We do not want only to develop a love for reading in our children. We want to develop a love for reading good literature. We won’t develop an appetite for good food by feasting on junk food – and we carry that analogy over to literature. So how do we know what books are good and suitable for our children?
Lists of recommended books help us to narrow our search for good books to read. However, what others consider good books are not necessarily good by our standards. We must learn to evaluate literature ourselves. This means we must actually read some good literature. It’s like playing an instrument – practicing many pieces of good music will help us to develop a taste for what is good. In the same way, we develop a taste for good literature by reading a few of the “classics” such as Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens, At the Back of the North Wind by George MacDonald, or Hitty Her First Hundred Years by Rachel Field.
Once we’ve developed some sense for what is good, then we need to explore the stacks at the local library. Years ago, when we first began our own book explorations, there were many good books in the libraries. The stacks have since been depleted by library book sales. In some libraries, good books have become endangered species. Today, the old book store may be a more fruitful hunting ground for good books.
At first, it was hit or miss for us. We went to the library’s children’s section and looked for old and oft-used hardback books – the ones with beat up spines. The condition of a book is no sure guide to the quality of its contents, but it’s a beginning place. There were two main things we considered when picking out books for our children: (1) literary quality and (2) suitability.
Here are a few questions to ask ourselves regarding literary quality:
a. Does the vocabulary and sentence structure show good literary style?
b. Is the plot (conflict and resolution) believably and skillfully presented?
c. Is there good character development?
d. Is it true to the historical period?
e. If it’s supposed to be humorous, is it really… or is it just stupid?
f. Does it stimulate thought, or is it fluffy, superficial, or tiresome to read?
Here are a few things which we should be looking for regarding suitability:
a. Is my child capable of appreciating this book?
b. Are there moral issues in the story which are too mature for my child to be confronted with?
c. Is the moral tone loose, worldly, or frivolous?
d. Does this book incorporate a bad philosophy which could worm its way into my child’s thinking?
e. Does it feed an appetite which my child should not develop?
Our children need to be informed, but not in a way which gives them an appetite for the world and its ways. We should select books which are consistent with our Biblical worldview. The Bible itself has examples of everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – and just as we present parts of the Bible to our children at appropriate ages, so we must do with other books. Sometimes a good book (such as The Time Machine by H.G. Wells) which incorporates a bad element (socialism) can serve as an example of how philosophy can be hidden in attractive dressing. Read and enjoy The Time Machine, but at an age when your child is able to analyze the philosophy in the reading.
We find that the author of one good book usually writes other good books, but it’s not safe to assume this for every author. Wilke Collins’ The Moonstone is an exceptional piece of literature, but beware of his other works. Don’t be afraid to drop a book once you see that it’s not worth your time. The Captain Hornblower series starts out with great promise, but poorly resolved moral issues later on make the series unacceptable to us. On the other hand, some books (such as Wreck of the Grosvenor by W. Clark Russell) start out slowly in the first couple of chapters, and if we don’t give them a decent chance, we may miss a very good book.
What follows are a few examples to show you our idea of good or not so good books. Some of the books which we list as having poor literary quality might be appropriate for early reading material, but we suggest that the child move on to other literature as soon as possible.
Good Literary Quality and Suitable for Children
Poor Literary Quality and/or Not Suitable for Children
Biography & Autobiography
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin
The Narrative of the Captivity of Mrs. Johnson – Hastings
The Story of My Life – Helen Keller
Madame Curie – Eve Curie
Mary Bunyan – Sallie Rochester Ford
The Longitude Prize – Joan Dash
The Sower Series
Childhood of Famous Americans (the more recent volumes)
Fiction – Historical
The Colonials – Allen French
The Last Days of Pompeii – Bulwer-Lytton
Ben-Hur – Lew Wallace
Twice Queen of France – Mildred Allen Butler
Men of Iron – Howard Pyle
I, Juan de Pareja – Elizabeth Borten de Trevino
Gay-Neck – Dhan Gopal Mukerji
The Matchlock Gun – Walter Edmonds
Justin Morgan Had a Horse – Marquerite Henry
Strawberry Girl – Lois Lenski
The Story of Rolf – Allen French
I Want My Sunday, Stranger – Patricia Beatty
Janette Oake novels
The American Girl Series
Dear America Series
Fiction – Humor
Penrod – Booth Tarkington
Five Little Peppers – Margaret Sidney
Carry On, Jeeves – P.G. Wodehouse
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – Mark Twain
The Story of a Bad Boy – Thomas Bailey Aldrich
Hank the Cowdog Series – John R. Erickson
Captain Underpants Series – Dav Pilkey
Short Stories – O’Henry
Short Stories – Mark Twain
Sherlock Holmes mysteries – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Fiction – Adventure and Drama
Robinson Crusoe – Daniel Defoe
Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
Swiss Family Robinson – Johann Wyss
The Adventures of Richard Hannay – John Buchan
Understood Betsy – Dorothy Canfield Fisher
Mysterious Island – Jules Verne
Maximum Boy Series – Dan Greenburg
The Boxcar Children Series – Gertrude Chandler Warner
Choose Your Own Adventure Series – Richard Brightfield
The Baby-Sitters Club Series – Ann M. Martin
The New Adventures of Mary Kate and Ashley Series – Judy Katschke
Janie B. Jones Series – Barbara Park
Ancient and Medieval Literature
Letter of Pepi II
The History of the Church – Eusebius
Antiquities of the Jews – Josephus
History of Alexander – Quintus Curtius
Works of Tertullian
On Architecture – Vitruvius
Cyropaedia – Xenophon
The works of Ovid, Terence, Sappho, Plautus, and others.
See Ancient History from Primary Sources: A Literary Timeline by Harvey and Laurie Bluedorn for more ancient literature recommendations.
Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Allegory
Holy War – John Bunyan
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Winnie-the-Pooh – A.A. Milne
The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
The Twenty-one Balloons – William Pene DuBois
The Lost World – Arthur Conan Doyle
Journey to the Center of the Earth – Jules Verne
Akiko Series – Mark Crilley
Pendragon Cycle – Stephen Lawhead
The Animorphs – K.A. Applegate
Tom Swift Series – Victor Appleton
The Arthur Series – Stephen Krensky
Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling
Bone Chillers – Betsy Haynes
Magic Tree House Series – Mary Pope Osborne
Left Behind Series – Tim Lahaye
The Giver – Lois Lowry
Pudd’nhead Wilson – Mark Twain
Beau Geste – Christopher Wren
Sign of Four – Arthur Conan Doyle
The Circular Staircase – Mary Reinhart
Encyclopedia Brown series – Donald J. Sobol
Trixie Belden series – Julie Campbell
Nancy Drew series – Carolyn Keene
Hardy Boys series – Franklin Dixon
Children’s Picture Books
The Tale of Peter Rabbit – Beatrix Potter
Madeline – Ludwig Bemelmans
Make Way for Ducklings – Robert McCloskey
Ox-Cart Man – Donald Hall
Berenstain Bears series
The following excerpts all came from Hand That Rocks the Cradle: 400 Classic Books for Children by Nathaniel Bluedorn
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken
Little Sylvia goes to visit her rich cousin Bonnie who lives in a country manor, but she arrives as her cousin’s parents are just leaving on a trip to the tropics. The governess left to care for them has designs on Bonnie’s parents’ estate. To rid herself of the girls, she pretends Bonnie’s parents have died in a shipwreck and sends them to a miserable orphanage. The girls run away from the orphanage to London and enlist the help of the family lawyer. This book is one of my mother’s favorites to read aloud and is full of action, secret passage ways and evil villains. Nathaniel Bluedorn
Bob, Son of Battle: The Last Gray Dog of Kenmuir by Alfred Ollivant
Hoo aboot sich a yarn that’ll bring the tares to the eyes o’ e’en the sternest mon. This book is aboutBob, a bonnie tyke and last of the Gray Dogs of Kenmuir; Davie, a puir mitherless lad; and his fether, Adam M’Adam, a little man turned harsh after the death of his wife. My mother says this is the saddest book she ever read. Nathaniel Bluedorn
Men of Iron by Howard Pyle
Myles was eight when his blind father, his Lady mother and a few loyal attendants fled to holy sanctuary in escaping the anger of King Henry IV. When Miles is sixteen, his father sends him to serve the Earl of Mackworth as a page. In the Earl’s castle he is reared in all the skills of chivalry. Myles meets with many boyhood adventures in great Devlen Castle and gains the respect of the Earl who was a former friend of Myles’ father. After Myles is knighted, he swears to avenge his father’s blindness and dishonor. The dark knight who was the cause of the Falworth misfortunes was the Earl of Alban. Sir Myles throws down the gauntlet in the presence of the King and sets the time when the mortal combat is to take place. When mother came to the end of this book, my sisters were crying and we boys had decided what to be when we grew up. Nathaniel Bluedorn
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
WARNING: If you read this book you may not be able to enjoy any other book again because you will subconsciously compare it to the perfection of this book and always find it lacking. NOTE 1: If you read this book and find it does not captivate you, then there’s no hope for you, and you may look upon yourself as a truly sorry case. NOTE 2: If you look up the word “adventure” you will find listed in the dictionary as its definition “circumstances that follow the plot of Treasure Island.” Nathaniel Bluedorn