Tag Archives: read aloud books

We Tackle the Classics

Two of our last three read alouds have been classics of children’s literature.  (The third was an almost-classic, the book Arabel and Mortimer by Joan Aiken.  I posted about the first one back here and I highly recommend them!)  We tend to be heavy on more contemporary fare, but I’ve enjoyed diving into some older books with the kids.  One of the things that interested me most was the editions we checked out, so I thought I might post about that.

First up, we read The Wizard of Oz.  I had not read it since I was a kid (and I admit it didn’t strike my fancy much at the time).  I can’t recall the edition I read back then, but I seem to recall it was sparsely illustrated, with full plate inserts like so many old fashioned books.  The edition we opted for (the library offered us 4 different choices, I believe) is a reprint of the original book with the illustrations by William Wallace Denslow.  The New York Times review of it at the time said that the, “pictures fight with the text,” which is the best description I can give.

The bright greens, oranges, blues and reds that litter nearly every page do indeed fight to be seen before the text, which is often set quite literally on top of it.  I found a fairly typical example so you can see what I mean.  The style is blocky and bold.  You can see how the book was printed in an old-fashioned way, which colors being layered on top of each other.  I imagine that for anyone with vision difficulties it might be a nightmare, but it’s truly a work of art from my perspective.  I’m not sure how I made it to this point in my life without seeing it.  Everything about the book design tells you that this book is different.  If you read this aloud to your kids or give it to them to enjoy, please give them this edition.  It’s just incredible.

Secondly, we’re about to wrap up The Secret Garden.  Frances Hodgson Burnett’s works were favorites of my childhood and the story of Mistress Mary, Colin and animal whisperer Dickon has been like seeing an old friend again.  Some of you may know that I’ve been having quite a time imitating that Yorkshire accent.  I’m sure it’s a dialect crime, what I’ve been doing, but we’ve all been enjoying it.  The library offered an even more stunning array of options for this one.  I believe there were seven choices of edition, including the scantly illustrated one I remember from my childhood.  In this case, we went with one of the newest options, the oversized volume illustrated by Inga Moore.  It’s a lushly illustrated book, with tiny robins and sprouts on practically every page and full page illustrations with the soft colors of spring on the moor and lots of intricate details bursting forth.  One of the things most of the illustrators get wrong for this book is Mary’s looks.  She’s not as hideous as all that, but she is plain and Inga Moore shows her somewhat broad face and slightly big nose, but also her transformation from being a sour, contrary child to an expressive, passionate one.  This has been, by the way, the best book to read as we silently (and sometimes not so silently) will spring to come.  When flowers bloom on the moor, I felt they had to be on their way here too.

What Makes a Book a Good “Read Aloud”

I have this idea, which is perhaps just my own, that some books should be reserved for kids to read themselves, some books are better read aloud and some books are good both ways.  I don’t know if I can totally express what the difference is.  Certainly it’s a subjective sort of thing.  However, I’m going to try to offer some guidelines.

A good read aloud book:

  • Tells a simple story in rich language. Kids in early elementary school are ready to head Charlotte’s Web, but the vast majority aren’t read to read it yet because the language is too complex.  Some books, like The Jamie and Angus Stories, which I keep recommending as a good first read aloud for younger children, will even be boring by the time kids are able to read them independently.
  • Is enjoyable for the reader too. There’s nothing worse than having to read your kids something that you find trite or predictable.  Good children’s literature, on the level of Cornelia Funke, Kate DiCamillo, EB White, or Beverly Cleary, is just good literature.  End of story.
  • Sometimes deals with emotional issues or mature topics. This isn’t every read aloud, but more than just telling a story in more complex terms, a read aloud can touch on deeper topics for kids by dealing with death, bullying, anger, sadness, or any number of issues that kids may not want to tackle alone or may not be able to really get at unless the book is read aloud and talked about.
  • Or is sometimes very funny. Laughter can be good to share and a way to keep a kid interested in a longer book.  Of course, Roald Dahl is excellent for reading aloud.  Nothing better.

On the other hand, a good book to save for independent reading…

  • Tells a story in simple terms. The term “simple,” when you’re talking about independent reading, is not a put down from me.  It’s a positive quality for new readers to read things in simple terms.  That’s how they build up to reading longer, more complex books.
  • Is graphically intensive. I know some parents have figured out how to do it, but the verbal hoops required to read a comic book aloud make me batty.  Ditto to all those nonfiction books with numerous text boxes and little captions for pictures.  Graphic novels encourage reading.  And the nonfiction books are the kind of book that it’s perfect to sit and pour over once you can actually read the text.
  • Is repetitive. Series books, I’m looking at you.  Again, nothing wrong with them.  Repetitive stories can be high interest and can teach children about plot elements and how to anticipate.  They serve an extremely important function.  Some of them are very detailed and well-written.  However, they should be allowed to serve their function, i.e. encouraging kids to read, by being left for the independent readers.
  • Endorses something parents don’t really like. I think it’s fine to let your kid read fart jokes in Captain Underpants or mischievous behavior.  It’s something else to read it to them.  I’ve written about this before, but I believe strongly that kids should choose their own books to read themselves.  However, if I’m doing the reading, I’m also involved in the choosing.

Of course, I break my own rules sometimes.  The kids have been enjoying the Ivy and Bean series aloud, so I know I’ve ruined those for independent reading.  Drat!  Plus, there’s a certain joy in reading a very short book or a pile of picture books after you finish something like Dragonrider. And the best reward should be reading a book independently once they’ve already heard it.  Every kid should hear Charlotte’s Web as a first grader and reread it as a fifth grader, don’t you think?

The Indian in the Cupboard

The Indian in the Cupboard is the latest read aloud in our household.  This series, by Lynne Reid Banks, gives my heart warm fuzzies because it was the series I read aloud to my younger brother when he was Mushroom and BalletBoy’s age.  I have no idea how I picked it out at the time.  All I remember was how much he enjoyed it and what a special bond it was between us at the time.  When I was in college and, unbeknown to me, the final volume of the series, The Key to the Indian, came out, he knew about it and gave it to me for Christmas.

Reading it now, I’m struck by the fact that it’s a well-written tale.  The premise, which is that a plastic figure comes to life with a magic key, is the sort of thing that many children imagine.  Banks’ story, which shows all the moral implications if that could actually happen, introduces some deep thinking about life and respect in a way that I think children can understand.  My kids, whose primary knowledge of Native Americans comes from trips to the Museum of the American Indian (they have an excellent cafe, you know), have never encountered the stereotypical concepts that Omri, the main character, needs to have dispelled by knowing “his” Indian, Little Bear.  I had to, hesitatingly, explain why Omri got so nervous about scalps.

The kids are enjoying the book and I’m enjoying rereading it for the first time in a very long time.  I can tell it’s not that most special read aloud for them (that honor might have already been bestowed anyway).  However, it’s a good story and we’ve been imagining what would happen if the Playmobil Romans and knights came to life.


We are currently in the midst of Arabel’s Raven as our evening read aloud story.  Joan Aiken is an author that I’ve only recently discovered, much to my chagrin.  Honestly, this book might be one of the best new old books I’ve read in years.  I liked it so much that I went back and read the parts the husband read to the kids when he did bedtime, which is something I almost never do (mostly because it’s often a book I’ve already read).

The story is about a girl who acquires a pet raven.  The raven, whose name is Mortimer, knows only one word, which is apparently the only word ravens ever know: Nevermore.  Mortimer causes no end of trouble around the house.  For one thing, he eats unexpected objects, like stairs, and likes to put spaghetti in strange places, like your pockets.  He also makes what sounds like an enormous mess everywhere all the time.  However, Arabel and Mortimer have a special relationship with the sort of love and deep understanding that can exist between ravens and girls in children’s books.  So Arabel’s parents put up with Mortimer with amazing good humor.  The story has a very Roald Dahl feeling in places because of the absurd and silly situations portrayed.  However, the parents are so loving and most of the adults are so well-meaning that you know it can’t be a Roald Dahl book, though those Quentin Blake illustrations certainly invite the comparison, don’t they?

Suffice it to say that this made a perfect read aloud for us.  Humor is such an essential element in books and this one is one of the funniest we’ve read in awhile.

Five Read Alouds

We are currently making our way through Cornelia Funke’s epic Dragonrider as our read aloud bedtime book.  It’s a bit long and we keep getting distracted by reading shorter books.  However, the kids are really enjoying it.  We’ve probably read at least 20 or 30 read alouds this year.  For Mushroom and BalletBoy, a great read aloud book has a few pictures, isn’t too long (Sorry, Cornelia Funke, they’re enjoying it, but they’re starting to get frustrated with the length) and usually has funny parts, though they’ll settle for adventure instead.  We’re at the midway point, so here’s the best five books we’ve read aloud so far this year:

Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle by Betty MacDonald
Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle is an elderly woman with a hump on her back and an upside down house.  The books about her are like a series of interconnected short stories.  In each story, a child has a pesky problem and his or her parents ask Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle to cure.  As you can imagine from a woman who lives in an upside house, the cures are pretty wacky.  The feel of the stories are very old-fashioned.  I’m always reminded of how much our cultural norms have changed when I read this series.  References to spanking and parents who leave their children alone without a sitter abound.  I didn’t read these classics as a kid myself, but I’m glad to have discovered them now and so are my kids.

Stuart Little by E.B. White
We read White’s even more classic book Charlotte’s Web ages ago, but we didn’t get around to his other works until more recently.  This story of the mouse growing up in a New York family is much weirder than I remembered, which I think is a sign of how accepting children can be of a completely absurd premise, like two people having a mouse for a baby.  I like imagining all the miniature things Stuart encounters, like his tiny car and the sailboat he rides in the park.  As a child, I was entranced with small things so I’m sure this book spoke to me in that sense.

The Twenty-One Balloons by William Pene du Bois
This is by far my favorite book on this list.  I remember it fondly from my childhood.  For some reason, when I first struck up my interest in children’s books in college, it was the first book I picked up and reread.  It’s a classic and won the Newbery Award, but for whatever reason, it often doesn’t turn up on lists of favorite classics with E.B. White and Laura Ingalls Wilder.  The story is one of pure adventure.  A man goes on a round-the-world balloon trip but crash lands on a mysterious volcanic island.  He finds a whole society there, with interesting characters and strange contraptions.  The story works in the 1883 explosion of the mega-volcano Krakatoa.  (If grown-ups are interested, Simon Winchester’s book about the volcano is a fascinating read.)  Pene du Bois did the pen and ink illustrations himself and they harken back to a different time, both in children’s books and in men’s fashion.  Overall, an excellent read.

The BFG by Roald Dahl
This is one of Dahl’s best.  It’s the story of a giant who can capture dreams and the little girl who befriends him.  It’s both hilariously silly and unbelievably sweet and compassionate, a combination of moods that no author manages to put together as well as Roald Dahl.  For weeks after reading this, Mushroom and Balletboy were playing some sort of game where they pretended to be Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant (except at some point he got changed to the BSG, which is a complete different piece of media altogether!) as well as speculating about what frobscottle tasted like.

The Jamie and Angus Stories
This book was recommended by the book lady at our amazing local toy store and bookshop.  She is a wealth of information (better than the librarians!).  While usually the kids want humor and adventure, this book has very little adventure and only a mild dose of humor.  Instead, it has beautiful language and the kids instantly related to young Jamie.  This is less of a single narrative and more of a set of interconnected stories.  There’s another volume that continues the tales.  Jamie is a young boy and Angus is his beloved stuffed sheep.  The stories deal with everyday sort of occurrences, like learning to draw or trying to evade bedtime.  If anyone out there is looking for the perfect first read aloud for a kid, this is probably it.