Gene Stratton Porter is one of the best beloved authors in my family. My mom and I first discovered her when we read A Girl of the Limberlost together when I was eight years old. That aching, beautiful story of a young girl hungry for her mother’s love and determined to make something beautiful of her life became one of the inner narratives that shaped who I wanted to become. I loved the violin like Elnora, I prowled the land in search of butterflies and moths like Elnora (and the Bird Woman, her friend), and I watched the natural world with the wondering, careful gaze that she taught me. A story to which I return with delight again and again.
A Wrinkle in Time
I read this book by myself and aloud with my family and found new creative fascination and spiritual insight with each read. L’Engle’s classic tale of the stubborn Meg, her abnormally intelligent little brother, and their gangly, gallant friend Calvin is an adventure tale to begin with, as the children travel galaxies in search of Meg’s scientist father who vanished in the midst of an experiment. Guided by the amusing and rather awe-inspiring Mrs. Who, Mrs. Whatsit, and Mrs. Which into the depths of the universe’s beauties, and its darkness, this is a story exploring the power of love to redeem, heal, and resist the power of evil. A book with humor, a tale rich in affirmation of the world’s beauty, this is a classic to be read again and again.
Addie Across the Prarie
By Laurie Lawlor
What might the prairie in the pioneer days have been like for a young girl accustomed to a tamer existence? What skills would she have needed to learn, what courage must she have gained? What might happen in a land of sun and storm and prairie fires, and how could a young girl play her part? A great little piece of historical fiction, this tale presents a heroine who grows into the new role she is called to play. I loved this story for Addie’s bravery.
By Sydney Taylor
Few stories dwell so vividly and delightfully in my memory than the All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor. Set in New York City at the turn of the century, the books chronicle the adventures and foibles of a Jewish family with five lively daughters. The stories are a great introduction to Jewish culture and celebration, while also being rich in sisterly escapades and affection.
At the Back of the North Wind
By George MacDonald
“…though I cannot promise to take you home,” said North Wind, as she sank nearer and nearer to the tops of the houses, “I can promise you it will be all right in the end. You will get home somehow.” ― George MacDonald, At the Back of the North Wind
One of my favorite fantastical children’s stories, Wind is the story of the little boy Diamond, and the night journeys he takes with the lovely and real North Wind. MacDonald, whom Lewis said was his “master,” imbued every story he wrote with his wonder in a God whose goodness will not leave us in the darkness. An exploration, through the adventures of a little boy, of suffering and pain and the promise of heaven, this classic tale is a fairy tale swift with the beauty of the marvelous North Wind woman, and rich with spiritual contemplation. One of my favorites.
By Jeffrey Overstreet
Jeffrey Overstreet (who I’m happy to say is a friend o’ mine), has created a fantastic, richly imagined novel about a world in which the glory of color has been dimmed and forgotten. Into this wintered land comes a girl named Auralia, gifted with the ability to find and weave color into a startling gift whose power could change the course of the kingdom.
By an anonymous Anglo-Saxon poet, translated by Seamus Heaney
OPD: Original poem was written somewhere between the 8th and 11th centuries. This translation was published in 1999
This translation of the oldest surviving poem in Old English is my favorite of the several versions I’ve read. Translated by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, whose love for language and its history is explained in an opening essay, this edition presents, in taut, vivid, epic prose, the fable story of Beowful, the Geatish knight who defeated the horrible monster Grendel. A story examining courage, heroism, and death, I think this makes for an excellent read for teens hungry for the fantastical worlds of Tolkien – it was literature like this that formed the imagination from which Middle Earth later grew.
By Jennifer L. Holm
I listened to this story on audiobook one wild roadtrip with my family, and we all fell in love with the rollicking adventure of the prim and proper Jane, schooled at a lady’s academy in Boston, and bound by ship for the Washington Territory where she is to meet her betrothed, William.
By Carol Ryrie Brink
Oh, unforgettable Caddie. Brave, curious, red-haired, and glad, a girl not to be daunted by older brothers or the dangerous conflicts of a settler’s life in Wisconsin during the days of the Civil War. Brink is a warm, vibrant writer whose stories are excellent for read aloud.
By Elizabeth George Speare
Elizabeth George Speare is one of my favorite historical novelists, and this was one of her books that I read over and over, fascinated by the tale of a young girl among the English settlers kidnapped in an Abenaki raid during the French and Indian War. Sold to the French in Montreal, Miriam must use every ounce of skill and wit she has, including her genius with a needle to help her family survive and gain their freedom.
Carry on Mr. Bowditch
By Jean Lee Latham
A classic piece of historical fiction, this is the true-to-life, brilliantly woven tale of Nat Bowditch, son of a sea captain, and compiler of The American Practical Navigator, a book of high sea navigation still in use today. Educational and engrossing all at once, one of the favorite historical novels of my childhood.
Cheaper by the Dozen
By Ernestine Gilbreth Carey and Frank B. Gilbreth
Cheaper by the Dozen (and its sequel Belles on Their Toes) brought hours of laugh-aloud hilarity to my family and is one of the favorite books of my childhood. This memoir, written by two siblings from a family of a dozen, recounts the extraordinary family philosophy of Mr. Gilbreath, a “motion study” expert who applied his theories to factories, business, and his own lively family. Heartwarming, funny, and just downright fascinating, this tale is one to savor with the whole family.
A hushed, contemplative picture book based on an episode from the author’s own childhood. What happens when a father returns from war, a stranger to his child? Gentle, honest, a tale that examines one of the difficult aspects of war with real tenderness.
Escape From Warsaw
A classic, long beloved tale of a family separated by war, and determined to find their way back to each other. With both of their parents arrested by Nazis, Ruth, Edek, and Bronia must fend for themselves until they meet a boy who tells them that their father is alive and waiting for them… in Switzerland. Thus begins a dangerous journey across war torn Europe as the children fight to survive and find their father.
By Gene Stratton Porter
An all-time favorite in the Clarkson home, this is Porter’s tale of a thin but doughty orphan dubbed “Freckles,” whose grit and daring get him a job as the guard of the valuable timber in the “Limberlost.” Challenged by the timber-stealing Black Jack, and smitten with the grace and verve of the “Swamp Angel,” Freckles is a boy who does not flinch, his strength of mind and good heart helping toward the goal of doing his job and discovering his past.
I Am David
I read this book as an adult, and it startled me with its beauty. The story of a boy who has known nothing but a concentration camp, and how he learns what it means to be, not merely physically free, but liberated in heart as well, free to take on the bonds of love.
Irena's Jars of Secrets
A picture book telling of the true story of a young Polish woman who was a nurse during the Nazi Occupation and helped to save the lives of hundreds of Jewish children.
Justin Morgan Had a Horse
By Marguerite Henry
A classic tale of a horse and his boy by a writer who knew and loved to write about horses, this book follows the story of how a boy named Justin, and the horse he raised, created the new breed of the Morgan saddle horse. Based on a true story.
By Esther Forbes
An outstanding novel of the Revolutionary War, this story of a young silversmith apprentice named Johnny, delves into the causes surrounding the American Revolution, introducing child readers to the history and culture of those times through the story of one boy’s adventures. This is truly history in a story.
By George MacDonald
This is one of George MacDonald’s later books, the story of a young, leisured man who discovers a world within (or beyond?) his own where he is challenged to “die indeed” by a raven who seems to be the first man, Adam. Plunged into a fantastical world of little children living at peace with their beasts in the forest, giants, dueling skeletons, and an evil princess attended by leopards who terrorize the land, the hero must face not only the terrors, but his own capacity to act, choose, and love. A MacDonald fairy tale is a world of spiritual realities made flesh. Not direct allegory, nor yet mere fantasy, Lilith is a journey into the regions of the soul, into grace, sin, suffering, and the fresh-sprung waters that come when we learn to lay down what keeps us from dying in order to live.
By Ralph Moody
Based on a true story, this first title in the “Little Britches” series offers a glimpse into life in pioneer times in Colorado, a taste of the hard, wind-bitten work of making a good existence in a new land, the struggle of it, but also the sweetness that comes with love, family, and endurance. Great theme of a father/son relationship and based on Moody’s memories, this is a great series for boys. I like to think of it as the boy’s rough equivalent to the “Little House on the Prairie Series,” with Moody’s boy hero as the pioneer counterpart to Laura Ingalls Wilder.
Little House on the Prairie
By Laura Ingalls Wilder
Maybe the first book I remember reading, the long-beloved story of Laura Ingalls Wilder, the little girl who grew up in homes across the prairie, as her Pa kept moving on, hungry for space. The books make clear what was necessary to survive in those hard days, the character required of the settlers, but they are also rich in their portrayal of family, of the hard-won comforts of home, the love like strong rope, weaving together the hearts of those who work, dare, suffer, and dream together.
Misty of Chincoteague
By Marguerite Henry
If you have a horse-loving girl who needs a book, this is the one. (My friends and I all went through a stage of being fascinated by horses.) With beautiful depctions of the real-life, annual round-up of wild horses on Chincoteague Island, this is the winsome story of Paul and Maureen, who live with their grandparents, training ponies, and saving up for a pony of their own. When Paul unexpectedly catches the illusive pony, the “Phantom,” along with her new foal, Misty, they get their wish for a pony of their own and a great adventure begins.
Number the Stars
The story of ten-year-old Annemarie Johansen who becomes caught up in the Danish Resistance during the Nazi Occupation when the life of her best friend is endangered.
Otto of the Silver Hand
This is Pyle’s medieval tale of the wise and faithful Otto, son of a German warlord, a boy with a strong conscience who is taken captive by his father’s enemy. Caught up in a world of revenge, war, and battle, Otto endures through it to become a man revered for his wisdom and peace and his silver hand. Great, classic drama with Pyle’s matchless illustrations.
Passage to Freedom
Based on the inspiring true-to-life story of a Japanese diplomat whose heroic resolve to write visas for the Jews in his jurisdiction saved hundreds of lives.
By Sterling North
The charming story of an eleven-year-old boy and the raccoon who becomes his boon companion in escapades galore, but also in the hard work of learning to say goodbye when it is time. Based on the author’s own childhood in Wisconsin, this boyhood memoir offers readers a taste of what North himself called “a better era.”
Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm
By Kate Douglas Wiggin
This is a classic American children’s novel about the imaginative Rebecca Rowena Randall, sent to live with her two dour, but good-hearted aunts in Maine when her family falls on hard times. Fresh, sweet, true, this is a story that has lasted for generations.
A picture-book by the matchless Barbara Cooney, this true-to-life tale recounts how a group of cousins and friends created their own town at the edge of the desert, with broken glass outlining houses and smooth black pebbles for currency. A tribute to the lively, creative power of an active imagination, this is the sort of book to inspire all sorts of imaginative possibility.
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
By the “Pearl Poet,” translated by J.R.R. Tolkien
OPD: late 14th century
This is a classic of Arthurian legend, an alliterative romance describing the challenge of a great green giant who arrives at King Arthur’s court to challenge any knight to cut off his head, as long as he can return the stroke a year and a day after. The bold Sir Gawain takes the challenge, but his courage is tested when the mysterious green giant simply stands up, picks up his head and reminds Gawain to report to him on the appointed day. In sparkling poetry with the rich backdrop of Arthurian legend, this tale follows the unfortunate Gawain through tests of his virtue, chastity, and courage. This was a favorite of Tolkien’s, and many editions have his translation of the 14th century text.
An adventure story involving four brave Norwegian children who smuggle gold right under the noses of the Nazis – by sledding.
Summer of the Monkeys
Rarely have we so enjoyed a summer read-aloud as The Summer of the Monkeys. By Wilson Rawls, the beloved author of Where the Red Fern Grows, this is the rollicking tale of a boy who discovers a gang of escaped circus monkeys in the woods behind his house and takes them on in a tale of adventure, compassion, and boyish fun.
Swallows and Amazons
Beloved in England, this imaginative, outdoor series of adventures is set in the gorgeous English Lake District and centered around a fictionalized Lake Windermere, where the children go sailing in imaginative search of adventure. A bright, hearty, outdoor story world for summer afternoons.
The Black Arrow
By Robert Louis Stevenson
Robert Louis Stevenson’s historical adventure novel about a brave boy on his way to knighthood during the War of the Roses. When a black arrow flies through a castle window with a note promising an arrow for four more of the castle residents, including Dick’s uncle, a mystery begins in which Dick begins to question his father’s mysterious death. Forced to escape after a confrontation with his uncle, Dick eventually encounters “The Black Arrow,” a mysterious outlaw. Great historical drama, classic portrayals of nobility and courage. The Scribner’s edition has illustrations by the matchless N.C. Wyeth.
The Book of the Dun Cow
By Walter Wangerin
This story took me by surprise. Here is an opening from Wangerin’s site: “At a time when the sun turned around the earth and animals could speak, Chauntecleer the Rooster ruled over a more or less peaceable kingdom. What the animals did not know was that they were Keepers of the Wyrm, monster of Evil long imprisoned beneath the earth. And Wyrm, sub terra, was breaking free…” I didn’t expect to be engrossed by a farmyard fable, or moved by the story of a slightly arrogant rooster who must learn to protect his people from evil, but I found this to be a powerful tale of humble, workaday hearts encountering evil and resisting its dominance. Fascinating. Excellent for discussion.
The Box-Car Children Mysteries
I was a mystery addict as a child. Still am, except now my adult favorites are the matchless Hercule Poirot and the talkative Lord Peter Wimsey. That love for a good mystery began, however, with the intriguing tales of the four Boxcar children, siblings Henry, Jessie, Violet, and Benny. With a sibling penchant for sniffing out a mystery and the loyalty, humor, and curiosity to solve them, these innocent books were great summer fun.
By Jill Barklem
When I think back to the favorite books of my childhood, books whose tang of atmosphere and illustration are still keen in my mind, one of the first I remember is the series of English country tales known as theBrambly Hedge books. These picture books were so intricately illustrated and vividly told that I remember them as if they were a place I visited, some small corner of earth that I explored. The author of these fine tales, Jill Barklem, spent years researching the customs, handcrafts, and traditional celebrations of the rural English countryside before she set to illustrating them in her own stories for children. Such was her success that when I read her books as an adult, I feel that I have returned to a place that brought me comfort, creativity, and hours of joy.
These picturesque tales present the ongoing adventures of a close-knit community of forest mice – their celebrations, escapades and family dramas. The Hedge is gently governed by Lord and Lady Woodmouse, who live in the Old Oak Palace and see to it that all the mice in their care are well-feasted and never forgotten. The rest of the mice live close by, scattered throughout the trees and bushes of the hedge, living from the communal Store Stump run by Mr. Apple, a gathering place for the bountiful fruit, nuts and goods gathered through the bright summer days.
The illustrations are a visual feast of homes crammed to the corners with books, crafts, jugs of cider and jars of jam, roaring fireplaces and mantelpieces that show you what a cottage in old England might have looked like. The stories are whimsical; the finding of a secret passage, the celebration of the midwinter ball, the tale of a harvest journey. All are rich in their affirmation of life, family, simple living and the joy of natural beauty. I have to admit that I have found myself drawn to these again in adulthood as presenting a settled, country, and richly creative view of life. I yearn to live a bit more like the mice in Brambly Hedge, to celebrate the seasons, cook well, live in community, explore. These stories are adorable, yes, but they’re also inspiring, even if peopled by fluffy white mice.
The books have been out of print over the last few years, so you have to search for them in used bookstores. But I found an edition of the stories just published when I was recently in England, so I’m quite hopeful that the new version will arrive in the States before long. No matter how you come by them, these books are worth the time and effort for they will spur the children who read them to feasts, games, and exploration of the fields. And I warn you, these books kindle a keen hunger for the blackberry tea and scones they describe, so let the reader be prepared.
Here’s a list of the best titles to get you started:
One of my favorite’s of Speare’s novels (and she has several great ones), this story of Daniel, a young boy who witnesses his father’s cruel death at the hands of the Romans, comes back to me still. Living with outlaws, struggling with his hate, Daniel meets a curious new rabbi, a strange teacher named Jesus who takes his turmoil and begins to teach him about… forgiveness. (Caution: Daniel’s father meets a cruel death by crucifixion at the hands of the Romans.)
A true-to-life story by the marvelous Polacco, rich with her unique illustrations, this book recounts the tale of a young French girl who discovers a strange child and realizes that her mother is involved in the French Resistance.
The Cosmic Trilogy
By C.S. Lewis
OPD: Out of the Silent Planet in1938, Perelandra in 1943, and That Hideous Strength in 1945
Lewis considered this trilogy of space-travel adventures a “fairy tale for adults.” Don’t be put fooled by the space-travel nature of these books, in many ways they have a medieval flavor in keeping with Lewis desire to “re-enchant” the modern imagination with the wonders of, not cold, empty “space,” but the golden dance of the “heavens.” The first book finds a philologist named Ransom (based, according to several sources, on Tolkien) on an unexpected journey to “Malacandra,” (Mars), where he encounters the presiding spirit of that planet and discovers why earth is, in a universe of singing, dancing stars, called “the Silent Planet.” The second book follows him on his second planetary journey to Perelandra (Venus), where he must assist that planet’s Eve in resisting the temptations of the “unman.” The third book takes place right on earth, with Ransom and the planetary powers pitted against the dark machinations of the N.I.C.E. A strange, vivid, convicting story in which Lewis imagines what might happen if the principles of “scientism” were seriously applied to education and society, this book can offer an uncomfortable commentary on our own materialistic age. Great moral drama and fantastical travel all made with Lewis’ vivid imagination and vibrant prose.
The Courage of Sarah Noble
By Alice Dalgliesh
The long-loved story of the young Sarah, a brave, small girl living in early Colonial America who travels with her father to set up their new farm in Connecticut. At first quite fearful of the nearby Indian tribe, the Schaghticoke, she soon discovers their kindness and begins to become their friend.
The Dark is Rising Sequence
By Susan Cooper
I include this series because, frankly, I was fascinated by it. Though Cooper writes from a decidedly dualistic view of the world rather than a theistic standpoint, I found this well-written, vividly imagined series to be a captivating portrayal of the struggle of the light against the powers of darkness, of love against the stronghold of hate. Richly woven with Arthurian legend, set in Wales, with characters straight from The Round Table, this series traces the adventures of Will, seventh son of a seventh son, last of the Old Ones, whose doom is to conquer the darkness for ages to come, or if he fails, to watch the world plunged into the powers of hate and death. Haunting, rich in a sense of ancient legend and old Welsh lore, these books captivate and open a prime opportunity for the discussion of worldview, while still affirming the goodness of Light.
The Diary of Anne Frank
The actual journals of a young Jewish girl forced into hiding in Amsterdam during WWII. Poignant in its rich portrait of a young girl hoping, dreaming, waiting like any other, even as her life hung in the balance. (Best for older children or teens for slightly mature content.)
The Endless Steppe
I read this book over and over, fascinated by the story (memoir that reads as compelling fiction) of a young Polish girl deported to Siberia during WWII. Fascinating for its historic detail and portrait of life in Siberia, the hardships and cold, its also intriguing for its portrayal of the way that life, especially for children, normalizes, even in times of war.
By Lois Lowry
There has been a renewed interest in this book since the recent release of a movie based on its story. I haven’t seen the movie, but I know that the book is a quiet, unsettling exploration of a world in which people have chosen to abdicate choice and personal responsibility in return for a sanitized, colorless, controlled existence that guarantees them freedom from suffering and pain. Except for one person, the Giver, an enigmatic old man chosen to bear the memories of the world before the new system was imposed. When Jonas, a young boy, is chosen to be the next Giver, what he discovers, and tastes, and feels for the first time, threatens to change everything. Caution: this is a book for older readers who can handle discussions of euthanasia, death, and morally complex situations.
The Good Master
By Kate Seredy
This is one of those stories I still remember with great relish. Set in Hungary, and rich with its legends and color and a vivid depiction of its culture, it’s the tale of the impossible, city-bred Kate, her cousin Jancsi, and Jancsi’s father, the “good master,” who knows how to win Kate’s loyalty and give her the gift of life in the country. I love this description of Kate: “From the moment Kate arrived, things happened. She was afraid of nothing and full of ideas.”
By J.R.R. Tolkien
This classic tale of Bilbo, a member of the the little-known race of garden loving, pipe-smoking, gentle-hearted Hobbits has the hominess of an English folktale combined with the high romance and epic drama that would mark Tolkien’s later work in The Lord of the Rings. An old fashioned fairy-tale centering on twelve dwarves intent on recovering their ancient home (and their gold, for dwarves are lovers of gold) from the awful dragon Smaug, this story of Bilbo, the “burglar” who comes along as a member of their party also examines the motives of the heart, the nature of greed, and the strength that comes in unexpected places.
Delightful, vivid, with sylvan elves and bear men and daughty warriors, no adventurous young reader should miss this story.
Further, in the words of the venerable C.S. Lewis:
For it must be understood that this is a children’s book only in the sense that the first of many readings can be undertaken in the nursery. Alice is read gravely by children and with laughter by grown ups; The Hobbit, on the other hand, will be funnier to its youngest readers, and only years later, at a tenth or a twentieth reading, will they begin to realise what deft scholarship and profound reflection have gone to make everything in it so ripe, so friendly, and in its own way so true. Prediction is dangerous: but The Hobbitmay well prove a classic.
-From a review published in the Times Literary Supplement (2 October 1937), 714.
By Elizabeth Yates
The Journeyman is Elizabeth Yates quiet but luminous story of a young, artistic boy in colonial America, misunderstood by his family but given the gift of an apprenticeship to a journeyman painter. I loved Jared, the boy who learned to create color and beauty in the homes of farmer’s and homesteaders in early New England. A boy who was stronger in heart than in body, and offered a long, faithful love to those who took many years to see its beauty. The Journeyman offers a view of integrity, a picture of a strong man that is very different from those presented by culture today.
The Keeper of the Bees
Gene Stratton Porter brought her naturalist love of the created world to the compelling characters and rich natural settings of the stories she crafted. Set in California, just after WWI, The Keeper of the Bees follows Jamie, a wounded veteran condemned to a TB hospital. Determined at least not to die in hospital, Jamie sets out down the CA coast and becomes the startled keeper of an oceanside cottage several lively beehives. A story with drama and beauty and the high romance of the ocean, this is also a story about the power of sunlight and earth to heal and restore. Beautiful stuff for read aloud.
The Man Who Was Thursday
By G.K. Chesterton
This was the most discussed book of my teenage years. Several friends and I had an ongoing discussion regarding Chesterton’s topsy turvy, vivid, confusing story of a Gabriel Syme, a brave man plumbing the depths of an anarchist society and its dire plots in Victorian London. But all is not as it seems. For in a rollicking tale of pursuit and disguise with anarchist agents named after the days of the week, Syme finds he may not be hunting what he thinks he is after all. Not exactly allegory or fantasy, yet with the fantastical, symbolic elements of both, this dream, or “nightmare” (as Chesterton dubbed it) explores the confusing nature of a world so beautiful at times we cannot believe that evil is real, and so evil at others that we cannot believe that beauty will ever endure. Fascinating stuff.
“Listen to me,” cried Syme with extraordinary emphasis. “Shall I tell you the secret of the whole world? It is that we have only known the back of the world. We see everything from behind, and it looks brutal. That is not a tree, but the back of a tree. That is not a cloud, but the back of a cloud. Cannot you see that everything is stooping and hiding a face? If we could only get round in front -”
One of my favorite more recent children’s books, The Penderwicks was published in 2005 and became swiftly beloved for its old-fashioned portrayal of four motherless sisters and their escapades at Arundel, an estate on which their father is renting a cottage for the summer. With new friends (and seeming enemies) encountered amidst the rich grounds and mysterious gardens of Arundel, the Penderwick sisters, ever loyal to each other, unravel a mystery or two and help a friend before the summer’s end. One of the few modern pieces of children’s fiction with what I’ll call the Anne of Green Gables flavor.
The Pilgrim's Regress
By C.S. Lewis
Written soon after his conversion to Christianity, this is C.S. Lewis’ allegorical tale of his search through all the philosophical systems and world views for the beauty and home he glimpsed in his moments of “Joy.” In this story, a sturdy young pilgrim named John embarks on a quest through lands such as “Puritania,” “Zeitgeistheim,” and “Dialectica,” in search of the island of his desire, an image he has encountered in vision, the place where he will find the joy he seeks. He is guided on his way by various characters like Mr. Enlightenment, Mr Sensible, Drudge, Vertue, and Mother Kirk. The philosophical ideals behind each allegorical character are quite clear, but Lewis, in his usual flare and wit, dresses them up and sets them in a story that is at once a philosophical adventure and a lively quest story.
The Prince and the Pauper
By: Mark Twain
Twain’s classic tale of two boys, one a prince, one a beggar, who switch roles for a day… or a few more as it happens. Told with Twain’s usual wit and vivacity, the story follows the growth of the two boys as their minds expand with the exploration of their new worlds, teaching them how to better live, and rule, within their own.
The Railway Children
By E. Nesbit
The Railway Children is Nesbit’s delightful story of an Edwardian family fallen on hard times. Forced to move to the country with their mother when their father encounters “trouble,” Roberta, Phil, and Peter set about the exploration of the English countryside and begin a series of adventures with the nearby railway at their heart. A favorite in our family for the knowing, chummy voice in which Nesbit manages to perfectly capture a child’s point of view, as well as the amusing (and realistic) portrayal of siblings, and the delightful way in which Nesbit portrays the unhindered possibility of childhood, this book is one for the family library.
So you see it was all right in the end. But if one does that sort of thing, one has to be careful to do it in the right way. For, as Mr. Perks said, when he had time to think it over, it’s not so much what you do, as what you mean.” ― E. Nesbit, The Railway Children
The Sign of the Beaver
By Elizabeth George Speare
Another favorite by Speare, this is a grand boy’s book about a young boy left to fend for himself in early Colonial days when his family leaves him for a brief time. Befriended by a local tribe of Indians, the boy learns to survive in the woods by following their ways, and grows to love their fellowship. Torn between awaiting his family’s return and following the tribe, he must learn to weigh the hard questions of loyalty, survival, and faith.
By J.R.R. Tolkien
If you really loved The Lord of the Rings, then you have to read The Silmarillion. This is what Tolkien considered the “real” story behind the romance and drama of The Lord of the Rings. Presenting his own mythic version of the world’s creation (the whole book is worth the passage about the “music of the Ainur” when the world is sung into existence), the coming of the elves, the coming of men, and the fall of both, this collection of epic, often tragic tales reflects the ancient, Icelandic, and Old English mythologies that so captivated Tolkien’s imagination. The tale of the brave man Beren, and his beloved Luthien, the tragic history of Turin, the wars between Elves and Dwarves, every one of these stories is rich in ancient color, in the high language and beauty of older times, and a clear understanding of what goodness looks like, and what evil brings.
The Snow Goose: A Story of Dunkirk
A bittersweet, beautiful story set in England during WWII, about an isolated hunchback artist, a gentle girl named Fritha, and the snow goose they save. A tale of sweet friendship set against the darkness of WWII and the heroic actions of so many at Dunkirk. I love the illustrations by Beth Peck, but there is also a more recently published version, also with fascinating illustrations by Angela Barrett.
The Story Girl
Though the Anne books made her famous, Lucy Maud Montgomery said this was her favorite of the stories she wrote. Set on the King farm in PEI, and centered on a rag tag group of cousins whose leader seems always to be the vivid and imaginative Sara (the Story Girl) with her gift for weaving whole worlds out of the stories she tells, this tale follows the children on old-fashioned escapades in the old orchard, on imaginary quests, and through the rich, homey worlds of an old Victorian house and the eccentric people inhabiting PEI. This story is particularly marked by L.M.M.’s gift, much like the Story Girl she created, to reveal the startling beauty and mystery of the ordinary, while relating it in a voice rich with humor and human sympathy.
The Wind in the Willows
The Wind in the Willows was a decided favorite of the famed C.S. Lewis, himself the author of a classic series of children’s stories. Set in the rural English countryside, Wind recounts the delights of feasts and picnics shared on the banks of the river, and offers a countryside picture of home, friendship, and natural beauty that has became a children’s classic for generation after generation. No childhood should pass, in my opinion, without a dose of Rat and Mole, Badger and Toad, and a glimpse into Mole’s old home or down the woven mystery of the Wild Wood.
The Winged Watchmen
A classic, and fascinating story of how the Dutch resistance used Windmills to send vital signals right under the noses of the Nazis.
Tree and Leaf
By J.R.R. Tolkien
For any Tolkien lovers, this slim book will be a gem. In this collection of essays and stories, readers will recognize Tolkien’s winsome style in tales like Leaf by Niggle or Farmer Giles of Ham, and also get treated to his famous defense of the fantasy genre in his essay, “On Fairie Stories.” Also included is the poem Mythopoeia, written for C.S. Lewis after a discussion of the truth-bearing power of myth.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
A fascinating story based on the childhood memories of the author, this story offers a child’s view of life as a refugee as her father is pursued by the Nazis. Consider this quote by the author: “My parents were wonderful. My brother Michael and I knew there wasn’t much money but it didn’t seem to matter much. They made us feel it was an adventure. I much preferred it to the sort of childhood I would have had had we had a so-called normal childhood. When we were in Paris we had this grotty, tiny flat and were looking out over Paris and I said to my father, ‘Isn’t it wonderful being a refugee!”
When I was Young in the Mountains
Another excellent picture book by the much-beloved Cynthia Rylant, this simple tale recounts Rylant’s memories of a simple, rugged childhood in the Appalachian mountains.
Blueberries for Sal
By Robert McCloskey
A beloved children’s classic, Blueberries for Sal captured my children’s hearts as they followed the story of a little girl and a baby bear who were hunting with their respective mothers through the Maine countryside on a glorious summer day. The girl’s and the baby bear’s trails of curiosity keeps you wondering where their appetites will lead. I also love the blue-stained illustrations for their simple child-like quality.
By Barbara Cooney
This one might be my favorite picture-book! Cooney, an author and illustrator, tells the story of Alice Rumphius who longed to travel the world, to live in a house by the sea, and to do something to make the world more beautiful. The ‘real’ Miss Rumphius scattered lupine seed along the coast of Maine wherever her feet carried her. We have felt inspired by this story and it has led to discussions of how we can make the world a a more beautiful place.
By Alice McLerran
If there’s one picture-book that has encouraged imagination and free play in my kids, it’s this one! This gem of a story is about an imaginary town called Roxaboxen. "Marian was mayor, of course; that was just the way she was. Nobody minded." The rules don't even have to be consistent, as long as they make their own kind of sense. Speeding was not allowed by car but "if you had a horse, you could go as fast as the wind”, and all you needed for a horse was “a stick and some kind of bridle”. This sweet story has stuck in our hearts and minds and is one we have read and over and over and never seem to tire of reading.
Billy and Blaze
By C.W. Anderson
My son became a fan of this delightful story (the first in a series) from the first reading. Billy longed for a horse and was ecstatic when he received his very own pony for his birthday. The pair were inseparable and teamed up together to compete at a horse show. We immensely enjoy these illustrations made up of simple black and white drawings.
Make Way for Ducklings
By Robert McCloskey
This humorous and delightful book has captured our hearts. Who can forget the classic scene of the whole duck family marching through the streets of Boston? We were captivated by Mr. and Mrs. Mallard’s journey of finding a home for their ducklings. But my kids especially loved hearing the ducklings names’ read throughout the book- Jack, Kack, Lack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack!
By Kim Lewis
When I look at Floss on the cover of this book, I am reminded of my childhood dog, Spot. Floss, a border collie, was given by an old man to his son to be trained as a sheepdog. Although Floss is trained well and obeys orders, she longs to play. This sweet story shows how fun has an appropriate place in the midst of the hard work of English farm life.
A New Coat for Anna
By Harriet Ziefert
This beautifully written story is currently my four year old’s favorite picture book, asking for it to be read to her most nights before bed. It’s the story of how a loving mother sacrifices much to obtain a warm coat for her daughter. You’re taken on their journey in post World War II, as they seek the services of a spinner, weaver, and tailor. It teaches gratitude, kindness, patience, and love in a subtle way without moralizing.
The Bear Who Heard Crying
By Natalie Kinsey-Warnock
My sweet Sophia asked for this book to be read to her over and over as a toddler. We read this one more times than I could possibly count - so many that she could recite almost half the book! In this incredible true story, three year old, Sarah Whitcher wanders into the woods eventually disappearing for three days and nights. When found she recounts that a “big black dog” kept her warm every night. Do the tracks tell the same story?
My Mama Had a Dancing Heart
By Libba Moore Grey
This lyrical tale is yet another favorite in our home. A young daughter and her mother celebrate the changing seasons from their view in their home. My three daughters and I hold these words dear in out hearts: “My mama had a dancing heart and she shared that song with me. With a grin and a giggle and a hug and whistle, we’d slap our knees and mama would say, “Bless the world it feel like a tip-tapping, song-singing, finger-snapping kind of day. Let’s celebrate. And so we did.”
All the Places to Love
By Patricia MacLachlan
“All the places to love are here . . . no matter where you may live.” The combination of MacLachlan’s language and Wimmer’s timeless paintings captivated our family. We were drawn to the depiction of rural life in America.