Want to expose your children to first-rate reading? Barack Obama's new book, Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters, a picture book aimed at children ages 3 and older (to be released November 16), is only one of many examples of children's books written by famous authors of adult works.
I started collecting these kinds of real literature for kids when my own kids were young. By choosing such books by celebrated writers, you know at the outset that they'll (generally) be written well. These authors have learned the knack of not talking down to their audience. In fact, like all good children's literature, the books described in this and the next two posts can also be stimulating for older readers.
More good reasons to track down the books listed here: They're a fine way for your child to get to know prominent authors early, in an accessible way. And later, when your child reads the adult works of such authors as Tolstoy, Clifton, and Hawthorne, they'll seem a little like old friends.
Books go in and out of print. The publication dates of the editions I mention aren't the only ones. Age ranges are approximate, either suggested by the publisher or based on my own experience.
AN INCOMPLETE LIST
Angelou, Maya, Kofi and His Magic (Knopf, 1996). Ages 4-9. This West African journey focuses both on a young boy's daily activities, such as weaving the Kente cloth, and on his imagination. Angelou also wrote My Painted House, My Friendly Chicken, and Me, and Life Doesn't Frighten Me.
Barthelme, Donald, The Slightly Irregular Fire Engine (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1971). Ages 5-11. In 1887, a plucky little girl investigates a mysterious Chinese house that suddenly appears in her backyard. Her escapades are illustrated by engravings of the time.
Beattie, Ann, Spectacles (Ariel, 1985). Ages 8-12. When an eight-year-old girl puts on her grumpy great-grandmother's glasses, she's magically able to see into the past. She begins to understand some of the old woman's frustrations.
Benchley, Nathanial, Feldman Fieldmouse: A Fable (Harper Trophy, 1971). Ages 7 and up. A philosophical talking mouse helps his nephew learn how to live a good life and fulfill his dreams.
Bradbury, Ray, Switch On the Night (Knopf, 2000). Ages 4-8. This fable presents a boy who conquers his fear of the dark by imagining the flipping of a light switch as a way to illuminate the night.
Buckley, William F., Jr., The Temptation of Wilfred Malachey (Workman, 1985). Ages 10 and up. This modern morality tale features a mainframe computer that teaches a poor but aspiring student (who fancies himself a sort of Robin Hood) that computing can be more profitable than petty theft.
Clavell, James, Thrump-O-Moto (New York: Delacorte, 1986). Ages 6 and up. This is a fantasy about a Japanese apprentice wizard who travels through time.
Clifton, Lucille, The Boy Who Didn't Believe in Spring (Dutton, 1992). Ages 3-9. Two skeptical city boys set out to find spring, which they've heard is "just around the corner."
--The Lucky Stone (Yearling, 1986). Ages 8-12. A lucky stone provides good fortune for its various owners.
--Some of the Days of Everett Anderson (Henry Holt, 1987). Ages 3-9. Each of six-year-old Everett's days of the week is described in a poem. Other Everett Anderson books include Everett Anderson's 1-2-3, Everett Anderson's Christmas Coming, and Everett Anderson's Goodbye.
Cummings, E. E., Fairy Tales (Harcourt, 1987). Ages 4-8. These four amusing and imaginative tales, written by the poet for his own small daughter, have titles like "The House That Ate Mosquito Pie" and "The Little Girl Named I."
Dickens, Charles, The Magic Fish-Bone (Harcourt, 2000). Ages 6 and up. The oldest girl of nineteen children is given magical powers and has to figure out how and when to use them.
Dorris, Michael, Morning Girl (Disney Press, 2000). Ages 8-12. Morning Girl, who loves the day, and her younger brother, Star Boy, who loves the night, take turns describing their life on an island in pre-Columbian America. In Morning Girl's last narrative, she witnesses the arrival of the first Europeans to her world.
--Guests (Hyperion, 1999). Ages 8-12. Dorris weaves moral themes into this beautifully written story of a young Native American boy.
YOU'RE SAVING THIS LIST, RIGHT?
Eco, Umberto, The Bomb and the General (Harcourt, 1989). Ages 5-8. A plea for world peace, in which the atoms in atom bombs decide to exit the bombs so they fall harmlessly, putting a war-mongering general in his place (as a doorman).
--The Three Astronauts (Harcourt, 1989). Ages 5-8. An American, a Russian, and a Chinese astronaut (along with a Martian) become friends once they realize that each is capable of loneliness and tears.
Fleming, Ian, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Bulls Eye Publishing, 1989). Ages 8 and up. Two children persuade their inventor father to buy and restore an old car, which turns out to have magical powers.
Gardner, John, Dragon, Dragon, and Other Tales (Knopf, 1975). Ages 10 and up. A dragon terrorizes a kingdom by stealing spark plugs from people's cars, among other irritating antics, in this collection of decidedly untraditional fairy tales. In another tale, a cobbler's son disguises himself as a brush salesman to confront the dragon.
--Gudgekin the Thistle Girl (Knopf, 1976). Ages 10 and up. In an irreverent parody of fairy tales, Gardner invents a princess with spunk. He also wrote A Child's Bestiary and The King of the Hummingbirds.
Gogol, Nikolai, Sorotchintzy Fair (David R. Godine, 1991). Ages 5 and up. An adaptation of a Russian tale about a young man who wins the hand of a young woman by using the villagers' superstitions against them.
Hall, Donald, The Man Who Lived Alone (David R. Godine, 1998). Ages 5-9. Hall tells in simple words the life story of a self-sufficient man who chooses to live alone.
--Lucy's Christmas and Lucy's Summer (Browndeer Press, 1994 and 1995, respectively). Ages 5-8. In these picture books, Hall evokes the life of fictional Lucy Wells and her family in 1910 rural New Hampshire, imagining them living in the house that is now home to Hall himself.
--Old Home Day (Browndeer Press, 1996). Ages 4-8. This picture book traces the history of Blackwater Pond, a small New England settlement, from its geological formation to a vision of its coming bicentennial celebration.
--The Ox-Cart Man (Viking, 1980). Ages 6-12. In a lovely combination of text and illustrations (a Caldecott Medal winner), Hall describes the daily life of an early-nineteenth century New England family through the changing seasons.
--When Willard Met Babe Ruth (Browndeer Press, 1996). Ages 5-12. Willard is twelve when this story begins. Readers will find lots of realistic details about America 1917 - 1935.
Harjo, Joy, The Good Luck Cat (Harcourt, 2000). Ages 3-7. In this picture book, poet Harjo writes about Woogie, a cat with amazing luck and more than the usual number of lives.
Harrison, Jim, The Boy Who Ran to the Woods (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2000). Ages 8 and up. This is an autobiographical tale about a boy who loses his sight in one eye. The trauma leaves him angry and unruly until his father introduces him to the woods.
Hawthorne, Nathaniel, A Wonder Book for Girls and Boys (Oxford, 1996). Ages 9 and up. A retelling of Greek myths for young people. Also: Tanglewood Tales.
Helprin, Mark, Swan Lake (Houghton Mifflin, 1989). Ages 7 and up. An elaborate narrative serves as a background for the characters in the ballet "Swan Lake."
--A City in Winter (Viking, 1996). Ages 7 and up. The little girl in Swan Lake, now a grown-up queen, recalls her life and how she got her throne back.
Herriot, James, Only One Woof (St. Martin's Press, 1993). Ages 6 and up. A silent sheepdog accompanies his master at his chores, never barking until he sees his brother for the first time since they were separated as pups. Also: Moses the Kitten and The Christmas Day Kitten.
Hoban, Russell, How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (Puffin, 1978). Ages 5 and up. Young readers will delight in the understated British humor of this story. A strong point is made for the value of playing as an aid to creativity.
--The Flight of Bembel Rudzuk (Putnam, 1982). Ages 4-7. In this funny picture book, young wizard Bembel Rudzuk creates a "squidgerino squelcher" (using three jars of monster powder), which annoys the princess (his mother, who wonders who is going to clean up the mess).
--The Marzipan Pig (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991). Ages 6-10. A touching story that begins with a marzipan pig who gathers dust behind a sofa until eaten by a mouse. The chain of events that follows is sure to delight.
--The Stone Doll of Sister Brute (Pan Books, 1968). Ages 4 and up. The uproarious (yet poignant) tale of a small, furry creature who has nothing to love and who eventually uses a stone as a doll. Finally, she does find love in her own family, but it's a mixed blessing.
More from Hoban: The Mouse and His Child, Harvey's Hideout, Jim Hedgehog's Supernatural Christmas, and Jim Hedgehog and the Lonesome Tower.
Hoffman, Alice, Horsefly (Hyperion, 2000). Ages 5-8. A timid girl overcomes her fear of horses when a newborn foal is placed in her care. More Hoffman: Firefly.
Hughes, Langston, Black Misery (Oxford University Press, 2000). All ages. In simple but stark and hard-hitting language, Hughes writes about prejudice from a young child's viewpoint.
--Popo and Fifina (Oxford, 1993). Ages 7-10. Hughes wrote this tale of two Haitian children with poet Arna Bontemps.
--The Sweet and Sour Animal Book (Oxford, 1997). Ages 3-7. Simple, amusing poems for young children about real and made-up animals, engagingly illustrated with photographs of clay creatures made by art students.
Other Hughes poetry books for kids include The Book of Rhymes, The Pasteboard Bandit, and The Dream Keeper and Other Poems.
Hughes, Ted, Tales of the Early World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1987). All ages. These ten imaginative creation tales are filled with unusual and amusing characters. More Hughes: How the Whale Became, The Iron Giant: A Story in Five Nights (from which the fine animated film, The Iron Giant was made), and Nessie the Mannerless Monster.
Huxley, Aldous, The Crows of Pearblossom (Amereon, 1973). Ages 4 and up. In this simple and amusing tale, a hungry snake keeps eating Mrs. Crow's newly laid eggs, until Mr. Crow and his friend Old Man Owl fool the snake into eating some real-looking clay eggs. Mrs. Crow, described as rather helpless, isn't treated very respectfully by her husband. Huxley, who wrote this story in 1944, was, of course, a product of his culture.
Ionesco, Eugene, Story Number 3 (Harlin Quist, 1971). Ages 3-5. In this simple, magical tale, little Josette visits her papa in bed one morning and asks for a story. They then take an imaginary airplane ride above the city. Ionesco also wrote Story Number 1 and Story Number 2, where we're first introduced to Josette. In Story Number 4, Josette plays hide-and-seek with Papa.
(c) 2010 by Susan K. Perry