Posts Tagged ‘kids books’

The Best Free-Read Books

Dear Reader,

Rereading Charlotte Mason’s first volume, I ran across this quote:

“By the way, it is a pity when the sense of the ludicrous is cultivated in children’s books at the expense of better things. Alice in Wonderland is a delicious feast of absurdities, which none of us, old or young, could afford to spare; but it is doubtful whether the child who reads it has the delightful imaginings, the realising of the unknown, with which he reads The Swiss Family Robinson.

This point is worth considering in connection with Christmas books for the little people. Books of ‘comicalities’ cultivate no power but the sense of the incongruous; and though life is the more amusing for the possession of such a sense, when cultivated to excess it is apt to show itself a flippant habit. Diogenes and the Naughty Boys of Troy is irresistible, but it is not the sort of thing the children will live over and over, and ‘play at’ by the hour, as we have all played at Robinson Crusoe finding the footprints. They must have ‘funny books,’ but do not give the children too much nonsense reading.

Stories, again, of the Christmas holidays, of George and Lucy, of the amusements, foibles, and virtues of children in their own condition of life, leave nothing to the imagination. The children know all about everything so well that it never occurs to them to play at the situations in any one of these tales, or even to read it twice over. But let them have tales of the imagination, scenes laid in other lands and other times, heroic adventures, hairbreadth escapes, delicious fairy tales in which they are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” (Home Education, pp. 151-52)

Based on questions I see on CM discussion boards, I would say many of us find that once we have got a handle on how to pick “living books” for school, we are still at a loss when it comes to our children’s “free reading.”

“Free read” is not a term Charlotte used, but the “Christmas books” mentioned above seem to fill the same role. This phrase implies that books were treasured and given as gifts and that they were for the child’s pleasure. Nonetheless, standards still apply. Charlotte allows a place for “funny books,” but a small place.

Part of the problem in our own day is the immensity of what is available. I don’t think Charlotte could have even begin to imagine the large libraries our children would have access to. But even if she had conceived of public libraries with whole children’s rooms, would she have dreamed of how truly awful so many of those books could be? We are as those adrift, surrounded by a sea of undrinkable water. To those of us faced with so many unreadable books, what are we to do? How do we discriminate and find the gems in the oceans of trite chapter books?

Charlotte’s standards here are so much higher than our own. Many of us would be happy with Alice in Wonderland, considering it a classic that has stood the test of time. But Charlotte suggests that, while amusing, it is not reliable sustenance. For her this was a popular silly book (Can you imagine what she would have made of Captain Underpants?!). She recommends instead Swiss Family Robinson. Think about this for a minute: despite its unusual events and fantastical nature, Alice is incapable of inspiring the imagination the way Swiss Family Robinson can.

Lewis Carroll’s classic is too far out there, but other books may be too realistic. Charlotte mentions books about “George and Lucy.” George and Lucy do ordinary things and while the child could well imagine himself in such circumstances, he doesn’t need to. There is nothing new or extraordinary involved. On the other end of the spectrum, Alice is entertaining because it is so silly and unexpected, but one still doesn’t imagine oneself as Alice simply because it is all so extraordinary. Swiss Family Robinson is in the middle. It sucks us in because these are ordinary people like us but in very different circumstances. We can imagine ourselves there and live through the adventures with the characters.

But fantasy is not entirely to be rejected. Charlotte speaks of fairy tales “in which [children] are never roughly pulled up by the impossible––even where all is impossible, and they know it, and yet believe.” A book like Alice is so bizarre and the events in it are so incongruous that we cannot somehow settle into the story. In contrast, E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It includes fantastical elements but we can and will readily suspend belief and imagine that we too have found a Psammead to grant us our wishes. The Lord of the Rings series posits a whole fantastical world, much as Alice does, but again we can imagine ourselves in this world. The key I think is that in this kind of fantasy, though the world may be so different from our own, the characters, the motives and the outcomes are still very much from our world. Though they be hobbits and wizards, yet there is something very human here.

If you are a reader, you probably do not need me to tell you what a good book is like. You have no doubt felt it for yourself — If you are sorry to leave it when it is done, if you are interrupted in your reading and look up surprised that you are not on that desert island or in that igloo, if the characters become friends you are sorry to leave, then you have experienced such a book.

As I prepared this post, I realized that I am reading such a book myself — My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell. I would tell you more but I am anxious to get back to Corfu so . . .  another time.



Book Series for Tween and Teen Boys

Dear Reader,

I have had a couple of conversations (or virtual conversations) about book series for boys between the ages of 9-15 or so. I don’t know what it is about boys, but it seems a lot of them like to find series and read them through. It can be hard, though, to find quality ones. I know my own local library tends to have a lot of fantasy-type books. I don’t inherently object to fantasy, but there is a thread in modern books which irks me (more on that here). So I thought I would give  a list of the series my older boy (now 15) has read.

Book Series for Tween and Teen Boys

Though I know they need hardly be mentioned among Christian homeschoolers, let’s start with The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The former is much easier reading than the latter. I will admit that as a child I started both and could not get into them. My kids have enjoyed them though. My older son has read Tolkien many times over.  But they are excellent in their outlook and theology (both authors are Christian) and my son has enjoyed them both. I am not a huge fan of Christian lit but, though Narnia at least is quite obvious if you know the Christian story, these books do not come off as obvious or preachy. A warning: read them first! Don’t go to the movie versions. The Lord of the Rings in particular has been made very violent in the movies.

Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling — Okay, I know you have heard of this one. And I know some will have objections to the magical elements. For me Harry Potter is at a level I can take. My older son has read them all many times as well. HP and Lord of the Rings are the two series he keeps coming back to.

Rick Riordan — Riordan has a few series. Percy Jackson and the Olympians one is the most well-known. In it the main characters are demi-gods, the offspring of human and the ancient Greek gods. He also has an Egyptian series which my kids don’t like quite as much and a newer Norse one which we haven’t tried. We have done many of these as audio-books so I have heard most of them too. Though in many ways they embody the themes I object to in other teen books (misunderstood kid discovers he/she is not really human), I find these books humorous, exciting and enjoyable to listen too. But then again, I don’t mind Greek myths either.

N.D. Wilson  — Wilson is apparently a Christian author. Honestly, I haven’t read any of his books but they were recommended to us by our pastor’s family (a source I trust) and my son is enjoying them. The two he has tried so far are the 100 Cupboards series and Ashtown Burials. A good sign: I see on his website that Wilson has books on Eden and Noah for ages 4 and up. I’ll have to check those out.

The Chronicles of Prydain by Lloyd Alexander — Alexander should be listed soon after Lewis and Tolkien, so here he is. I think he has other series too. My son has liked everything he’s read by Alexander.

M.T. Anderson — Anderson is a weird one. We like weird around here. We first encountered him in his Pals in Peril series. These are best qualified as detective stories. The name of one, The Clue of the Linoleum Lederhosen, will give you an idea of their character. That series is younger, I would say middle school age (with all the silliness middle school boys love; but not just a gross out book). I think my son also read another of his middle age series though I don’t know which one. He has also tackled an older series, Octavian Nothing. This one deserves a warning that there is some adult content. We did the first one as an audio book and even my then 12yo dd was lost. But my older one liked it. The premise takes a while, like most of the book, to figure out and is pretty bizarre. It is set during the Revolutionary War.

Agatha Christie — An oldie but a goodie. If you like mysteries, don’t forget these classics.

The Encyclopedia Brown series by Donald Sobol — Older books again. Very quick reads for the boy with a short attention span who likes a puzzle. Both my boys read these.

Allen Quartermain by Rider — I call this as a series because there are sequels. These are also older books. I read both this one and King Solomon’s Mines as did my son. We both enjoyed them.

The Molly Moon series by Georgia Byng — I didn’t read these either (bad parent, bad parent!) but my son enjoyed them all a few years back. More middle school level silliness and probably a fair amount of gross stuff is my guess.

The Bartimaeus Trilogy by Jonathan Stroud — We all listened to the first of these and then my son read the rest. They are borderline imo because of their treatment of magic/occult stuff. Edited to add: with no prompting my son brought these up in conversation recently and mentioned how much he had liked them. It has been a few years since he read them so I take that as pretty high praise.

The Emerald Atlas  series by John Stephens — Another one I didn’t read and which is probably borderline with the magic-y stuff. Here is a blurb from the author’s website:

“Brimming with action, humor, and emotion, The Emerald Atlas is the first stage of a journey that will take Kate, Michael, and Emma to strange, dangerous lands and deep within themselves. It is the story of three children who set out to save their family, and end up having to save the world.”

Children of the Lamp by P.B. Kerr — I think we listened to the first of these (or maybe two?) and then my son read the rest. As the name implies, there is an Arab twist here. There are djinn (like Arab genies) involved. But honestly I think this one bothered me less than Stroud’s books. I think they are for a slightly younger age too though they are still at least middle school level.

The Golden Door series by Emily Rodda — She has another series which may be more famous. This is the only one we’ve tried. Amazon calls it a “high-fantasy” world.

The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini — Amazon calls is “worldwide bestselling saga of one boy, one dragon, and a world of adventure.” My son seemed to really enjoy this series and they seem to be widely popular.

The Francis Tucket Books by Gary Paulsen — A safer choice and an easier read. These books are set in the Old West. No fantasy here. Just a lot about growing up, becoming a man, and dealing with Indians.

William O. Steele — I’m not sure if any of Steele’s books are actually  a series. But he has a ton set in olden times in America. Lots of battling the elements and hostile peoples. They can be found on Amazon under the series name Odyssey Classics. 

The Secrets of the Immortal Nicholas Flamel by Michael Scott — Another series recommended by the pastor’s family. They have titles like The Alchemyst and The Enchantress. There is stuff about the search for eternal life. But they seem like really good books.

Wayside School by Louis Sachar –Pretty harmless silliness for younger kids. Upper elementary age, I’d say. Though they are set in a school, there doesn’t seem to be the bullying and other issues which often bother me in school-y books.

A to Z Mysteries, Calendar Mysteries and Capital Mysteries by Ron Roy — Not high literature but more fairly harmless books for the younger set. Kids seem to zip through them pretty quickly but Roy has a lot to offer so it might still take them awhile.

The Time Warp Trio by Jon Scieszka — A group of boys travel through time, visit other times and places (hidden history lessons here), and satisfy your young boy’s need for grossness.

The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner — More oldies but goodies. Easy to read mysteries for elementary kids. Make sure you stick to the original series (there are only about 30 of them).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl — Pretty brief for a series but I am including them because these are such great, classic books. Read all his other ones too while you are at it. Have we forgotten how to manage so much silly without a ton of gross?

Drift House by Dale Peck — Children adrift on a houseboat is what I get. The author says C.S. Lewis was his biggest influence. My older son enjoyed them.

Origami Yoda by Tom Angleberger — Okay, this is probably a desperation choice for the Star Wars fan who is a reluctant reader. My younger son enjoyed these. A lot of silly, I am sure.

The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Graham — Okay, I really thought there were sequels to this one. I think I am conflating it with another dragon series. Does anyone know which one I am thinking of? Grahame is the author of The Wind in the Willows and wrote in the late 1800s. If that doesn’t recommend this book to you, well, you need to read more old books.

Terry Pratchett — We’ve only read a few scattered books by Pratchett but some of his are series (see them all here). They vary in content. I read Dodger and found it a tiny bit risque at parts but a pretty good read. It is set in Charles Dickens’ time so there is the added history lesson they don’t know they’re getting bonus. We also listened to We Free Men which we didn’t think was a spectacular story but had a lot of silliness in the wee men’s names which we still refer to.

Solomon Snow books by Kaye Umansky — Ridiculousness abounds for kids in (what seems to be) Victorian England. How come all books set in this time and place seem to be better?

Roman Mysteries by Henry Winterfield — Fun and slightly educational reading for upper elementary or middle school.

The Roman Mysteries by Caroline Lawrence — Okay, Lawrence’s actually have the name “Roman Mysteries.” I don’t know that Winterfield’s series has a name. Both are good.

The Bogle Books by Catherine Jinks — Victorian England again, What did I tell you? These ones center around a fanciful creature called a bogle that eats kids. Don;t let that put you off; they are decent books and not scary.

Smells like Dog and sequels by Suzanne Selfors — It was my daughter who read these but she tells me if a boy likes dogs he will like them too. I think they are pretty silly and not hard reading.

Avi’s Crispin series — Avi is very prolific. Some of his books are about animals (the Redwall, the animals are the main characters and talk). The Crispin books are about a boy living in, if I recall correctly, medieval times. We really enjoyed them.

Gary Blackwood’s Shakespeare series — More hidden education. When we first started one of these books, I thought it was not the best writing but then as we went along, we all got sucked into the plot. Not hard books but a great way to get at Shakespeare’s time and even at modern themes like the rights of an author to his material, etc.

Clyde Robert Bulla — I cheat so much. You guys shouldn’t let me get away with this stuff. Again I am not sure there are any series here but Bulla is so prolific there is still a lot to read. His books all seem to be set in different historical times and places. They are usually exciting adventures for upper elementary and beyond (and younger ones too though perhaps as read alouds).

The Swindle series by Gordon Korman — Korman is a modern writer and has some of the themes of modern writers that I don’t always like (bullies in school, siblings don’t get along, etc.). But we did enjoy this series. It has animals (not as talking characters but as major parts of the plot) which is always a plus. I would not assume his other series are as acceptable.

The Inkheart and MirrorWorld series by Cornelia Funke — She’s German; is that a recommendation? Inkheart in particular gets a lot of attention. My older son has enjoyed both these series. They are older, at least late middle school.

Wildwood Chronicles by Colin Meloy — Another one that’s compared to Lewis. I don’t know if it’s deserved by my son enjoyed them.

The Underland Chronicles by Suzanne Collins — A boy goes underground and encounters giant rats and the like. It didn’t sound to appealing to me but my son loved them and I know another boy who is a reluctant reader who did too.

The Indian in the Cupboard and sequels by Lynne Reid Banks — My two older ones read some of these in a class and seemed to like them.

The Incorriglibles series by Mary Rose Wood — An absolute favorite series of ours. More Victorian children, mystery and utter silliness. We all adore these but I did have someone tell me her son couldn’t get into them because the main character is female.

The Redwall series by Brian Jacques — Okay, we listened to the first one and never got into them but I knew if I left them out, someone would mention them. Talking animals in a medieval setting with lots of descriptive detail is what I remember.

That’s my list so far; what am I forgetting (or haven’t yet discovered)??