When in doubt, our answer is always books, books, books.
Here are some of our kids’ favorites:
Ages 0-4 — Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? by Eric Carle. We sang this as a lullaby to each of our kids, sometimes changing the words to “I see Mommy looking at me” or “I see Henry looking at me.” A quintessential sing- and read-aloud book.
The Runaway Bunny, by Margaret Wise Brown. Of course, all of our children loved Goodnight Moon, the perfect bedtime book to read again and again. But not everyone knows this story about a mommy bunny proving her love for her little bunny boy by describing all the places she would travel (the mountains, the circus, the ocean) and all the things she would become (a mountain climber, a fisherman, the wind) to care for her child. Our kids especially seemed to love this book when they were seeking reassurance and extra snuggles.
ABC, by Alison Jay. We LOVE Alison Jay’s interlocked illustrations in all of her books, especially the way stories are told between the pages. This is the kind of book we came back to again and again with our kids and always noticed something different. They loved looking for the “hints” between the pages.
Seals on the Bus, by Lenny Hort. Most younger readers will encounter the “Wheels on the Bus” song in preschool or at the library. This book is a humorous rewrite with animals hopping on the bus (vipers instead of wipers on the bus, seals instead of wheels). We laugh and snort every time we read it.
Ages 5-7 –The Junie B. Jones books, by Barbara Park. I know folks are fiercely divided about these. Some think the grammatical mistakes teach kids the wrong way to speak or that because Junie makes a lot of bad choices, the books teach children to behave poorly. But I think these books are so funny, and they always end the right way, with Junie learning her lessons, and trying to behave better. There are 26 volumes in the series and we have read all 26 out loud twice, once to our now 11-year-old and once again to our now 7-year-old. I anticipate reading them all again when Henry, age 4, is ready. All of these books are terrific for early and emerging readers, especially for children anxious about starting kindergarten.
The BFG, by Raold Dahl. Dahl’s books are such timeless, wonderful read-alouds. I remember first thinking that his books might be “too scary” for my kids, but they are always just the right kind of scary – a giant who turns out to be friendly, mean adults who get punished. The worlds Dahl’s characters inhabit are always safe and always funny for kids. Our 7-year-old daughter’s teacher read The BFG to them at school and Lizzie loved it so much that she came home and wanted to read it again with us.
Ages 1-99 —Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Judith Viorst. I know they made a movie about this a few years back, but the book is truly excellent. So funny, so lovely. Especially good to have on hand to remind kiddos that everyone, everyone, everyone has bad days . . . even in Australia:)
The Missing Piece, by Shel Silverstein. This is one of those rare books that works for all ages. It works for a beginning reader, an intermediate reader, a teenager and an adult. Children will love the humor of the different shapes trying to fit in the circle. More mature readers will love the metaphor of being their own complete person without seeking another person to fulfill them and meet their needs. All three of our kids have reached for this book at many different ages.
And here are a couple of middle reader/tween reads. Folks are always asking us for books for this age (aside from the awesome Harry Potter and Hunger Games series, of course).
- The Dork Diaries series, by Rachel Renee Russell. Our daughter began reading these as a 3rd grader and still enjoyed them through the 5th grade. While they weren’t always my cup of tea, she treasured them and shared them with friends, and seemed boosted by the difficult days endured by Nikki, the main character. Even now, in middle school, she still keeps the series on her shelf.
- The I Survived series, by Lauren Tarshis. These stories are great for both girls and boys, escorting children through a firsthand look at difficult days in history — earthquakes, hurricanes, the sinking of the titanic. With a happy ending because the whole time, you know that your narrator survives the ordeal.
- The Giver series, by Lois Lowry. Many kids encounter The Giver in middle school, but there are 3 additional books to fill out the quartet – Gathering Blue, Messenger, and Son. Our daughter counts them among her favorites.
- A Night Divided, by Jennifer A. Nielsen. This is the story of 12-year-old Gerta, and her family, living on opposite sides of the Berlin wall. The book launched our oldest daughter into a reading spree about real historical events as seen and experienced in fictionalized stories narrated by children. Others like this include Fever 1793, by Laurie Halse Anderson, and The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, by Jacqueline Kelly.
- Wonder, by R. J. Palacio. This is another book kids usually encounter in middle school. It tackles familiar topics of friendship and bullying through the eyes of 10-year-old Auggie who has severe facial deformities. It is a great book for middle readers to think about how they handle differences and nonconformity, and instructs them to be more sensitive and accepting.
Young Adult/Books for Teens
- Pretty much anything by John Green, but especially Looking for Alaska and The Fault in Our Stars. These books were not written when I was a teenager, so I had to read them as an adult, but they resonate well with teen readers looking for wry, wise narrators, and a little (okay, sometimes a lot) bit of heartbreak. Plus, with John Green books, smart kids are celebrated and awesome, not nerdy kiddos to be picked on.
- The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. A great read for the Science Fiction lover or kiddo not afraid of What Ifs. This is a story of what might happen if our days got just a little longer and a little longer. Such an interesting look at how an initially insignificant change can have much larger consequences.
- The Lords of Discipline, by Pat Conroy. I loved all of Conroy’s books as an adult, but this one resonated with my most as I was thinking about college. This one is a beautiful story about male friendship and courage, not to mention an ode to the city of Charleston, South Carolina.
- The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak. Death is the narrator here, helping readers navigate what it might have been like to be a German girl during WWII whose family is hiding a Jewish man. An important and beautiful read.
- Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson. This is not a book for younger readers, but it is an important book for high school students. It tells the story of Melinda who is being ostracized after calling the police at a teen party. This book gives voice to victims and those who feel powerless in the face of violence or bullying.
Yes, the children would probably like iTunes cards and movie theater tickets more. Or clothes. Or money. But reading fluency is the single greatest predictor of college-readiness, not to mention one of the best lifelong gifts you can give your child. For a very Merry Christmas, we say, bring on the books.
Have a wonderful book title for kids? We’d love to hear it. Leave a comment or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.