We have a “storytime” tradition in our home: every evening before bedtime the kids and I snuggle up together on the sofa and I read to them. When they were younger it was picture books, or anthologies of poetry or nursery rhymes. Now that they’re seven and nine we’ve moved on to chapter books, and I’m really enjoying introducing them to the classics that brought so much joy and inspiration to my own childhood.
This November we read Bambi — the original Felix Salten masterpiece, not the horribly watered-down rewrite by Janet Schulman, or any of those brightly-illustrated Disney versions. I want to emphasize that, because the original unabridged novel is a work of power and truth and beauty that for some reason modern editors and abridgers apparently find unsuitable for modern children. I could not disagree more. Yes, the original book is an unflinchingly realistic view of life in the forest (talking animals notwithstanding); yes, some scary and difficult things happen on its pages; yes, it causes kids to ask questions that require some thought and effort on the part of the parent to answer. Does that mean it’s unsuitable? Hardly. This is much more wholesome fare than most of the stuff published for the 8-to-12 crowd these days. It manages to educate the reader, inspire compassion and contemplation, and be absolutely riveting all at the same time. The abridgments and rewrites have taken everything of value from the tale, leaving it empty of appeal or flavor.
I noticed a similar trend when I was searching for a copy of Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi” a few years back. The original was written in German, and it seems like there’s a different English translation every time a new edition is printed. Some retain the native charm of Spryri’s story, while others seem more concerned with political correctness and watered-down digestibility than with preserving the lessons and values that the original sought to impart. (Although this can be a tricky line to walk: my personal favorite translation is by Louise Brooks, but when I tried to read it to Luke and Elizabeth, ages 6 and 8 at the time, they had a hard time with the rather exotic vocabulary. So I found another translation that used simpler phrasing without sacrificing much of the original flavor, and the kids loved it.)
I’ve been thinking lately about all the books that had such a profound influence on my young self, and wondering if kids these days even know about them. Surely a child who has snuggled up with his mom or dad and had “The Secret Garden” or “Charlotte’s Web” read to him could never grow up to someday open fire on a school or mall with an automatic rifle?
One can hope, anyway. And with that hope in mind, I’ve put together a list of ten books that every child should read, or have read to them. They are all suitable for children ages seven through twelve. Actually, teens and parents might enjoy these timeless treasures just as much as the younger crowd.
Like my list of Christmas read-aloud stories, they are listed in order of age of target audience. In other words, #1 is intended for children closest to the younger end of the scale, #10 is for children closer to the older end.
1. Charlotte’s Web, by E.B. White.
2. The Secret Garden, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.
3. “Heidi,” by Johanna Spyri.
4. Half Magic, by Edward Eager.
5. Bambi, by Felix Salton.
6. The Jungle Books, by Rudyard Kipling.
7. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll.
8. Black Beauty, by Anna Sewell.
9. The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
10. Smoky The Cow Horse, by Will James.
These stories should be a treasured part of every childhood. Share them with love, remember them forever. :^)