Tuesday, May 10, 2011

A Book List for Kids

Yesterday I gave my theory, such as it is, on how to raise young people to be readers: they should grow up in a family that reads individually, that reads together, that enjoys reading, and that interacts with and talks about the books they read. I thought I would follow up with suggestions about books the kids can read, but given my theory that almost any books will do as long as the family talks about what's good and what's bad in them, my "suggestions" won't be much more than reminders and ideas.

For the tyke, no one needs help: Dr. Seuss, Little Critter, or whatever you find at the grocery store. Once they reach the age for chapter books, the school libraries and the bookstores will have plenty of suggestions. Read some of these books -- with the child or separately -- and talk about them. Don't give tests. Talk about what you like in the book, and ask what the child thinks. For instilling a love and habit of reading, you can't say anything much more effective than "Wasn't that cool!" For encouraging a deep engagement with books, the best thing to say might be "I didn't get it." Quote the book during the day. "Funny things are everywhere!"

Any series of books for children or young readers works well (as long as you think it's moral): if the child likes the first one, you'll have plenty of reading hours ahead. Virtually anything will do; my daughter read Mary Kate and Ashley mysteries for a while. A lot of classic series work great: The Wizard of Oz, The Bobbsey Twins, Anne of Green Gables, The Black Stallion, Tarzan, and on and on.

An important caution, though, if you want to introduce a girl to "classic" Nancy Drew: the most easily available editions present a rewritten version from the 60s that condensed and simplified the stories and took everything lovely out of the original language, the way almost everything educational did in the 60s. Look for the series of actual originals, written in the 1930s. This Amazon list and this fan page can help you find the right edition. I don't have first-hand experience of the differences in the Hardy Boys series, but I imagine they are similar. Here's the Amazon list and here's the fan page.

Three series deserve special mention. Both work for adults just as well as if not better than they do for children;  I suggest reading these out loud together. Madeleine l'Engle filled A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels with unforgettable, unique images and profound lessons, all wrapped up in exciting plots. The Narnia series was written by one of the greatest Christian writers of history and bears rereading every ten years because, with Narnian magic and maybe a little bit of depth in the thinking of the author, they age with the reader. And I honestly think Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner are two of the finest books ever written.

My guess is that if any homeschooler actually reads this hoping for advice, they want direction on what literature to have the teen-ager read. If a thirteen-year-old wants to read, he or she can read almost any classic novel, play, or poem. My proposed list:
     • Jane Austen, Persuasion
     • Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre
     • Shakespeare, Julius Caesar, Romeo and Juliet, Comedy of Errors, Midsummer Night's Dream, Richard II (Remember, you have to read them, too. Better yet, act them out! Use No Fear Shakespeare at sparknotes.com if you have to, but only for "translation" of tough spots. Read them in the Bard's own words.)
     • Charles Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby, David Copperfield, A Christmas Carol, A Tale of Two Cities, Dombey and Son, Our Mutual Friend (Hard Times is definitely not the place to begin. Don't be tempted just because it's short. Oliver Twist, the one with the most familiar story, is ridiculous and only for people who have already learned to love the Great Man.)
     • Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer, The Vicar of Wakefield
     • Thomas Hardy, Far from the Madding Crowd
     • Evelyn Waugh, Scoop
     • Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest
     • Robert Sherwood, Abe Lincoln in Illinois
     • Kenneth Roberts, Arundel
     • Mark Twain, Huckleberry Finn
     • Arthur Conan Doyle, "The Adventure of the Speckled Band," "The Adventure of the Red-Headed League," "Silver Blaze"
     • Jules Verne, Journey to the Center of the Earth
     • Anthony Trollope, The Warden
     • E. M. Forster, A Passage to India
     • Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe
     • Spenser, book I of The Faerie Queene
     • Chaucer, any part of the Canterbury Tales (Only the Miller's Tale is overly bawdy.)
     • Any poems you might want to choose by Donne, Browning, Yeats, Dickinson, Tennyson, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Cowper
     • Thomas Gray, "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard"
     • Tom Stoppard, The Real Inspector Hound
Write to me if you want my reason for including any of these.

Get into the following only when you're ready to discuss great art that hints at (or preaches outright) a bleak world with no meaning:
     • Stephen Crane, The Red Badge of Courage (Undermines the traditional view of courage.)
     • F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (Undermines the traditional view of greatness.)
     • Arthur Miller, Death of a Salesman
     • Chinua Achebe, Things Fall Apart
You get the idea: the things schools assign.

Finally we reach the most appropriate part of the post. Of the "Great Books" in the Britannica set or on my current reading plan, what works could a family read and learn from together? Anything would work, of course. But here's a list of suggestions to start with:
     • The Bible
     • Plato, Theaetetus, Apology, Crito, Meno, Phaedo
     • Homer, The Odyssey
     • Aristophanes, The Frogs
     • Sophocles, Antigone
     • Aristotle, Ethics (Books 1, 2, & 10)
     • Euclid, Elements (Book 1)
     • Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith
     • John Milton, Paradise Lost
     • Antoine Lavoisier, Elements of Chemistry (Part I)
     • Michel de Montaigne, "On the Education of Children"
     • Herodotus, The History (books 8 & 9)
     • Cervantes, Don Quixote
     • Epictetus, Discourses
     • Freud, Civilization and its Discontents
     • Marx and Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party
     • Dante, Paradiso
     • Augustine, Confessions
     • Koran (at least Surah 1)
     • Lao-tzu, Tao te ching
     • Boethius, The Consolation of Philosophy
     • Mallory, Le Morte d'Arthur (As much or as little as you want)
     • Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History," "Heroism," "The Over-Soul," "The Poet"
     • Peter Kreeft (and Blaise Pascal), Christianity for Modern Pagans
     • Peter Kreeft (and Thomas Aquinas), A Shorter Summa
     • Machiavelli, The Prince
     • Bruce Catton, Army of the Potomac trilogy
     • James Flexner, Washington: The Indispensible Man
     • David McCullough, John Adams
     • Joseph Heller, Catch-22
     • Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death
     • C. S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, Miracles, "The Weight of Glory"
     • G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, "Science and Religion," "On Cheese"
     • J. R. R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, The Lord of the Rings

The list covers ancient times, the middle ages, the Renaissance, and modern times. It has comedy and tragedy, drama and essay, religion and politics, biography and fantasy, philosophy and American history, and proof of the Pythagorean theorem. If I had read a fifth of each of these lists before I went to college, I'd be -- well, I think I'd be happier. But I probably wouldn't have this blog.

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