essential children’s books, part I

I think every librarian has a list of books filed away in their head to read with their future children. I certainly did! Even if you just love to read, you probably have your own list of books that:

  • bring back lovely memories of cuddling with a parent or grandparent
  • made you laugh or cry
  • made you feel you were on a great adventure
  • helped you navigate the challenges of childhood and adolescence (thank you, Judy Blume!)

I thought it might be fun to write some posts about the books that, in my experience – as an avid reader, librarian, and mother to three – are some of the essentials for children to read. They may be beautiful and evocative, clever and silly, or even serious.

One of my favourite children’s authors, Philippa Pearce, once said: “People think how carefree children are. Children have different cares, and cares particularly which they don’t want to articulate.” Pearce had a gift for addressing the concerns of children in such a tender and beautiful way; she did not shy away from more serious, grown-up themes like the passing of time, death, and class. I love children’s books that address children with acknowledgement and respect for their often very powerful emotions.

Let me know if you have read any of these or if you have your own to share!

Minnow on the Say by Philippa Pearce

Words cannot express just how much I love this book. I love all of Philippa Pearce’s children’s books, but this one holds a special place in my heart. It is the perfect adventure story with two young boys looking for a long hidden family treasure along the banks of the Say river in England. David is the son of a bus driver, with a loving but modest home life…Adam is the impoverished last descendant of a family whose big house has stood at the river for centuries. Adam lives with his Aunt and grandfather but is at risk of being sent away to live with relatives in Manchester, should he not be able to find the treasure hidden by his ancestors during the Spanish Armada. It is the story of a treasure hunt and friendship but, at a deeper level, an exploration into the themes of poverty, loss, pride, and family.

In a 2004 article for Commonweal Magazine, Daria Donnelly writes that: “You might never read a more painful account of the ravages of mourning as those scenes in which Adam’s grandfather, demented by denial of his only son’s death during the Great War, fails to understand that the boy he lives with is his grandson.” Adam’s relationship with his family is a fraught combination of pride and sadness. For me, it’s a poignant part of the book and one that likely resonates for children who read it as they manage the complicated love for their families.

In one part, David arrives at Adam’s house to see the elderly Mr. Codling shaking Adam by the collar and rebuking him for being an idle “gardener’s boy” – he has no idea that the boy he is threatening is the son of his own beloved son. It is heartbreaking to read and even more when Adam defends his grandfather by saying “What you heard just now doesn’t really mean anything’s strange about my grandfather…he’d never let them explain that my father was really dead. He went on expecting him to come home – he still expects him.” (46)

Beyond the tender examination of grief, it’s an amazingly complex mystery for children to unravel and an interesting exploration of the river and nature. Highly recommended!

Would you rather… by John Burningham

Children LOVE to make decisions on their own and it is very funny to watch them try to choose between the truly awful selections in this funny book from 1978. John Burningham did the best illustrations…his animals always seem hilariously human-like and the adults, disinterested. In his 2019 obituary, The Guardian noted that “his genius lay in an ability to communicate in a childlike but never childish visual language and in his understanding of the mutually exclusive worlds of childhood and adulthood.”

This book terrified and delighted me as a child. The illustrations of being swallowed by a fish or being made to eat spider stew, slug dumplings, mashed worms, or snail squash made me shudder! The fears are universal as this is a choice my eldest daughter would never make:

The Mystery at Lilac Inn by Carolyn Keene

Years ago, the Pen Centre had a library branch and my Dad would take me every Friday night to choose books. One evening, I discovered the classic hardcover Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and was instantly enthralled. The Mystery at Lilac Inn was the first book that I signed out and I fell in love with Nancy, her upscale and independent lifestyle (convertible! travel! fraternity boyfriend!), but most of all her freedom and confidence. The book was old and even had the faint scent of lilacs?! The plot had it all – a canoe trip gone wrong, a handsome Army sergeant who is smitten with Nancy (the books are never short on description…he is described as a “handsome, well-built man with wavy, black hair”), stolen diamonds, and a filmy apparition haunting the grounds of an old Inn.

I firmly believe that it was my love for Nancy Drew that helped me get into my English Masters program at WLU since the essay I submitted was a feminist approach to the mystery stories. I argued that the appeal of Nancy Drew lay in how the books included “softer”, domestic details like fashion and cooking while also giving girls a vicarious sense of adventure as Nancy and her friends took risks that would have been considered almost unthinkable in mid-century America.

I have the entire collection of hardcover Nancy Drew Mystery Stories and have read them all with my eldest daughter. We laugh at how charmed Nancy’s life is and the little details like when “Bess dimpled” or when Ned and his friends overpower the bad guys (would we expect less from boys who manage to excel at Emerson College and are star athletes too?!)

Nancy Drew is mid-century style and charm, with a modern sense of adventure!

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