April 15, 2011

First Read-Aloud Fantasy Chapter Books

        My children P and T are now 8 and even though they're able to read just about any juvenile book I put in their hands, we still love reading together, and I read aloud to them for 10-30 minutes every night before bed (and sometimes more at other times.)  There are dozens of studies showing dozens of benefits of all kinds for children who are read aloud to, but the bottom line is simply that this is a truly precious time when we are all calm, all happy, all interested in something together…
        By third grade the options for possible read-aloud books are almost endless and I've shared many of my favorites with T and P as well as discovering many new ones with them.  But when we first started reading chapter books around the time they turned 4, the choices were much more limited.
        The basic requirements of a good early read-aloud chapter book were as follows:
• must have a reasonably literate vocabulary and grammar, not overly simplified as
    easy reader books are
• must not deal with subjects that require too much background information for
    preschoolers to understand  (I'm always happy to explain things, but if there was
    too much unfamiliar background the telling of the story  got bogged down.)
• must not be overly scary, suspenseful, stressful, or violent
• must be a sufficiently engaging story that I enjoyed it, too (plus older children need
    to enjoy it too, if any are also listening)
        The difficulty with these requirements is that there is a strong correlation between gentle subjects and baby-fied writing style.  P and T could understand vocabulary at a high level, and I didn't enjoy reading "words of one syllable," but they were not ready for the plots written for older children.  So, what to read?
        Here are the early read-aloud chapter books that T, P, and I most enjoyed, and that can be considered fantasy.  (Believe it or not, I actually read non-fantasy books with my children sometimes!  But there's no denying that we do tend to favor fantasy, and those are the books I'm including here.  To see reviews of some other first read-aloud chapter books, you can check out my shelf on Goodreads.)

My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett
     This is the number one best choice with which to begin the move into chapter books.  There's adventure but not too much scariness, wrongs to be righted but not too much violence, some humor, some kid-logic, some whimsical illustrations, and, of course, a dragon.  (Although the dragon actually doesn't appear until the very end.)  The plot and writing are simple enough for the young children but interesting enough for the adult.  There are sequels Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland, and although I don't think they capture quite the same charm as the first book, we did enjoy them all.

The Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum
     If you've seen the movie but never read the book, the book is not as scary as the movie, and nor does it have the whole intro and conclusion setting Oz up as a dream.  The narration is quite matter-of-fact with little stressful drama.  There are things I like better about the movie (in particular how and why Dorothy comes to melt the Wicked Witch of the West) but the book is a good, solid, enjoyable fantasy appropriate for young listeners.  There are about a million sequels, of varying quality and by multiple authors.  (I read them all in my youth, but we read only a handful together.)  My favorite is Ozma of Oz.

The Search for Delicious by Natalie Babbitt
     A lovely tale about a boy sent off to poll the rather rebellious citizens of the kingdom on what they think is the most delicious thing in the world.  Suspense is provided by a sinister villain intent on sowing discord, and help is provided by assorted mythological creatures who hold the secret to a solution. 

Where the Mountain Meets the Moon by Grace Lin
     This book was not yet published when P and T were in that first read-aloud chapter book stage, so I admit that I have not road-tested this one on younger children.  I also found the writing a bit clunky so that in places I stumbled over the reading.  That said, it's a really nice story and I think would be appropriate for a fairly broad range of ages.  It might require a bit of historical background explanation in places, but most of the setting can be taken as standard fairy tale fare.  T particularly liked the structure of stories within the story.

The Story of Doctor Dolittle by Hugh Lofting
        I'm not sure I count this entirely as fantasy (for my thought on that, see my blog post The Borders of Fantasy) but it's certainly speculative fiction of some sort.  In any case, it's a pleasant, entertaining adventure.  There are several sequels, but these books do date back to the '20's, so you have to be a little careful of the depiction of non-Europeans in some of them.  I actually think that Lofting does a pretty good job of showing people of all backgrounds as equally likely to be good-hearted or villainous, equally likely to be noble or silly, but the illustrations are cartoonish in a way that may bother some, and as I was reading I did occasionally edit to downplay mention of skin color or ethnicity.  (Also, Dr Dolittle smokes, which you can choose not to read if you like.  I generally went with the side commentary about how people at that time didn't know that smoking was so unhealthy.)  Anyway, all in all, a fun read, and quite inspirational to P and T in the matter of talking with animals.

Kate and Sam to the Rescue, by Anne E.G. Nydam
        We had a hard time finding books with that perfect balance of requirements.  This led me to the classic solution "If you want something done right, do it yourself."  So I wrote the sort of book we needed: a story with solid vocabulary and complex sentences, but no particular background knowledge necessary for comprehension; a story with plenty of interesting plot twists, but never any doubt that it will all end up
happily ever after.  I also wanted a book in which our heroes prevail by kindness, bravery, and creativity, rather than by violence.  T and P were closely consulted in the writing of this book, provided me with lists of elements they thought a book needed (elements such as fairies, a tiger, and being able to talk with animals), and approved my ideas as I wrote.
     It was followed by a sequel, Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom.  (At the request of P and T and their classmates I began a third: "Kate and Sam and the Cheesemonster," but I got bogged down.  Since finishing my last book I've turned back to this one, so we'll see how it goes...)

        If you're not inspired by any of these suggestions, look at my Goodreads list, or ask a librarian, or get recommendations from friends... but whatever you do, make sure you're reading something aloud to your children.  You'll never regret it, and neither will they.

[Pictures: "Elmer rescuing the dragon," illustration by Ruth Chrisman Gannett, p 82 of My Father's Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett, 1948;
     "They belong to me and I shall keep them," illustration by John R. Neill, p 167 of Ozma of Oz by L. Frank Baum, 1907;
     "Kate and Sam saw a worm between the rabbits," illustration by AEGN, p 7 of Kate and Sam and the Chipmunks of Doom by AEGN, 2009.]


Pax said...

Ah, yes, I remember fondly the joys of reading aloud after lunch on lazy summer days. One of our favorites was "The Wheel on the School" by Jan de Hartog, and the Swallows and Amazons series. Other series I remember were the Borrowers, and Green Knowe. But perhaps my children were older by that time.

Anonymous said...

Once upon a time, when the children were young, we did a lot of reading to them as we drove around the country. The Interstates and reading to the kids went together like Saint Patty’s Day and green ribbons. Actually, Mama did most of the reading since I did most of the driving. Especially on long trips, on our 1983 trip across the U.S. and on those frequent drives to Philadelphia to visit relatives a great deal of the adventure and excitement was supplied by the wonderful children’s books that we borrowed from the public library or else were a part of our own collection. Thus, a by-product of this practice was my own belated exposure to the children’s classics and I reckon I enjoyed them as much as did the kids. I just was unable to retain all that I heard as well as they did.
Nowadays Mama reads many of these same old creations to the grand children and I get a second bite of the cherry, from my quiet chair in the next room. They don’t seem to mind my laughing aloud at the situations along with them.
The Dr. Doolittle series, Swallows and Amazons by the irrepressible Arthur Ransome, Penrod, The Centerburg Tales (who will ever forget Homer Price and “Forty-two pounds of edible fungus”?), The Borrowers by Mary Norton, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, the Laura Ingalls Wilder Little House series, A.A. Milne, Anne of Green Gables, and the L. Frank Baum Oz books. We gulped them down and cried for more. It did keep civility in the cramped quarters of our car and created a common and shared culture for the children.
By the way, nowadays we read aloud to one another as we travel. It's a great tonic for a relaxed marriage.

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

That sounds wonderful! I definitely have fond memories of my mother reading to me and my brothers, and I have no doubt it contributed to my love of reading now - both on my own and aloud to P and T.

Charlotte said...

Great list! Mine are almost three years apart, which means a bit more trickiness to chosing the right books...and some of my favorites I've been afraid to read them myself, lest they be rejected (like The Wind in the Willows). Those I save for long car trips, when they have no choice but to listen....

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Charlotte, I totally agree about being nervous for my favorite books! I put off "A Little Princess" until now for fear it wouldn't be as special to them as it was to me. (Luckily my daughter T, at least, loved it.) That's really funny to save some books for the captive audience!

Pax, we have since read "The Borrowers" and the first two "Green Knowe" books (which are my favorites of the series), but both of those were when the kids were a few years beyond that very first read-aloud chapter book stage.

So many wonderful books!

Nan said...

I think reading aloud might have been my favorite part of being a mother. It filled entire summer days, and it's a wonder I still have any voice left.

The Green Knowe books--what treasures. So good to read all the familiar titles listed here. What can I add? Lots of E. Nesbitt. And all the Moomintrolls, perhaps my daughter's favorites.