Parenting Month: Story Time

February 17, 2012

If there’s one thing everyone likes, it’s a good story.

And if there’s one thing I can’t stand, it’s what is typically marketed to children as “literature” or “entertainment.”

Children’s literature and television are, for the most part, abysmal.  The average children’s cartoon is an assault to the senses composed of cheap animation, lousy voice acting, asinine writing and Elmo.  Most children’s books don’t fare any better.  To most people, the children’s market is an excuse to insult the customer with shoddy work.  Why?  Because kids “don’t know any better.”

I detest this, because kids deserve better.  I love authors who care enough to put love into something, even if it’s just for kids.  Put quality in front of kids, and they learn to recognize and appreciate it.  And working in a school and tutoring kids, I’ve always kept an eye out for the best books that should be on every kids’ bookshelf.

I’ve got my picks here (complete with handy Amazon links.)  Read through and tell me what else my future kids just have to read!

The Wee Ones

Frog and Toad

Kids are overstimulated.  Everything has to be seizure inducing lights and coma-inducing sugar highs.  The cathartic Frog and Toad are the exact opposite.  Their lives exist in simplicity, friendship, and solving minor problems.  A typical problem in Toad’s life is losing the list he made of everything he is supposed to do, but he can’t look for the list because looking for the list is not on his list of things to do.


Any boisterous child will find something to relate to with Olivia.  And the illustrations are unusually sophisticated, as you’d expect from a guy whose drawings have appeared on The New Yorker cover.

Children Make Terrible Pets

Peter Brown is fairly new to the children’s book world, but his retro styled illustrations are lovingly crafted, right down to the hand-written typewriter text.

The Mid Kids

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

A classic.  Alexander’s been having a terrible day for almost thirty years.  The story and drawings are amazing and humorous.  The new edition features the old pen and ink illustrations with Alexander needlessly colored in.

Manners Can Be Fun

Munro Leaf wrote the beloved Ferdinand, a book I never really cared for.  But much less well known was his series about, of all things, manners.  I forgot I ever had this book until I saw a stack of copies at, of all places, Anthropologie.  A relic from what sometimes seems to be a bygone era, when kids were expected to behave themselves.  Kids will never know how kitschy it is.

The Secret Knowledge of Grownups

The cut paper drawings are some of the most amazing pictures you will ever see in a book.  And kids will learn the “truth” behind all the things their parents tell them to do.  Why should kids drink their milk?  To keep our atomic cows from exploding, of course.

Walter the Farting Dog

Probably not appropriate for every child, but who can resist some good old fashioned toilet humor, and the true story of a family and their stinky dog?

The Older Kids

Roald Dahl

I thought everyone aged 8-12 had read Roald Dahl’s books, but I was shocked to find my wife had never heard of James and the Giant Peach, The BFG or The Twits.  My only complaint is the new editions feature sloppy and careless illustrations.

Diary of a Wimpy Kid

My wife and I read these together.  What else is there to say?  Like all great children’s shows and books, there is a lot of humor that kids won’t even pick up on until they read the books again with their own kids.

The I Hate Mathematics Book

Almost completely hand drawn, with kind of a weird “School House Rock” vibe, and packed with fun and weird math puzzles and experiments.  Go ahead and get The Book of Think to go with it.

Sideways Stories from Wayside School

If you got past age 12 without reading this book and its sequel, you did not have a proper childhood.  Go back and try again.

Those are my picks, and I know I left out a lot of classics.  No Dr. Seuss or Shel Silverstein.  You already know those guys anyway.  But tell me what else should every kid be reading?

44 responses to Parenting Month: Story Time

  1. Oh, my, I love Walter!!! And my kids (everyone, really) makes fun of me because I wont’ say the f-word. So, my kids and I have fun making up words to use instead. We’ve had more fun with that book.

    Awesome list, Matt!

  2. “I Love You Forever” by Robert Munsch. Super great story for kids and parents. It’ll make you cry though.

  3. Another good one for older kids is The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I drooled over it when I taught ESL, because it has chapters that are just illustrated and others with spare writing.Unfortunately, as far as I know the dang thing is still in hardcover, so good luck buying a classroom set of that. That and Harry and the Singing Fish, which we did have in the classroom, give good opportunities for new or struggling readers to tell you what’s going on. Interaction’s good.

    • I had never heard of ‘Hugo’ until the movie, but I checked out a copy. Love the illustrations. Plus, it’s a neat way to subtly introduce kids to Victorian science fiction, commonly known as Steampunk. Did you see the story on The Sunday Morning Show about the automaton that inspired Hugo? Incredible.

  4. Love love love this topic! I’m a bit of a reading addict (have more books than shelves in my house right now), and reading to my son at bedtime has been a ritual of ours since he was a baby.

    For little kids–I recommend pretty much anything Mo Willems does–“Knuffle Bunny”, all the Pigeon books, and the Gerald and Piggy books. (Gerald and Piggy are right up there with Dr. Suess for early readers, too–my little guy can read several of these on his own. Well, technically he memorized them. But that still counts, right?)
    But the best part of reading to a kid is doing voice acting! The Skippyjon Jones books are awesome for this–I’ve decided that Skippyjon is supposed to sound like Cheech Marin.

    For bigger kids–we’re starting to fall into this category because he’s getting the attention span for slightly longer books. We’ve read “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and the Wayside School books.
    I also recommend the Captain Underpants books (depending on how you feel about the poop jokes) and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle (another ‘retro’ series of books that have lessons about good manners in a somewhat backwards way.)

    And don’t forget comic books! There are a ton out there now that are aimed at kids and are really fun to read. The “Batman: The Brave and the Bold” series is very cool. My son also really likes the “Tintin” books, which are easier to get hold of now that the movie came out. Be forewarned that these were written in the 40’s at the hight of Belgian colonialism, so there is the occasional racist stuff that might need to be either explained to a kid or edited a bit (“Tintin in the Congo” is not a good place to start.)

    I’m planning to read to my son as long as he’ll let me. I can’t wait for the day when we can go through “The Phantom Tollbooth” or “The Hobbit” together.

  5. It depends on the age group. I loved Harold and the Purple Crayon and so did my kids. The also enjoyed Goodnight Moon and The Runaway Bunny.

    The original Pooh books were great too – not the Disney-ized versions. I even liked the Curious George books until they came out on video.

    Currently, I am reading Dr. Seuss in English and Spanish with my 8-year-old. Soon to be followed up by the EB White classics.

    I agree, so much of what is out there is junk. Now it is so important to push some sort of agenda with kids books. It is no longer about imagination or stories that make you wonder. The pop culture seems more important than literary genius.

    I remember my mother reading me Little Black Sambo; now you probably can’t find one in print that is like the original. She also read me The Wind in the Willows and Little Toot.

    Back in my day, Tom and Jerry were awesome with a bowl of Cheerios on a Saturday morning! This is the TV generation, right? 😉

  6. We enjoy Olivia and Alexander, and Mo Willems’ “Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!” My personal favorite (and one that I actually bought in college, long before kids!) is “Pigs Aplenty, Pigs Galore.” We also love Sandra Boynton books; no plot generally, just fun rhymes.

  7. The original Pooh books are good (but yes, beware anything that has “Disney” imprinted on it – if they own it, they’ve destroyed it).

    One of my favorites growing up was “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and its sequel whose title I always forget. It has nothing in common with the movie of the same name (as far as I know – didn’t watch the movie) other than the title and the idea of a land where food fell from the sky. The original books were a story Grandpa was telling two kids over breakfast….and they left you wondering if Grandpa was making it up, or if maybe, just maybe, that land really existed! The original artwork was hilarious (again, if it says Disney or whoever made the movie, run away).

    Another that’s been ruined by a recent movie is “Mr. Popper’s Penguins.” Great book. I’ve never understood why they think they should completely change the storyline when they make a movie of it.

    If you’re looking for fabulous artwork (with good stories too), Peter Spier books are great, as are Ezra Jack Keats, Bill Peet, Maurice Sendak (there’s another that I’m not remembering right now)….pretty much look for 70s and 80s Caldecott award winners. Newberry winners are good for upper elementary/middle schoolers, but be aware that there are often social issues brought up in those books. You might want to pre-read.

    And while we definitely try to steer our kids toward quality entertainment of all media, I think with books, especially, taking the time with them is the most important thing.

  8. Great picks!! I love Frog & Toad, Wayside School and Roald Dahl (I too was horrified to find out recently that not all kids read Dahl growing up! I love the BFG).

    “Goodnight Moon” is another classic. And my mom used to read us the Narnia series before bed every night. A lesser known and hard to find book that was a family favorite is “Hooper the What, What Owl” about an owl that can’t say “who”. And Amelia Bedelia!

  9. Warning: Elementary School Teacher about to comment! Books are my crack. (My books are not currently accessible so I can’t give many authors)

    For little tikes:
    Good Night Moon (a MUST READ, over any other book in the world. Except the Bible, of course 😉
    Harold and his Purple Crayon
    Clifford the Big Red Dog
    ANYTHING by Richard Scarry, Ezra Jack Keats or Sandra Boynton. Seriously, anything.

    For early readers:
    The Velveteen Rabbit
    There’s No such thing as a Dragon
    Cul-de-sac Kids
    A to Z Mysteries Series
    Encyclopedia Brown Series
    Poetry by Jack Prelutsky
    (Silverstein’s is kinda twisted poetry, I avoid.)

    For older kiddos:
    Tales of the Kingdom
    A Long Way from Chicago (read together, you will howl with laughter)
    Alex Rider Series by Anthony Horowitz
    Accidental Detective Series by Sigmund Brouwer

    You might notice that my book list is geared toward boys. Well, that’s because I have boys. These are mostly the books that we have read together. My boys are 19 & 15 and also crack readers, to the point that I have to say, “if you don’t get your chore done, I’m taking away your book!’
    Abby, I love that you read to your son. I would encourage you to read to him least through elementary school. My boys don’t want me to read to them anymore (imagine that) But what we do to read together is sit in the same room, reading. Different books, of course, but they see reading as being important into adulthood because they see me reading. They often will give me one of their books to read, which I do! Yes, I’ve read Captain Underpants! If you want your kids to be good readers:
    1. Read to them
    2. Let them see you read.
    Okay, I’m done. My list of books is exhaustive, but these were the first to come off the top of my head.

  10. My mom was a children’s librarian–I think I ended up reading every single kid’s book in our local library. There are so many amazing books… I don’t know where to begin.

    Rather than buy them all, just go to the library and start with “A.” If some aren’t so hot, no prob–just return them and move on to “B.” Just weed out the ungodly ones. I’m sure I read lots of mediocre books but those aren’t the ones I remember. The important thing is to read books together!

    • YES Leslie! We rarely bought books, and if we did, it was often at the library sales. Or garage sales. Matt, books are awesome gifts!
      (Any closer to a ‘spell check’ button?)

  11. I will try to limit my comments because I am a serious book-o-phile. One of the top reasons we bought the house we did is because it had eight (8!) built in book shelves.
    Smaller kids:
    I would recommend any Tomie de Paola books: “Strega Nona”, “Tommy”, and so many others. His books are a mix of semi-autobiographical of times in the 50’s and some Christian History books and some myths. He even has a couple of pictures-only books, like “Pancakes for Breakfast.” I also love the D’Aulaire history books for young children and, for older kids, I discovered the books by Holling C. Holling: “Paddle-To-The-Sea”, “Pagoo.” For pure punny fun, Dav Pikney’s “Dragon” series, “Dog Breath”, “Cat Kong” and “Dogzilla” are great. And the kids liked “If You Give a Mouse/Pig/Moose…” series and Margot Apples’ Sheep books (Sheep on a Ship, Sheep in a Jeep). Kevin Henkes and Bill Peet are two other good authors/illustrators. I would also recommend the original “Winnie-the-Pooh.” My kids love hearing the stories at 5.

    Older elementary kids
    For older kids “The Wind in the Willows” is fun, especially all the antics of Mr. Toad. I know Disney made a movie out of it, but I can’t bring myself to watch it since Disney tends to make abominations out of classic literature. The kids have also enjoyed all the books by Frances Hodson Burnett, “The Secret Garden” and “A Little Princess.” And they like the Oz and “The Magic Treehouse” series, though I wouldn’t call either of them great literature.

    Jr/Sr High:
    My oldest, almost teen, is enjoying Terry Pratchet and the “Harry Potter.” Terry Pratchet is a good intro to science fiction because he has a lot of humor and not a lot of objectionable content. I have also heard good things about Lemony Snicket series as having higher literary quality than Harry Potter, but haven’t read it myself. I wouldn’t call “Harry Potter” as great fiction, but it was good. Another really good book is called “Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare.” It is basically a story version of a lot of Shakespeare plays, and is a great help to kids to help them understand the plot of the play so that they don’t have two things–plot and language–to figure out when watching a Shakespeare play. I used it as a read-aloud to my kids when they were younger, but as a read-to-yourself, kids should be in junior high at least. My husband and daughter liked the “Inheart” series, but the first book creeped me out too much to finish. “Ella Enchanted” by Gail Carson Levine was SO much better than the movie version, though I did enjoy the movie, too, for what it offered.

    Does that cover it or do you need more?

    • L.O.V.E.D. Ella Enchanted! We listened to it as a book on tape on a family road trip. My boys enjoyed it also. We’d arrive at a destination & sit in the car for 15 minutes to finish a chapter.

    • Holy cow, you made me look completely illiterate!

      • Some of these books were “discoveries” made by the kids randomly pulling books off of shelves that I would try. Some were recommendations of different curriculums that I have tried over the years, like the Hollings books and the Tales from Shakespeare.

        The most dangerous place for me to be is either a book store or a used book sale. We haven’t filled up the 8 bookshelves–yet.

  12. Preschool kids – Shirley Hughes books (I can’t remember the names other than there was a character called Alfie in them!), Jill Murphy’s ‘The Large Family’ series and ‘Peace at Last’ are great (my brother LOVED them when he was wee). Aliens Love Underpants. And a book my friend’s kid loved was ‘Dear Greenpeace’ – all about a girl called Emily who writes to Greenpeace about the fact there’s a whale in her garden pond and their responses. Being Scottish I also loved the Hairy McLairy, Maisie the Cat and Katie Morag series!

    Age 5-8: The Worst Witch series (I love that the main character, Mildred is the bottom of the class and turns out to the hero), The Faraway Tree series, The Five Find-Outers (both by Enid Blyton), Narnia and Roald Dahl! The Chronicles of Narnia, The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark, Charlotte’s Web, Beatrix Potter and Robert Louis Stevenson (Kidnapped, Treasure Island and I remember reading poems from ‘A Children’s Garden of Verses’)

    Age 9-12 – Anthony Horowitz’ Alex Rider series, Harry Potter series, Anne Fine (Flour Babies, Mrs Doubtfire), I also remember reading Lois Lowry books, The Babysitters Club series (I actually learned loads about all sorts of things reading those books)

  13. Oh my goodness, Dick King Smith! I can’t believe I left him out. My favourites were ‘The Sheep-pig’, ‘The Fox-Busters’ and ‘George Speaks’

  14. Some of my favourite children’s books are by Australian authors Mem Fox and Margaret Wild. I also like books by Anthony Browne, Quentin Blake and Bob Graham.

  15. Books my kids (Ages 3-7 at the moment) have loved that haven’t already been mentioned:
    * All the Chronicles of Narnia.
    * The Hobbit
    * Moon Over Manifest (A 2011 Newbery Medal winner)
    * All the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” books.

    My son (the 7-year old) routinely cruises through Matt Christopher sports books and Magic Tree House stuff as “literary junk food”. It’s also important not to get any of the Olivia books that aren’t written/illustrated by Falconer. We have a daughter named Olivia and she loves all the books, but there is a considerable difference between the quality of the Falconer ones and everything inspired by the Nickelodeon series.

  16. Harry Potter for sure. My son read them all & my daughter is halfway thru the series (she’s 10). Jamie Lee Curtis has a few childrens books that are surprisingly good. My favorite was “Today I feel Silly”. I think I have almost every Eric Carle book. They’re simple, but my kids loved them. I don’t think any library is complete without The Invention of Hugo Cabret and Go Dog Go. Dr. Seuss books are wonderful because after you read them to your kids several times they will begin to memorize and recognize words, which gives them a head start on reading.

    Anyone remember Lyle the Crocodile? Loved those books.

  17. Wayside School!! I loved those books. (…And basically everything else I ever read by Louis Sachar. Did you ever read There’s a Boy in the Girl’s Bathroom? It’s a way more touching story than you’d expect from the title. Actually, it made me cry.) Funny you should list it right below a math-related book, because I also enjoyed the book Sideways Arithmetic from Wayside School …

    The Book of Think also brings back happy childhood memories. And by the same author: I Am Not a Short Adult!: Getting Good at Being a Kid.

  18. Fantastic list forming, Matt. I highly recommend pretty much any books by Rebecca Elliott.

    She has a series of books about her kids. A daughter, who happens to be a child with special needs and her little brother, who is trying to figure her out as a playmate. They are awesome. They are illustrated by the author in paintings that are beautiful. My fav is “Just Because.”

  19. Thanks for all the great info.

    I wish I’d seen this years ago.

  20. Oh, gosh.

    Sandra Boynton’s books are just so much fun to read, especially to little kids, simply because the rhymes are so great. (Who am I kidding? I would read those aloud to myself if I thought my husband wouldn’t commit me.)

    Chronicles of Narnia.

    Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (I didn’t think the sequel was as good).

    Harriet the Spy (I wore out copies of that book from my school library).

    The “If You Give A…” series of books. “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie” is probably still my favorite, and Mouse has gone on to have other adventures.

    I abhorred the chores/discipline/manners/etc series of books by Joy Wilt Berry that my mother made me read. But I know how to make a bed. Not necessarily as a result of those books, but well…it just proved that my mother wasn’t totally insane in how she insisted we make our beds.

    The Rhyme Bible is a great book for telling bible stories in rhyme. However, hearing poetry read with a rocking rhythm ruins it for me, so know how to read the stuff (pause at punctuation, not end of lines) aloud before you do. Kids don’t care, but I do. 😉

    My girls loved “Goodnight Moon.”

    The Mandie books by Lois Gladys Leppard are an excellent series for late elementary/preteen girls. I believe there are a total of 40 books in that series. I have most of them, because I kept reading them into adulthood.

    The Bradford (I think) Family series by Jerry B. Jenkins is also good, especially if you have a mixed family. One of the kids is adopted, and there’s a couple of books that are devoted to that issue and some of the snarls that come with it.

    Left Behind Kids is also good. My husband started in on those while he was reading the “big” series, and was waiting for the next book to come out.

    Frank Peretti also wrote a series of tween/teen fiction that started out with “The Hangman’s Curse.”

    For the older kids with more of a sci-fi leaning, Gilbert Morris’s Seven Sleeper series (which is probably cheaply found, used, online or in libraries; it was first published about 15 or so years ago) is excellent. My college roommate came across the first book, and the story was fabulous.

    Of course, Gilbert Morris is disgustingly prolific, so there’s lots of available stuff under his name. I know that I read through the first 15 or so of his House of Winslow series, starting in high school, and it was fascinating to match up what I’d read in these historical fiction books with what I was learning in American History class.

    I’ll stop now….

  21. No, wait, I won’t!

    “The Bible Beasties” by Babette Cole and Ron Van der Meer. It tells half a dozen quick bible stories that involve animals, in poetic rhyme. It also is a pop-up/pull-tab book, so wings move and lions stick out their tongues and whales pull the ark…oh, it’s a wonderful book.

    I used to read this book to my girls at bedtime every night. Within a month, I had it memorized, I had added a couple other things (like making the locusts squeak after I read the part about the plagues), and I could recite it without looking at the book. In another three months, the kids had it memorized, and would help me read it.

    Oh, it’s such a wonderful book! It ends with explaining that God loves us even more than he loves the “beasties” he created.