty down to grade-school levels. Teachers and parents alike praised and recommended her books, and all my peers devoured them. Although my friends like her books, for some reason I found them ugly.
Judy Blume and her devotee authors are fairly easy for concerned parents to track down and weed out. Books that contain sexual situations, sadistic violence, and bad language tend to advertise themselves by their covers or their plot descriptions. It is harder to identify books that are depressing and scary, qualities that are really only evident after the kids have read the book. I doubt that it's realistically possible to stop kids from reading depressing material, since they will encounter it no matter what parents do. In public school I had to read troubling stories for reading class, and when I came across highly regarded books such as The Lord of the Flies, 1984, and The Stranger, all of which forced me to face situations I really wasn't' ready to handle, no teacher discouraged me. I remember some of the movies we had to watch in public school as relentlessly saddening. One was about a boy whose parents ignore him and whose friends get him into trouble. In the end, his friends succeed in destroying by accident the only companions he has, the deer in a neighboring park, and in conclusion he runs off into the woods crying. Another movie was about a boy whose only friend is a 'magical' lite. But he exchanges it for a flashier one and in the end, through his greed, he loses both kites and finds himself alone. Movies like this made the blackness I sensed in the world around me seem even blacker.
Some children- like most of my classmates - were used to this constant diet of alienation, violence and cruelty. But for a child who is sensitive to these realities (as I was) and subject to nightmares (as my siblings are) upsetting books can be a serious problem, especially for a child who likes to read. Parents can steer their kids in the right direction by giving them books to inspire and uplift them, books that they can take to heart without being nauseated by a bad ending or a cynical attitude. Unfortunately, when parents look for good books, they sometimes falter when they go beyond the classics and The Chronicles of Narnia. This was the problem I faced as a book-loving child.
Libraries either helped or hindered my quest for good books. Some libraries were helpful only if I knew what titles I was looking for, and were utterly treacherous for browsing. I learned to test a library by what I suppose was a highly subjective criteria: its shelves had to contain large numbers of good books that wouldn't scare me or 'gross me out.' The local public library was very poor by this measurement: it had too many horror paper backs on the shelves. My grade school and junior high libraries were wonderful - they had cozy stacks of snug bookshelves, and wonderful titles - books I checked out five and six times. I once got in trouble for spending all my recesses in the library.
Early on, I acquired a dislike of paperbacks. First of all, they were cheap looking. Secondly, they were the only kind offered in the school book club, a club whose titles grew increasingly rancid as the years went by. My parents were horrified by the advertised titles I brought home in high school and eventually terminated my subscription. While I enjoyed many of the book club titles in grade school (few things were as thrilling as opening packages of new books) I felt that paperbacks were made by people who decided not to waste quality materials on kids. Third, all the horror stories and sex-filled novels surreptitiously passed around school (the V.C. Andrews novels were favorites in sixth grade) were paperbacks.
No, what I liked were hard bound books, old ones, from the library, with plastic covers (often grey and smudge with use) and loose bindings, which meant lots of other kids had read and liked them. Especially thick books, because that meant if the story was good, it would last a long time. And finishing one would give me a deep sense of accomplishment.
The eighth grade school library was a narrow and cold room, with awful science fiction stories and authors who were not afraid to give their tales 'realistic' endings. Some of the worst books I ever read in my life came from my eighth grade library. In addition, I sensed another problem becoming prominent in young adult novels: there was too much sex behind what seemed like innocent covers. To me, that meant as little as one act of intercourse, or even suggestive language. Characters who fantasized about sexual activity - no longer limited to stories by Judy Blume - became the norm, possibly because the authors thought that this was typical of young teens. It made me plain sick. I had no idea how to tell if a fairly likeable heroine was going to end up jumping into bed with the equally affable hero in mid-story. This was worst when I had committed myself to finishing the book because I was interested in the plot. My entertainment lead to moral dilemmas. When this happened, I really felt cheated - 'slimed' was the word I used.
Perhaps the best resource I had for finding good books was my closest friend, whom I met in junior high. Raquel was also a book lover and a Christian, so she had the same opinion of the low morals of authors that I did. She was in a curious situation in her family, their television broke when she was ten, and her parents had never got it fixed. So she was ignorant of most television shows, and was aware of far more literary works than I ever had been. When I met her, she, her sisters and her mother were engaged in reading aloud the second book of Tolkien's classic trilogy The Lord of the Rings. When she told me the plot line, I was fascinated - not only by the book, but by the whole concept of sharing story by reading it aloud. The way Raquel spoke about the Two Towers made it sound far more exciting to read it every night than watch it on television. It was. Raquel hooked my mother and I on reading stories out loud to each other, and recommended some books which are still my favorites today - obscure books she and her story hungry siblings had pawed through library stacks to find, books which never won any Newbury Awards, whose authors never became famous, but were just as captivating.
The other resource I had was Cricket magazine, which between the seventies and eighties, put some of the best new children's books on the market in their monthly issues. Cricket satisfied my longing for fantasy with their folk tales, fairy tales, African and Native American myths, science fiction, American folk lore, odds and ends and wonderful illustrations. (The key illustrator was Trina Schyman Hart whose beautiful covers and drawing inspired many of my own artistic endeavors) In addition, they reprinted books currently in print for both younger and older grades giving me leads on authors to check out and introducing fiction pieces, I never would have heard of otherwise.
Some hesitations are warranted before a recommendation. I haven't subscribed to Cricket magazine in ten years but a recent survey of their 1992 issues tells me that their quality hasn't changed in illustrations at least. Today the sounds of battle for the souls of children are growing louder but Cricket seems to be still largely un-violated territory. I suppose they could accused of humanism or their constant diet of mythology might lead to some to wonder if they are in effect preaching the equality of all religions. Since I haven't read every recent issue, I can't be sure if they've succumbed to the New Age movement or the ranks of Judy Blumes's disciples, although I can say their track record was excellent during the time I subscribed. On Hallowe'en, the magazine still runs ghost stories and suspense stories, though not gruesome ones, and occasionally feature articles on 'Saving the Earth.' But I wholeheartedly prescribe the back issues, and my educated guess is that a judicious parent might find a subscription a good investment, provided they exercise some gentle judgement.
Finding Good Books
How should a parent go about finding good books? There are several ways, aside from trustworthy magazine and recommendations from friends. The library provides many leads for the searcher. There is the Theory of Authors: a good book is often written by an author who has written other good books. a generally reliable rule.
Using the card catalogue - for authors and subjects too is also effective. I often found good books by looking up one of my favorite subjects in the card catalogue and seeing what other books were listed under that heading.
Searching parents might consider the following titles, nine of my all time favorites. I realise that my selection is perhaps hampered by the fact the I was reading well above my age level for many years, a situation that has its' own challenges, but I thing that all of these books would be suitable for children at fourth grade reading level and up, unless I indicate otherwise. Also, since I am a girl I vicariously read books with strong heroines. My personal tastes are for romantic adventures of nay type. Given those things, I've attempted to introduce a variety of choices into this list, despite my bias. There are well-known and unknown titles in this list, historical fiction and fairy tales, classics and contemporary works you could look up on your next trip to the library. So here are the top nine of my favorites. And believe me, this is only a small portion of my true, all-time reading favorites.
Lloyd Alexander was
on the staff of Cricket magazine, although his books were seldom featured on its
pages. Lloyd Alexander is the master of bumbling heroes, quick-witted heroines,
smart-talking villains and ever-present cats. Since I am a die-hard cat lover, he
quickly became my favorite author. The Town Cat and Other Tales was one perennial. I love
featuring felines, but so do his books Time Cat : The Remarkable Journeys of Jason and Gareth
(about a boy whose cat travels in time, meeting Leonardo da Vinci and Saint Patrick,
among others) and The Cat Who Wished to Be a Man. Curiously, his excellent
series, the Newbery-award winning Chronicles of Prydain, has no cat characters.
It is an exception.
In this six-pack of witty cat stories, my all time favorite is the one about a princess who appears to turn into a cat. The attraction in this book came partly from the female heroine and partly from the witty dialogue between the cat and the cat-hating king. The romance between Princess Elaine and Count Raymond appealed to me too (but, then, I read the book in third grade when I had a crush on the boy who sat behind me in class, named Raymond, while my middle name is Elaine, so perhaps it's a circumstantial attachment. Enjoyable for reading aloud are the title tale and 'The Cat Who Laid an Egg'. I recommend it for third to fifth grade readers or older, and to cat-lovers of all ages. Also check out Alexander's other titles - he has quite a few. The Prydain Chronicles is a favorite with boys. And don't let the schlocky Disney attempt at adapting the third book of the series, The Black Cauldron, detain you. The book is magnificent and moving. The Disney version hyped up the occultic aspects and got rid of the character who conversion was central to the story, to name only a few of the major deviations. Read the books instead and enjoy.
For those of you who think that the only quality Christian children's fiction worth reading is C.S. Lewis, look again, This book may well be out of print (it was originally published in the 1950's but it is certainly worth looking for in Christian Bookstores.) Patricia Saint John is an unparalleled story teller, and this book appeared before publishing Christian fiction became popular or profitable. It shines in my mind for its images of childhood in Switzerland - going to school on a sled, sleeping haylofts, woodcarving contests at school, wandering through fields of mountain flowers. The main characters are a girl, Annette, who cares for her baby brother Dani, and her bully of a neighbor, Lucien. Through Lucien's fault, a tragic accident occurs, and through the years, both Annette and Lucien must learn forgiveness and atonement - and, of course, this requires an acceptance of Christ.
Where some Christian books read like tracts, this one is a genuine story and the preaching is kept to the place where it really makes sense to bring it in: when Lucien is shunned by the village and brokenly tires to find friendship once again, when Annette faces the ugly unforgiveness in her own heart for Lucien's crippling her brother. Woodcarving, hospitality, gingerbread bears, unexpected Christmas presents, kind schoolteachers, lonely mountain hermits, skiing, nighttime chases, and lost kittens all play a part in this richly embroidered narrative. It has such an interesting aura and deeply satisfying ending that I read the covers off the book long ago. I suggest it for fifth through eighth grade and beyond.
Also recommended: Star of Light, set in India and featuring the same love of homey pictures and Christmas.
As a girl, I was naturally attracted to female heroines, and I never ceased being interested in stories about children suddenly removed from their parents and families. Indian Captive is one of several books I read in junior high dealing with the historical incident of white children being forcefully adopted into Indian tribes. this true story was by fat the least disturbing of accounts, probably because the girl managed to fit in with her captors' culture. Since I loved Indians and loved the woods and loved adventure stories, I loved this book about little Molly Jamison and her difficulties between the world of the white men and the Indians who treat her as their own daughter. Again, may details of Molly's experiences stand out in my mind: how corn pones tastes, what bark houses smelled like, how worn-out moccasins cut the feet, how deerskin feels. At the end of the book, Molly is offered a chance to return to white civilization, but she chooses to stay with her adopted, now-loved Indian family and friends.
A few lines in the book about Indian religion may provide good 'teaching moments' for parents about the differences between christianity and native religion. It could also be pointed out the negative attitude of children towards religion ('sitting in church all day') can be remedied by high lighting the richness Catholicism brings into everyday life. For example, the Indians thank the Great Spirit for his provision each time they kill and animal. Point out the your child that we believe God provides for us in the same loving manner and that we have a kinship with creation and are responsible for it. These attitudes are not all the sole property of New Age followers and ecologists. Also note that a wise Indian notices Molly's Christian compassion and reflects that this is something that the Indians can learn from her.
Lois Lenski has quite a few titles, most of which deal with children in America's history.I don't remember many of them, a telling point. One I did like, but didn't love was Strawberry Girl, about poor children in backwoods Florida. It was a Newbury Award winner, but hardly as adventurous as captivity among the Indians.
Availability: This title is out of print. Although it is no longer available from the publisher, Amazon.com will query their network of used bookstores for you. Click the title above to go to Amazon.
This is simply a good book. Coastworth is an excellent writer, and her books are well worth reading. I read this book, which my grandmother gave me as a present, simply because I recognized the author's name. She was one of the 'reliables' authors I could trust. The Lucky Ones is a short book about five different refugee families - all from different parts of the world. Hong Kong, Tibet, Algeria, Hungary, and Rwanda. Each family has been driven from their home by a war, famine or political situation. The cause of their homelessness is barely mentioned, because the stories are told from the children's viewpoint. They are more interested in their families and how to keep them together. Chang Pins' father is dead, and he must provide for his mother and sister - does that mean sacrificing his desire to go to school? Jolanda's family, fleeing from a communist dictator, is not allowed into Australia because her brother has tuberculosis - should they split up the family? Leila's father and uncle are fighting in the Algerian war - can her old grandmother, a fighting hawk, keep the family together until they return. The best, by far, is the story of Pierre, a Watusi refugee from Rwanda, who is torn between love for his tall, dark father mourning fro his homeland, and Mr. Fisher, an enthusiastic volunteer (from the UN?) whose energetic ideas and efforts are rebuilding a broken people. How can he help his father regain hope? Mr. Fisher has the answer, perhaps....
The stories are told from within the framework of the families religious backgrounds, and only a few attempts are made to correct cultural beliefs that would not be considered 'politically correct' today. The women are subservient and content in that role, and the boys feel themselves responsible to care for and protect their families. No criticism is made of this, except to suggest that girls should be allowed to go to school, too. The love of family rings loud and clear within each story, and that is the binding thread between them. The stories are short, and I would recommend them for reading aloud to the whole family. My father read them to us after dinner. It is also a reminder of the care we should have the poor of other countries, and will certainly make it easier for children to give to the missions, which I believe was the point of the book. But more than a consciousness-raising diatribe, The Lucky Ones is a book infused with hope and affirmation, and above all, love.
Other books by Coastworth of interest are her works of historical fiction: stories of the American pioneers, stories of children in other lands, and poetry books. No other titles stand out particularily as favorites though I recently read Bess and the Sphinx and found it delightful.
What I loved about this book was not so much the storytelling as the story. It is the story of Cinderella, but embellished and strengthened and drawn out into a long, thin, shining thread. Whereas the other books I recommend could be read by boys and girls, this is a book I suspect will be enjoyed more by girls than boys and only then by girls filled with the same love for grown-up fairy tales as I was. This is the story of Girl-With-The Goats, or as she calls herself, Maid-Alone. She lives with her stepsisters and stepmother, and is friends with the starlings. Then, one day, the prince stops by the house and is offended by her shabbiness and poverty. Her step family throws her out of the house. Then, she is sent to borrow coals from the dwarves, is spurned again by the king's son, is captured by a giant...and so on it goes.
This Cinderella story is far more interesting than the brief prom-night episode typically portrayed. The loneliness of Maid-Alone and the coldness of Prince Charming saddened me the first read through, but as a result of her trials Maid-Alone learns to be wise, patient and to be content alone. The snotty prince is not interest in this humble 'maiden with no name' being blinded by her poverty, and he scorns her on two other occasions. When she attends the ball in her magical attire, he is bedazzled, but she refuses to dance with him until he remembers who she is. She refuses him three times more, and vanishes even though she proves herself when the shoe fits. This maiden is not so easily won, and the prince must do more than match the shoe to the foot. It is only by repentance, humility and penance that the prince wins her as a bride, and the story becomes richer for it. Maybe some children will find the book's heightened poetic language cumbersome, but I loved the beauty of it. Not a great book, but a good one, one to lose yourself in. I estimate that fourth graders and up should be able to handle it.
If the last book was primarily a girls' book, then this is a boys' book. It is set on the islands of the South Seas. The boy of the title is known as a coward, and he seeks to prove his manhood by surviving on his own. Together with his outcast dog and a friendly albatross, he travels to another island and makes a home for himself, only returning when he has proven his worth to his family and to himself. His difficulties at sea, his cunning in providing himself with tools and his solutions to challenges are fascinating. Easily read by fourth grade children is my guess.
I read it first with anxiety, because it is not clear that the boy will indeed succeed in his quest to prove himself as a man, and some of the passages are hair-raising. The closing lines assure us that this tale of courage had become a legend among the Polynesian peoples, and that the boy's deeds live on. It is a story about a child surviving on his own, very similar in theme to another well-known story My Side of the Mountain, which I also loved. Both are Newbery Award winners.
It is also similar to the struggles of the girl heroine in Scott O'Dell's marvelous The Island of the Blue Dolphins. I have not been too happy with O'Dell's other books, with the exception of The Black Pearl. He writes for grade school/teenagers, but some grade school children, intrigued by his two Newbery Award winners, might pick up his older crowd fiction which is not as pleasant. Sarah Bishop is a strange story about a Revolutionary War girl whose father is tarred and feathered in a grisly scene. The Spanish Smile features a reclusive Spanish father who keeps his daughter sequestered on an island, away from the dangers of 'modernity.' That he is a devout Catholic is not sufficiently distinguished from his eccentricity. Neither that book nor its sequel end happily. No good ending, in my mind, is just as damning as sex and violence. Not recommended.
Another children's survival story I loved is Tomas Takes Charge, or Children In Hiding (its Scholastic Books title) It takes place in New York City in modern times. Tomas and his sister Fernanda are abandoned by their father, so it seems. They escape notice of the welfare agencies by moving into an abandoned apartment and setting up house, creatively, and counting on Tomas' ingenuity.
In the glut of stories about families, divorce, friendships and sisters, there are a few rare jewels. This story is one of them. I recommend it for the older grades.
Amy and Laura is the last of a three volume story of a family, beginning with Amy Moves In and continuing in Laura's Luck. It begins with a tragedy: Amy and Laura's mother is almost killed in a car accident, which hospitalizes her for close to a year. During this time, (a situation once typical, but now, through relaxed visiting rules, less probable) the two sisters can not see her, and must learn to survive without their loving and much missed mother. At the beginning of Amy and Laura, their mother comes home from the hospital, and the conflicts which have simmered throughout the first two titles come into the open once again: Laura's insecurities, Amy's bad habits, dealing with a needy parent, sibling conflicts. Sachs draws a fine portrait of the two very different sisters: Amy is pretty, bubbly, and gets into trouble. Laura is smart, shy, and does everything right, apparently. The story is well-balanced with lots of funny and human moments offsetting the harder realities of family life, and my guess is that children will be able to identify with either Laura or Amy in their different stages of growth. Laura's Luck began the story of Laura's emerging from her shell as summer camp puts her in situations she never dreamed of being in: for example, having the lead role in a cabin skit. In Amy and Laura, the non-athletic bookworm learns to deal with the terrors and freedoms of riding a bike, while Amy navigated the uncertain waters of friendships and teachers. All the problems reach a realistic but gratifying conclusion at the end: though the parents waver in their positions, their posts as pillars of authority in the family are strengthened by trials, and the sisters discover their mutual love for each other, despite their constant quarrels.
Sach's other books include the story of the neighborhood bully Veronica Ganz, which takes a more serious look at a troubled girl finding her feet. Peter and Veronica continues her story. Both of these might need some parental guidance, but though they toe the line Judy Blume drew in the sand, they're mostly okay. Going deeper into serious family problems is The Bear's House, with a very real and very difficult situation. Fran Ellen escapes into fantasy, which might be depressing, except for the fact that it is a real consolation for her. The story ends on a hopeful note, in this very thin book of an outcast working her way back into society. I have slight reservations recommending it, because although it really is a good story, some children might find it depressing. I did as a child. Now, I can understand it better, although I am still moved every time I reread it.
May I introduce to you, my introduction the marvelous plays of William Shakespeare. This book, which I read in the third grade, sparked an interest in me that remained and grew all through school; so that I now keep as a reference beside my desk a dictionary, thesaurus, Bible, and the Complete Works. These tales are prose retellings of the best Shakespearean plays, among them Hamlet, A Midsummer Night's Dream, King Lear, Julius Caesar, Henry V, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, and others. If you don't care for the Bard, you should read it. It contains the whole colorful rainbow of characters from the comedies, tragedies and histories. Of course, not every play is retold in this book (not every one of Shakespeare's plays are worth retelling) but the greatest are here.
It's the style that makes this book different from Charles Lamb's Stories from Shakespeare. Serrallier does not talk down to his audience in the annoying way that Lamb does, and the stories are all the more effective for a straight telling. If you think that kids and Shakespeare won't mix, this book may give you some surprises. Don't be amazed if children want to act out the stories after they read this book: I did. The book inspired me to begin my rewrites of Shakespearean plays for children's production. (I began rewriting Julius Caesar after I first read it.) My one complaint is that the book should have better illustrations.
This is the book I introduced to Raquel, and which we both introduced to our friends, out sisters and our mothers throughout the years. I have mentioned my weakness for romance, and this thick book is a dead giveaway. In including Mara in this list, I am perhaps anticipating teenagers who thrive on the romantic. But I read this book in the sixth grade, and loved it then. It is one of the rare books that I was able, years later, to obtain a copy of when the library had a discard sale. I can't understand why it has gone out of print: possibly because the villainous in the story is today a feminist idol.
The story is set in ancient Egypt,during the time of the pharaohs. Hashepsut, sister of the pharaoh, has broken precedent by making herself Pharaoh, a post every respectable Egyptian knows she shouldn't be holding. But more than that, Hashepsut is a bad ruler. She spends money on monuments while Egypt's empire languishes, and the supporters of the young prince Thutmose are simmering in revolt. Into this drama comes a jester of sorts — Mara, a half-Babylonian, half-Egyptian slave girl with a quick wit and tongue-in-cheek humor. She is hired by both sides of the royal courts subterfuge, posing as an interpreter for the prince's bride who really carries messages from the rebel to Thutmose, while at the same time pretending to look for the messenger who is doing just what she is doing. It is exactly the wrong time to fall in love.
Thankfully the battle of wits and love between Mara and her comrade Sheftu is free of lust while remaining passionate. What stands out in the book is the humor, the lavish Egyptian scenery, and the plot twists, which are vaguely reminiscent of The Scarlet Pimpernel. But I won't spoil it for you, only recommend it highly, and mention that it comes with the enthusiastic endorsement of every teenaged girls who's ever read it. My prophecy is that someday someone will make a fortune by turning it into a movie.
McGraw has written other books, none as good as Mara, Daughter of the Nile. But they might be worth checking out. Mara is excellent for reading aloud. But be prepared to rush through the last few chapters.
These are some of the best in my book, though by no means the only best. If I were to mention half of the other books that wandered through my memory while writing this article, I'd have to write another.
Some of the Editor's Favorites, also a 'short list'
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