By Sally Allen
When it comes to reading to young children, advocacy abounds. I stumble on at least one article on the daily – whether in a magazine or newspaper, on a blog or website – emphasizing the importance of reading aloud for developing crucial early literacy skills and encouraging parent/child bonds. Yet when the picture book stage ends (typically between the ages of six through eight), reading together can lose steam or stall completely. Yet isn’t it just as crucial during the tween and teen years?
Sharing reading experiences with our older kids allows us to keep them close while giving them distance. If this sounds paradoxical, consider: Reading together during these years cultivates opportunities to share beautiful moments or discuss difficult subjects through the filter of characters’ experiences. Choices and implications can be explored and dissected in a way that would be infinitely more loaded if it were personal. These are 10 of my favorites for these purposes.
Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White
White’s wry, elegant prose and timeless story of the friendship between a spider and a pig make for a magical read aloud. Fair-minded, eight-year-old Fern saves Wilbur, the runt of his litter, from the axe and does such a good job raising him that he is moved to her uncle’s farm down the road. There, he will eventually be slaughtered, except he meets Charlotte. The clever spider conspires to save Wilbur a second time, by using her cunning and forming alliances among a diverse cast of variously motivated animals (life lesson alert). Fair warning: May result in an aversion to bacon.
A Bear Called Paddington by Michael Bond
Most of us have encountered some version of Bond’s iconic bear. The first novel in the series reveals how Paddington was found and brought home to live with the Brown family and shares his (mis)adventures around town. These include learning to navigate the Underground and escalators, accidentally becoming a theater star, and generally attracting all manner of unintended, and sometimes unwelcome, attention to himself. The hidden gem in these whimsical episodes is their capacity to resonate with young readers who may also at times struggle to navigate a world that can seem overwhelming and strange.
All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Taylor’s novel is the first in a series about five sisters growing up on the Lower East Side during the early 20th century. The chapters are largely episodic, finely wrought vignettes that bring history to vivid life. Readers spend a day at the New York Public Library, the junk shop of the sisters’ beloved Papa, Coney Island, and the busy market. They discover how Jewish and American holidays – among them Purim, Sukkot, Passover, and the Fourth of July – were celebrated 100 years ago. Threaded through these charming stories are gentle lessons about personal responsibility, family, community, and the importance of people over things in the pursuit of meaning and happiness.
Mary Poppins by P. L. Travers
Unlike Disney’s rosy-cheeked, dulcet-toned nanny, the Mary Poppins of Travers’ imagination is mercurial, prone to fits of grumpiness, and exceedingly vain (favorite pastimes include staring at reflection in any reflective surface). Readers who have seen the film will enjoy familiar outings – having tea while bobbing gently near the ceiling at Uncle Albert’s house, jumping into one of Bert’s chalk paintings. They’ll also embark on new adventures, including a birthday party for Mary Poppins held at a zoo and an evening spent painting stars onto the night sky. The book’s episodic chapters are perfect for bedtime reading and brim with nonsense and whimsy that will spark the imaginations of readers of all ages.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg
In Konigsburg’s 1968 Newbery Medal winning novel, 12-year-old Claudia Kincaid, feeling unappreciated by her parents (sound familiar, anyone?), runs away from home. With her nine-year-old brother (and his well-stuffed piggy bank) in tow, she takes up residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The siblings sleep in the opulent bedroom exhibits, bathe in the (now defunct) fountain, and refill their coffers with coins collected from said fountain. When a mysterious marble statue turns up at the museum, the kids resolve to uncover its origins. Along their journey, Claudia discovers several pertinent truths likely to resonate, almost 50 years later, with t(w)eens and their parents: While finding one’s place in the world involves a constant negotiation between the needs of self and community, it’s okay to want something of one’s own to cherish.
Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
Lin’s enchanting 2010 Newbery Honor novel was inspired by the Chinese folktales she enjoyed as a child, which also provide the inspiration for her protagonist, Minli. She and her parents live in the Village of Fruitless Mountain, where neither animal nor crop can thrive, save rice. Her father’s tales of dragons, kings, and fortunes lighten the day’s burdens for Minli and inspire her to seek the Man in the Moon, whose Book of Fortune is said to “hold all the knowledge of the world.” Along her journey, Minli befriends a dragon who longs to fly, a young boy with a mysterious friend, a mischievous king, and a vengeful dragon. Lin’s lush, sensory language and dramatic cliffhangers make this a delightful, and hard to put down, read aloud.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
Winner of the 2014 National Book Award, Woodson’s memoir unfolds in vibrant poems that capture what memory feels like – imagistic and sensory. Individual details gradually accumulate to form larger pictures, as elements in pointillist paintings coalesce into wholes, as understanding dawns gradually from fragments. Woodson describes her experiences growing up between Brooklyn, NY and Greenville, South Carolina, creating powerful word paintings of the Civil War era South, city life in New York, sibling rivalry and love, friendship, jealousy, loss, respect, and discovering inspiration and finding one’s purpose. Woodson’s lyrical verse begs to be read aloud and the subjects she raises – from large scale to intimate – to be discussed.
Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution by Ji-Li Jiang
Covering the years 1966 – 1968, her 12th – 14th years, Jiang’s memoir shares a deeply personal experience of national upheaval. During these first years of China’s Cultural Revolution, citizens were exhorted to stamp out the “Four Olds” – “old ideas, old culture, old customs, and old habits.” With a landowning past, Jiang’s family had bad “class status” linking them to the very ideology the Cultural Revolution sought to root out and destroy. Her parents burn family photos and destroy heirlooms; still, her father is imprisoned. Jiang faces an unfathomable choice: To discredit and disown her family or face an uncertain future herself. Not an easy memoir to read, it’s an important one.
Enchanted Air: Two Cultures, Two Wings by Margarita Engle (15 – 17 years)
As with Woodson’s memoir, Engle renders her childhood experiences in verse. Raised by her American-born father and Cuban-born mother during the 1950s and 60s, Engle grew up feeling pulled in two directions: “Am I free to need both,” she asks, “or will I always have to choose / only one way / of thinking?” Her feelings intensify when hostilities between her two countries explode in the 1960s. Saturated with luxurious descriptions – often of the places she inhabits: Cuba during summer visits, California where she lives, Europe during a summer vacation after she is no longer able visit her mother’s home – her poems capture and cast into sharp relief the internal struggle immigrants and their children can experience, especially during times of international conflict.
Sally Allen holds a PhD from New York University. She teaches writing, literature, and communication and is the author of “Unlocking Worlds: A Reading Companion for Book Lovers.” For more information, visit sallyallenbooks.com.