We’re tickled pink to have Heather Swain in The Children’s Book Review house today. She’s the author of many splendid books, most recently: her clever and inventive Play These Games: 101 Delightful Diversions Using Everyday Items, a follow-up to Make These Toys. Her brilliant new teen novel Josie Griffin Is Not a Vampire has been touted as Twilight meets The Breakfast Club. For more details on this creative wonder woman, be sure to check out her website: HeatherSwainBooks.com. Without further ado, we give you the eloquent Ms. Swain on reading to her sweet children.
Somehow, my husband and I have spawned two very different readers in our children. There’s our 8-year-old daughter who announced the week before Kindergarten, “Take me to the library, I’m ready to learn to read,” and since that day has rarely been seen without a book. Then there’s our 6-year-old son who insisted all through Kindergarten that he couldn’t read, which we believed, only to discover when his report card came that he could, in fact, read—he just doesn’t like to.
We’re not a family that’s big on rituals so our time curled up together at night to read for a half an hour before bed is as close to sacred as we get. But with such different readers, our challenge has become to find books that both kids will love. Here are five that have become family favorites over the years.
Like smells and songs, books can evoke emotional responses. For me, this lovely picture book brings back delicious memories of being cuddled up with two chubby toddlers, binkies and blankies in hand, listening wide-eyed as we read this story of a baby polar bear who wakes in the night and goes out to explore while his mother sleeps. The baby sees stars and seals and whales (all while the moon follows along) before he returns safely to his den. The story is calm without being boring and the artwork has an understated but captivating beauty in soothing blues and grays. It’s the kind of book I can see returning to when my kids are graduating from high school because it sends the message I want them to get from me: Go out, explore the world, marvel at it’s beauty and mystery, but know that I’ll always be waiting for you if you need me.
Ages 3 and up | Publisher: Scholastic Press | October 1, 2004
By Keiko Kasza
Keiko Kasza is one of the most underappreciated children’s book authors out there. She has a sly and playful way of making a point, both with her words and detail-rich illustrations, while leaving room for kids to draw conclusions. In A Mother for Choco a lost baby bird is rejected by many animal parents because she doesn’t look like them, until a loving mama bear takes Choco home to join her other children—an alligator, a pig, and a hippo. In The Mightiest, an elephant, a bear, and a lion take turns scaring other animals to prove who can claim a crown, until a giant comes along and scares the daylights out them only to be undone by his tiny mother who tells him to mind his manners then walks off with the crown on her own head. In our favorite, My Lucky Day, a pig goes to visit his friend rabbit but knocks on the wrong door. A fox answers and decides this must be his lucky day. He pulls the pig inside and pops him into a roasting pan. The pig points out that he won’t make a very good meal because he’s too dirty and skinny and his meat will be tough. So the fox gets busy scrubbing him in a warm bath, cooking him dinner, and giving him a massage. When the fox passes out from exhaustion, the pig high tails it into the night with a batch of warm cookies in hand. The full joke isn’t revealed until the end when the pig goes home and marks “Mr. Fox” off his list of people to visit. My kids love the idea of being in on the joke and giggle every time the clever pig tricks the unsuspecting fox.
Ages 3 and up | Publisher: Puffin; Reprint edition | September 8, 2005
This three-book series was a perfect transition for us from long picture books to short chapter books. Although originally published in the 1950s, the stories still feel fresh and have continued to captivate my kids through many readings. In the first book (My Father’s Dragon) the narrator tells the story of when his father, Elmer Elevator, ran away from home as a little boy and used his knapsack of seemingly random objects (such as chewing gum, lollipops, and hair ribbons) to outwit tigers, alligators, and a mean gorilla to rescue a baby dragon. This is the first book that prompted my daughter to think about narrative voice. “Wait!” she said while we were reading it (for the third time) on a long plane trip. “Who’s telling this story? A kid? About when his dad was little?” It was then that I realized the genius of Gannett’s choice of narrator. Kids love hearing stories about when their own parents were little, so the idea of another child telling the story of his own father’s big adventure delighted my kids. Not to mention the fact that in the next two books, Elmer and the baby dragon fly off to different lands as they try to make their way home. Even better are the black-and-white illustrations, including maps of everywhere they visit.
Ages 7 and up | Publisher: Random House Books for Young Readers; 50 Anv edition | November 25, 1997
Working our way through the Little House series inspired over a year of reading, dressing up, and a multi-state trip tracing the Ingalls family path through Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and South Dakota that we dubbed, “The Laurathon.” I like that this series has a strong girl at the center with loving parents who expect her to rise to all sorts of occasions my kids will never experience. It cracks me up, though, when my kids (who whine about carrying their dishes to the automatic dishwasher) complain that they wish they had Laura’s life—ha! But mostly, we all enjoy how artfully Wilder weaves her stories. When Laura’s dog Jack disappears during the river crossing in Little House on the Prairie, we all tear up. Later that night, when they make camp and Laura hears a wolf howling then sees “two green lights…shining near the ground” as an animal slinks toward their fire and Pa grabs his gun, we hold our breath until Laura shouts Jack’s name then we all cheer for his triumphant return. No one ever tires of rereading that scene.
Ages 8 and up | Publisher: HarperCollins; 75 Anv Rev edition | September 28, 2010
By Roald Dahl
This is the first book our son fell in love with. No, that’s an understatement. He became obsessed with it. (It didn’t hurt that soon after we read it for the first time, the Wes Anderson movie came out which only deepened the obsession and became a great jumping-off point for conversations about why movies and books are different.) We’ve reread this book so many times, that the pages are as soft as tissues and my son can recite most of it from memory. Reading it was the moment when my son realized that the “bad guys” are often the best characters, that books can be wickedly funny, and that moral ambiguity can be more interesting than having the good guy always win. Even better, it opened the door to all the other wonderfully wicked books by Dahl which will keep us snuggled up reading together before bed for at least a few more years.
Ages 7 and up | Publisher: Puffin; Reprint edition | August 16, 2007
Nicki Richesin is the author and editor of four anthologies; Crush, What I Would Tell Her, Because I Love Her, and The May Queen. She is the San Francisco correspondent for Du Jour and a frequent contributor to Sunset, The Horn Book, 7×7, The Huffington Post, and Daily Candy. Find her online at www.nickirichesin.com.