Great holiday books for kids: read-alouds

Published by Lori Pickert on November 27, 2007 at 10:59 PM


Okay, you aren't going to believe this, but once again I managed to piddle away the day and forget to take my photographs before the sun slipped away.

It was a beautiful day, too! Warm, and we continued trying to winterize the Airstream so it won't bust a pipe over our cold midwestern winter.

Thank you everyone for your book recommendations re: yesterday's post! We have an absolutely enormous home library, partially due to the fact that we are out-of-control biblioholics and partially due to the fact that when we closed my school we brought home a good section of the library (including doubles and triples of our favorites, because why not?).

Today I thought I'd continue the bookish theme and list some of our all-time favorite read-alouds.

Of course, these books are just as enjoyable read to oneself, but you know, there is just a perfect read-aloud book. Mm, what are the criteria. The chapters must be long enough that one or two make a good evening's read. Not too much cliff-hanging action at the end of the chapters, causing undue agony to small ones writhing in their beds begging to read "just one more!" (Mommy needs her sleep.) I like a read-aloud that sparks some good conversations. And, I suppose, the most important thing to me is that it be written beautifully, so that reading it aloud is a pleasure in itself.

Anyway, here are some of our top favorites. We've read all of these two or more times, no more frequently than once a year.

The Little House books. I've read all the way through the series three times. The first time I read them, Jack was so small (two, maybe?) that I didn't think he was really getting it, although he always lay quietly in the crook of my arm. Then one morning he told me he'd had a dream. I said, oh really, what was it? He said, "I dreamt Pa made eggs for me and Mary and Laura!" So I guess he was getting it, after all! Their top favorite of these books was Farmer Boy. I think my top fave is Little House in the Big Woods. The descriptions of the harvesting, butchering, and putting up stores for the winter! Farmer Boy is also a paean to everything gastronomical. My advice: don't read this if you're on a diet.

A farmer depends on himself, and the land and the weather. If you're a farmer, you raise what you eat, you raise what you wear, and you keep warm with wood out of your own timber. You work hard, but you work as you please, and no man can tell you to go or come. You'll be free and independent, son, on a farm.

Mother was frying doughnuts. The place was full of their hot, brown smell, and the wheaty smell of new bread, the spicy smell of cakes, and the syrupy smell of pies.

One of my favorites from my own childhood: Rabbit Hill. How I loved this when I was a child. I must have read it every year since I was five. The boys love it, too.

The houses were all asleep, even the Dogs of the Fat-Man-at-the-Crossroads were quiet, but the Little Animals were up and about. They met the Gray Fox returning from a night up Weston way. He looked footsore and sleepy, and a few chicken feathers still clung to his ruff. The Red Buck trotted daintily across the Black Road to wish them good luck and good morning, but Father, for once, had no time for long social conversation. This was business, and no Rabbit in the county knew his business any better than Father — few as well.

Another favorite from my own childhood (in fact, I read them my childhood copy) is Rascal. We have probably read this aloud at least once a year the last three or four years. They absolutely love this book.

My harmless skunks had further complicated matters on a recent Sunday evening. These pleasant pets that I had dug from a hole the previous spring were now more than a year old and somewhat restless. They were handsome, glossy creatures — one broad-stripe, one narrow-stripe, one short-stripe, and one black beauty with a single star of white on his head. All four had perfect manners. Having never been frightened or abused, they had never scented up the neighborhood.

But one night in June when Wowser must have been drowsing, a stray dog came barking and snarling at them through the woven wire, and they reacted predictably. Sunday services were progressing at the church not seventy feet from their cage. It was a warm evening, and the windows of the choir loft were open. For the first time in his life Reverend Hooton shortened his sermon.

I'm afraid they're perhaps (sob) getting a little too old for Winnie-the-Pooh, but we own the big treasury that has all the books and poems in one volume, and I have read it all the way through, front to back, several times. This book, by the way, would make a great baby gift.

By the time it came to the edge of the Forest the stream had grown up, so that it was almost a river, and, being grown-up, it did not run and jump and sparkle along as it used to do when it was younger, but moved more slowly. For it knew now where it was going, and it said to itself, "There is no hurry. We shall get there some day." But all the little streams higher up in the Forest went this way and that, quickly, eagerly, having so much to find out before it was too late.

Already mentioned yesterday, but worth mentioning again, we've read aloud and loved (more childhood favorites of mine) A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door. The rest of the L'Engle books they've read themselves, but these two we have read aloud several times.

"You mean you're comparing our lives to a sonnet? A strict form, but freedom within it?"

"Yes." Mrs. Whatsit said. "You're given the form, but you have to write the sonnet yourself. What you say is completely up to you."

This year we read aloud for the first time Treasure Island, and both boys absolutely loved it. I hadn't read it myself since I was a child and I had forgotten how exciting it was. A few weeks after we read it aloud, my older son sat down and read it again to himself.

He was plainly blind, for he tapped before him with a stick, and wore a great green shade over his eyes and nose; and he was hunched, as if with age or weakness, and wore a huge old tattered sea cloak with a hood, that made him appear positively deformed. I never saw in my life a more dreadful-looking figure.

Even though the boys are now 8 and 11, I still read aloud to them every night. They have been reading on their own for years, but they still love to be read to, and I love to read aloud to them. They also love to take their turns reading aloud. Sometimes meals (at which everyone is allowed to read, always — they were aghast to find out this wasn't allowed when I was growing up!) turn into a free-for-all with everyone trying to entertain everyone else with selections from their book.

I don't know what the secret is to growing great readers, but reading aloud can't hurt.

Great holiday books for kids

Published by Lori Pickert on November 26, 2007 at 11:07 PM


Well, it's five o'clock and all is dark in the midwest.

I didn't manage to photograph the thing I was going to post about today before the sun fell behind the trees, so instead, please enjoy these book recommendations from my resident experts.

The boys have just turned 8 and 11 in the past few weeks. If you have any middle-size kids to buy for this holiday season, even (or especially) those who hate to read, maybe these books will be just the ticket.

Of course the boys enjoy the Harry Potter series and D loved Lemony Snicket, although J found it too depressing. I have exposed D (now 11) to some classic fantasy fare like the Dark Is Rising series, which he enjoyed.

D loved Black Horses for the King, written by Anne McCaffrey.

Another classic series the boys both enjoyed was A Wrinkle in Time and the rest of the Time Quartet (which is strangely now the Time Quintet; they added An Acceptable Time — unfortunately quite a step down from the original three books, I think). The sets certainly are a good deal considering the cost of the individual books. However, the top two are definitely A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door.

They loved the Narnia series as well. I still have my original paperback set, and we must have about 12 copies of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. (Did you like the movie? I was disappointed.)

J (now 8) has just finished reading The Lightning Thief, book one in the Percy Jackson series which both boys have enjoyed.

Speaking of which, D really liked Eragon (which, God help me, I read aloud) and its sequel Eldest (which I made him read to himself). Christopher Paolini, the smart and talented homeschooler who wrote these books as a teen, can get a little long-winded. If you are going to try reading these books aloud, I suggest throat lozenges.

Another favorite fantasy series was The Great Tree of Avalon and itssequels.

Your middle-size kid not a fantasy lover? You can't go wrong with the Wayside School boxed set. Or practically anything by Roald Dahl. Kid humor.

(Their favorite Roald Dahl book? The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar and Six More.)

Our favorite poetry book (though it's hard to choose) is The 20th Century Children's Poetry Treasury. We've been reading aloud from this book since Dominic was two. We usually end our before bed read-aloud time with two or three poems; we pull favorites from this book most nights. (It has great illustrations, too.)

Classics? They both love The Phantom Tollbooth. (Who doesn't?) D urged J to read The Indian in the Cupboard and its sequels. Actually, D collected about a dozen books that he thought J should read this year and made a special shelf for them in their room; his picks included Tom Sawyer, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, The Story of King Arthur, The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Treasure Island, Kidnapped and King Solomon's Mines.

Finally, D’s favorite read this past year, real-life adventure Kon-Tiki. J’s favorite: Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator.

Beautiful holiday book: Letters from Father Christmas

Published by Lori Pickert on November 23, 2007 at 08:16 PM


I cannot overemphasize how much I love this book: Letters from Father Christmas.


The book is a collection of letters that author J.R.R. Tolkien wrote to his sons as Father Christmas. They tell droll stories of FC's trials and tribulations getting ready for the holidays, and they feature one of our now-favorite Christmas characters, the North Polar Bear.


The letters pull out of real envelopes glued into the books (a la Griffin and Sabine) and reproduce Tolkien's handwriting and original drawings; the other pages have captioned drawings.


The drawings are so charming, the stories so funny, and the whole concept so loving that it has become one of our absolute holiday favorites. If you love beautiful books, if you love Christmas, you can't possibly not love this beautiful, wonderful book.




Published by Lori Pickert on November 12, 2007 at 03:19 PM


I just read another homeschooling blog post that declared how great it is that homeschoolers read more than non-homeschoolers. They're better readers, they like to read more, they read more often, etc.

My first reaction is, well heck yeah, they have time to read!

When I was running a (tiny, private) school, we made time each day for the children to read to themselves. This was in addition to the time that they were read aloud to by their teacher (Kindergarten through fourth grade). Visiting educators' reaction? We don't have time to do that. There is too much to teach. We already don't have enough time to cover the material.

This is the sort of thing that made me grind the heels of my hands into my eye sockets. Which way to attack this? You could go straight for what really matters in education today and point out that the kids will learn more, and be more receptive to learning, if they are calm and relaxed and rested. (Our kids read after lunch. It made a lovely quiet transition to the afternoon.) Or, you could go the other direction and point out that test scores don't really matter if we raise generations of kids who can't or won't or don't read.

I remember talking to the 8- and 12-year-old sons of a friend several years ago (back when kids that age seemed enormous). I asked what their favorite books were. Both of them moaned and groaned and said they hated to read.

... Hated to read? Hated to read?! Well, I ... I don't know what to say. That's like saying you hate to eat. You hate to watch TV. How can anyone hate to read?

But they went on to explain why they hated to read --- it was because they hated the books they were forced to read at school. They were so boring. Etc. So I said, well, huh, I could choose a book for each of you that you would love. You would love to read. They rolled their eyes and said no way. I couldn't pay them to waste time reading anything.

And there's the rub, because when would they read these great books I had for them? Their days were very full, and the little bit of free time they had they really preferred to do something else. Like, there would be a long list of things they would prefer to do, and reading would not even make it to the bottom of that list.


They also told me that boys don't like to read, boys like sports, but that's a whole other ulcer-aggravating conversation.

This is a deep-and-wide topic, and I can’t plumb its depths in this one post, but I will reiterate this: When I read (or hear) homeschooling parents say sanguinely that homeschooled kids love to read or are great readers or etc., I think, the greatest thing about homeschooling is time. All that lovely, blessed time. No worries about having to choose how to spend your one free hour a day, whether you should crash on the couch and watch “Scooby Doo”, play with your dog, work a little on your airplane model, help your mom make a pie, play a little Age of Empires or maybe a game of chess with your dad. There’s time for all of those things — and still time to read Treasure Island, Rascal, Kon-Tiki, A Wrinkle in Time, Harry Potter, or The Dark is Rising.

That's a great thing about homeschooling, but schooling can easily (easily!) make room in the day for kids to read books of their own choosing, silently, to themselves. And (rolling my eyes now) the kids' attention and attitudes will improve and they will actually learn better anyway, so you haven't actually cost yourself anything just for the mere benefit of raising generations of readers.



Jim Trelease: Sustained Silent Reading — Reading Aloud’s Natural Partner

If the majority learn to read but don't read, we must ask: Why are they not reading? The only logical answers are either because they don't like it or because they don't have the time. There are no other major reasons. Eliminate those two factors and you've solved the American literacy dilemma. Reading aloud goes to work on the first factor and SSR attacks the second. — Jim Trelease

Washington Post: The No-Book Report: Skim It and Weep

We pride ourselves on being a largely literate First World country while at the same time we rush to build a visually powerful environment in which reading is not required.

"Sustained Silent Reading" Helps Develop Independent Readers

Teachers should be right there on the floor (or in another comfortable spot) -- modeling a lifelong love of reading.

Note: Upon rereading, my mom and dad activities are so gender traditional. For the record, I play chess (although I prefer Scrabble), and my husband, while no pie maker, makes a mean pot of soup.


I am not bashing homeschooling families for basking in the contented glow of their great readers; it just drives me crazy that kids in school don't have the same luxury of time to become great readers.

How can a generation of non-readers raise a generation of readers? If kids never discover a love of reading, how can they introduce it to their own children?

In all my years of running my small private school, I never saw a child who didn't love to be read to, regardless of age. I still read to my nearly 11-year-old every night. Right now we are reading Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.

See also: Teaching Kids to Hate Reading and In Defense of Reading .. Which Should Need No Defense


Children's book beauty

Published by Lori Pickert on November 6, 2007 at 12:57 PM


All you collectors of vintage children's books and admirers of vintage children's book illustrations need to check out the eye candy at Book By Its Cover.

Beautiful book week: a hole is to dig

Published by Lori Pickert on October 27, 2007 at 01:10 AM


I'm trying for another one that maybe isn't as well known: A Hole is to Dig: A First Book of First Definitions.

This is one of my absolute favorite children's books. It makes a wonderful present. It is as enjoyable for grown-ups as for kids. It's illustrated by Maurice Sendak (who needs no introduction) and written by Ruth Krauss (whose carrot you probably remember).

It can magically cheer you out of any small- to medium-size funk.

I love this beautiful book.


Beautiful book week: Maira Kalman

Published by Lori Pickert on October 24, 2007 at 02:32 PM



kalman-illusion.jpg Who doesn't love Maira Kalman?

She lives at the intersection of my three loves: children's books, writing, and design.

She has designed fabric for Isaac Mizrahi, accessories for Kate Spade, sets for the Mark Morris Dance Company and accessories for the Museum of Modern Art.

My boys love her books What Pete Ate from A to Z and Smartypants (Pete in School).

My sister and I have always love-loved the Max books: Max Makes a Million, Ooh-la-la (Max in Love), Max in Hollywood, Baby!, and Swami on Rye: Max in India.


The first three of these were bundled together into the fabulous, now out-of-print Max Deluxe (still available used from Amazon resellers).


Kalman's children's books are so densely illustrated that you can find new jokes in them every time you read them. The Max books especially have dense text as well; the Pete books are easier readers but still have a lot of free humor on the side. We absolutely love these books.


As I am a writer and began work as a copyeditor when I was still in college, I died and went to heaven when Maira Kalman illustrated the famous Elements of Style.

The hardcover book is so beautifully designed, with its front and back covers, inside hello and goodbye, and Kalman's ingenious illustrations, I can hardly bear to use it.

kalman-bassett.jpgLuckily for me, they have now come out with a paperback version with a wonderful cover ... now I just need a reading copy and another to save.

(I can't help fantasizing that Kalman will illustrate all my reference books. My Fowler's. My Roget's.)

Artist-illustrator-designer Kalman also writes a column, "The Principles of Uncertainty", which appears in the New York Times.

The first dozen columns have been published in an eponymous book.


Excerpt: The Once and Future King

Published by Lori Pickert on October 4, 2007 at 12:20 PM

It was the most marvellous room that he had ever been in.

There was a real corkindrill hanging from the rafters, very life-like and horrible with glass eyes and scaly tail stretched out behind it. When its master came into the room it winked one eye in salutation, although it was stuffed. There were thousands of brown books in leather bindings, some chained to the book-shelves and others propped against each other as if they had had too much to drink and did not really trust themselves. These gave out a smell of must and solid brownness which was most secure. Then there were stuffed birds, popinjays, and maggot-pies and kingfishers, and peacocks with all their feathers but two, and tiny birds like beetles, and a reputed phoenix which smelt of incense and cinnamon. It could not have been a real phoenix, because there is only one of these at a time. Over by the mantelpiece there was a fox's mask, with GRAFTON, BUCKINGHAM TO DAVENTRY, 2 HRS 20 MINS written under it, and also a forty-pound salmon with AWE, 43 MIN., BULLDOG written under it, and a very life-like basilisk with CROWHURST OTTER HOUNDS in Roman print. There were several boars' tusks and the claws of tigers and libbards mounted in symmetrical patterns, and a big head of Ovis Poli, six live grass snakes in a kind of aquarium, some nests of the solitary wasp nicely set up in a glass cylinder, an ordinary beehive whose inhabitants went in and out of the window unmolested, two young hedgehogs in cotton wool, a pair of badgers which immediately began to cry Yik-Yik-Yik-Yik in loud voices as soon as the magician appeared, twenty boxes which contained stick caterpillars and sixths of the puss-moth, and even an oleander that was worth sixpence -- all feeding on the appropriate leaves -- a guncase with all sorts of weapons which would not be invented for half a thousand years, a rod-box ditto, a chest of drawers full of salmon flies which had been tied by Merlyn himself, another chest whose drawers were labelled Mandragora, Mandrake, and Old Man's Beard, etc., a bunch of turkey feathers and goose-quills for making pens, an astrolabe, twelve pairs of boots, a dozen purse-nets, three dozen rabbit wires, twelve corkscrews, some ants' nests between two glass plates, ink-bottles of every possible colour from red to violet, darning-needles, a gold medal for being the best scholar at Winchester, four or five recorders, a nest of field mice all alive-o, two skulls, plenty of cut glass, Venetian glass, Bristol glass and a bottle of Mastic varnish, some satsuma china and some cloisonné, the fourteenth edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica (marred as it was by the sensationalism of the popular plates), two paint-boxes (one oil, one water-colour), three globes of the known geographical world, a few fossils, the stuffed head of a cameleopard, six pismires, some glass retorts with cauldrons, bunsen burners, etc., and a complete set of cigarette cards depicting wild fowl by Peter Scott.

— The Once and Future King, by T.H. White

Last night, after reading this description of Merlyn's study, we agreed .. it would certainly make a good homeschooling room, wouldn't it?

Reading nooks

Published by Lori Pickert on September 4, 2007 at 01:36 AM