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Hands down, my happiest childhood memories are memories of being read to, especially if lots of people were in the room, listening and laughing. Nothing binds a family together like enjoying a story together.
The gold standard is a book that’s interesting enough for all ages, even if it’s aimed primarily at one age group; and a book that’s not only good, but sounds good when you read it out loud. The best read-aloud authors really know how to write dialogue, so it’s easy for the reader to make the characters’ voices sound different.
Here’s our list of hearty recommendations for kids ages 5 to adult. We especially like funny books with some adventure, and are not necessarily aiming to directly elevate anyone’s intellect.
1. The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien. Obviously, right? Last time I sat down to read this aloud, I remembered what a great story it was, and how much I loved the characters, but I was blown away by how musical and evocative the writing itself is. Read this out loud:
Bilbo never forgot the way they slithered and slipped in the dust down the steep zig-zag path into the secret valley of Rivendell.
Oh, to write like that! I slither with you, Bilbo.
2.The Pirates! series by Gideon Defoe(Titles include: The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists and The Pirates! In an Adventure with Napoleon) We loved The Pirates! Band of Misfits movie so much (made by the same folks who make the excellent Wallace and Gromit and Shaun the Sheep), and recently discovered that it was based on a series of books that are even odder and nuttier than the movie. These books do include some bawdy jokes and some violent details, but I feel that the most inapwo-pwo stuff goes over the little kids’ heads, and it’s just edgy enough to give the older kids a little thrill, without crossing any lines.
3.Beowulf: A New Telling by Robert Nye Life is too short to be a Beowulf purist. This is edge-of-your-set reading. Just ignore the goofy cover illustration.
4.The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster. Great story, funnier than you probably remember, and lots of great voices to try out. Even though I had to explain almost everything that was being allegorized (?) to the kids — who says “I’m in the doldrums” anymore? — they still loved it. It doesn’t hurt that we more or less own Tock now, too.
5.The Jungle Book by Rudyard Kipling. I’ve heard the new movie is quite good, but I’m glad we read the story. Do you like Kipling? Well, how can you be sure, if you’ve never Kippled? I’m serious, try it. It’s not very Disney:
For three months after that night Mowgli hardly ever left the village gate, he was so busy learning the ways and customs of men. First he had to wear a cloth round him, which annoyed him horribly; and then he had to learn about money, which he did not in the least understand, and about plowing, of which he did not see the use. Then the little children in the village made him very angry. Luckily, the Law of the Jungle had taught him to keep his temper, for in the jungle life and food depend on keeping your temper; but when they made fun of him because he would not play games or fly kites, or because he mispronounced some word, only the knowledge that it was unsportsmanlike to kill little naked cubs kept him from picking them up and breaking them in two.
6.Jack Tales collected by Richard Chase. These are weird little folk stories from the Appalachians, written in dialect, more or less transcribed directly from the region’s storytellers. The kids love them because the hero, Jack, is lazy and kind of a jerk, but he always comes out on top anyway, through trickery or charm, or because someone feels sorry for him and helps him with magic. Lots of heads get hacked off, and there’s plenty of childish magic and satisfying comeuppance. Some of the stories are familiar (Jack and the Beanstalk), and some sound like they were made up by a lunatic.
7.Zlateh the Goat by Isaac Bashevis Singer. A collection of stories based on Jewish folktales. A few of them are a little alarming, some are nutty, and most of them are sweet. Try “The Mixed-Up Feet and the Silly Bridegroom.” The pictures by Maurice Sendak are also exquisite. Here’s an excerpt from the title story, describing how a child survived a storm by nestling into a haystack with his beloved goat, whom he had set out to sell:
The snow fell for three days, though after the first day it was not as thick and the wind quieted down. Sometimes Aaron felt that there could never have been a summer, that the snow had always fallen, ever since he could remember. He, Aaron, never had a father or mother or sisters. He was a snow child, born of the snow, and so was Zlateh. It was so quiet in the hay that his ears rang in the stillness. Aaron and Zlateh slept all night and a good part of the day. As for Aaron’s dreams, they were all about warm weather. He dreamed of green fields, trees covered with blossoms, clear brooks, and singing birds. By the third night the snow had stopped, but Aaron did not dare to find his way home in the darkness. The sky became clear and the moon shone, casting silvery nets on the snow. Aaron dug his way out and looked at the world. It was all white, quiet, dreaming dreams of heavenly splendor. The stars were large and close. The moon swam in the sky as in a sea.
8.My Life and Hard Times by James Thurber. Try “The Dog that Bit People” or “Nine Needles.” Neurotic people and improbable events told deadpan, with no wasted words. Anyone who wants to learn to write should read Thurber and take him to heart, as soon as you catch your breath from laughing. (Warning: he’s not not the most racially sensitive writer known to mankind.)
9.James Herriotbooks You guys know I’m not a huge fan of heartwarming, life-affirming stuff, but I’ll make an exception for James Herriot, the country vet, who not only makes you feel better about humanity but is top notch at setting up a hilarious story. These are good for reading aloud because they are very anecdotal, and must chapters stand alone pretty well.
10.P. G. Wodehouse stories. If you want quotable quotes, Wodehouse is your man. So funny, so somehow restorative. For kids, try “Goodbye to All Cats” which can be found in the large collection The Most of P. G. Wodehouse.
And now for books that I ordered just today, after people recommended them for years:
The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart
Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace
The Westmark Trilogy by Lloyd Alexander
I’ll let you know how they go!
Photo “Reading to the Armstrong Kids” by Paul via Flickr (license)