September 13, 2008

Recommend a children’s book!

Filed under: Books — Camassia @ 4:31 pm

In the last week or so, I’ve been trying to read to my grandmother. She inherited my grandfather’s periodical subscriptions, which are the sort of thing you’d expect for an educated liberal civil servant — the Washington Post, the New Yorker, the Nation, Smithsonian. When I try to read to her from those, though, she usually complains after a while that she doesn’t understand what it’s about. She’s in a difficult state of dementia where she’s lost her ability to follow complex material, but is still conscious enough to want to understand it. She also has some paranoia (a common symptom of dementia) so the traumatic subject matter of most news stories doesn’t exactly put her in a good frame of mind.

So today when I was at the library I impulsively picked up a novella by Cynthia Rylant called The Islander. I’d never heard of either the book or the author, but I saw that it involved a mermaid, and it was about a boy trying to relate to a grandparent, so it seemed like a nice diversion.

When I got home I read it aloud to my grandmother — it took about an hour — and she was totally transfixed. I realized I’d picked the perfect book. It seems aimed at about a ten-to-fourteen age range, which is probably exactly the right reading level for her these days, the narrative is simple with only a few characters, and it deals with family and with death, but in a reassuring way. When I was done, she said, “I’d like another one in a few hours, but that’s fine for now.”

Ulp. It was the only children’s book I checked out! And I really don’t know much of anything about the world of YA fiction these days. Can anyone recommend other books along this line? Something short like that would be good — maybe even a book of short stories — since if I had to read it in installments she’d forget everything in between readings. For all the reading I did as a child, I’m having trouble conjuring up other candidates.


  1. Wow, it’s good to see you back in the blogosphere! It has been a while since I browsed around this corner of it–I’ve drifted to other topics myself over the years.

    Strangely enough, I’ve had a run of parents at work asking me for short story collections for their children. And they’re just few and far between. There tend to be somewhat more of them at the teen reading level than at the children’s one, but those are also correspondingly edgier, which may not work in your particular situation. A few ideas:

    Angela Johnson writes slim, gentle books about families: The First Part Last is about a teen father, and Heaven is about a girl who finds out she was adopted.

    Diana Wynne Jones is one of my favorite writers for children and teens; try her collection Mixed Magics.

    Firebird Books has published some collections of science fiction and fantasy short stories for teens. The first one is just called Firebirds; I think there are one or two more now. I vaguely remember that some of them were bleaker than others, so you might want to do some previewing before reading aloud.

    Comment by Rilina — September 13, 2008 @ 5:44 pm

  2. I think the ALA Newbery award book list is a good place to start.

    Some that might be more appealing to adults are:
    A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park
    The Giver by Lois Lowry
    Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O’Dell
    Jacob Have I Loved by Katherine Paterson
    Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor

    If you liked _The Islander_, Cynthia Rylant also wrote _Missing May_, which I remember enjoying…
    I also liked The Dark Is Rising fantasy series by Susan Cooper. I’d say it’s like the Lord of the Rings for 10-year-olds.

    Comment by CS — September 13, 2008 @ 7:42 pm

  3. When I was 9-12 or so, and reading that sort of book:

    Katherine Paterson _Of nightingales that weep_

    Any of Eleanor Estes’ Moffats series (Family in WWII) — or Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family (Jewish family in depression-era NY)

    Caddy Woodlawn — Carol Ryrie Brink

    Johnny Tremain — Esther Forbes

    Mrs Frisby and the Rats of Nimh — Robert O’Brien

    Harriet the Spy

    The Secret Garden — Frances hodgson Burnett (man, I loved this one SOOOOO much)

    Tuck Everlasting — Natalie Babbit

    Obviously, I had a weakness for the historical novel then. And I know of nothing recent.

    Welcome back to the blogosphere, for however long or for whatever purposes. It’s good to have you here.

    Comment by prefer not to say — September 13, 2008 @ 7:53 pm

  4. I love all things Diana Wynne Jones, so I second that. She ranges from very, very sad and poignant (THE HOMEWARD BOUNDERS) to hilarious and it-all-works-out-in-the-end (WITCH WEEK) with everything in between. I can lend you books if you want–I have lots.

    For funny stuff, there’s the Bagthorpe series by Helen Cresswell, and the Bruno and Boots series by Gordon Korman, both of which I can also lend. B&B got me through a really difficult time in fifth grade, and I still re-read both series with immense pleasure. The Bagthorpe books (I’ve only read through BAGTHORPES LIBERATED) have a lot of irony and a wide vocabulary, but the actual plots are easy to follow.

    For more serious, but still very light-hearted and sweet, maybe Margot Benary-Isbert’s THE WICKED ENCHANTMENT. That might be hard to find, but I would be thrilled to lend you my copy.

    Ray Bradbury’s SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES might be too dark, esp on the subject of aging, but it is beautifully written.

    I’ll think about other possibilities. I absolutely children’s books. How about EL Konigsburg? And I can’t remember the author, but THE RESCUE OF RANOR is another overlooked gem. Anything by Zilpha Keatley Snyder is probably good, esp her “Below the Root” series, THE EGYPT GAME of course, and the series with THE HEADLESS CUPID and BLAIR’S NIGHTMARE. THE WITCHES OF WORM is unusually dark for her. Joan Aiken is good, and if you want short stories, THE FAITHLESS LOLLYBIRD has a really wide range in terms of tone. My favorite JA books are COLD SHOULDER ROAD and IS UNDERGROUND. Molly Hunter’s YOU NEVER KNEW HER AS I DID! is a poignant defense of Mary of Scots. Anything by William Sleator will be creepy and science-fictional; HOUSE OF STAIRS is the classic, but I also liked INTERSTELLAR PIG (which might be the best choice for your grandmother, as it’s suspenseful but not super depressing), SINGULARITY, and THE GREEN FUTURES OF TYCHO. Michael de Larrabeiti’s Borrible books (the first two; not so much the third) are terrific. Ottfried Preussler’s THE LITTLE WITCH is very sweet (his THE SATANIC MILL is one of the darkest children’s books I’ve ever read, despite its redemptive ending–just one of my favorite books ever, but possibly not to everyone’s taste), as is Eleanor Estes’s THE WITCH FAMILY, and of course Edward Eager is always fantastic.

    I think those are the authors I re-read the most.

    And I really will reply to your email, probably Monday. Let me know if there’s a day that’s best or worst for you.

    Comment by Eve Tushnet — September 14, 2008 @ 1:30 am

  5. Try asking a librarian. They’re really trying to reach the youth market right now, so
    they should be pretty up on what’s around. And I’m sure they’d understand if you explained
    your situation. They’re trained to know their books!

    Comment by Clare — September 14, 2008 @ 3:13 am

  6. Thanks, everyone! This gives me a good place to start. I remember enjoying Mrs. Frisby, The Secret Garden and Tuck Everlasting as a child, but they might be too long for the purpose. Although Mrs. Frisby I remember being fairly short — I’ll have to look at it again.

    Clare, that’s a good point. I’ve always enjoyed foraging for myself in libraries so much that I tend to forget what librarians exist for, other than checking out the books once you’ve got them. (Sorry, Elliot!)

    Comment by Camassia — September 14, 2008 @ 9:37 am

  7. Your post made me think of Tove Jansson’s novel The Summer Book, about a girl holidaying with her grandmother on a Baltic island. That’s Jansson of Finn Family Moomintroll fame; the novel is written for adults but is short and not complex.

    Comment by Jeremiah — September 14, 2008 @ 8:22 pm

  8. Children’s books, eh? Well, there’s always Harry Potter! :)

    And then, there’s The Giving Tree. It’s somewhat controversial, depending on how you interpret it. But in terms of its plot, it is very simple (and short).

    Comment by Jonathan Marlowe — September 16, 2008 @ 9:51 pm

  9. Actually, you’ve already asked a librarian (me!), though I think unknowingly? Though this is not a reason not to ask another one. :)

    Comment by Rilina — September 16, 2008 @ 11:38 pm

  10. Rumer Godden, The Greengage Summer.

    Norton Juster, The Phantom Tollbooth.

    Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain series (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Llyr, Taran Wanderer, The High King… a long thread to follow through all five standalone stories, but warm and funny and sad and triumphant and everything that makes children’s fantasy good).

    Sharon Creech, Walk Two Moons.

    Anything at all by E. Nesbit.

    Roald Dahl’s Matilda is just magic.

    The Witch of Blackbird Pond by Elizabeth George Speare.

    Lucretia P. Hale, The Peterkin Papers — hilarious!

    Karen Cushman, Catherine, Called Birdy. Also hilarious.

    Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine. Not much of a central plot; gentle, wistful memoir. Beautiful language.

    Comment by Katy — September 17, 2008 @ 12:26 pm

  11. On the theory that she might enjoy books about children growing up during earlier times in the twentieth century, perhaps try Elizabeth Enright–Thimble Summer, Gone-Away Lake, and the Melendy Series? They aren’t super-short, but they’re rather episodic, so reading them in sections might not be as much of a problem as it could in a more strongly plotted book.

    The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M. Boston is a very short, delightful novel that features a boy and a grandmother. There are others in the series, but I haven’t read them. I don’t think they feature the same characters, but in your situation perhaps that could be a good thing.

    Comment by SE — September 18, 2008 @ 7:04 pm

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