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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Guest Post: The Smart Reader's Kids

In honor of Back to School I present an informative guest post for parents of budding readers from The Smart Reader Blog. Much thanks on your guidance and contribution to my blog! Check out The Smart Reader Blog please (see sidebar for the link also).

I often get requests for book recommendations for children; nowadays it's so difficult to find books for kids that have literary merit. Another issue is the fact that one doesn't want one's children picking up, say, bad language from the books he/she is reading. It's also hard to pinpoint which books reflect the values one is trying to inculcate in one's family.

Although this may sound like a pain in the neck, I pre-read nearly every book my children take out from the library. This isn't really as hard as it sounds, because I spent most of my childhood reading every book in existence; it only remains for me to read the newer ones. Also, I read faster than the average person (practice makes perfect! Read Malcolm Gladwell's if you don't believe me.

In this post, I offer a short list of recommended reading for emerging readers and onward. If you are looking for good books in a particular genre for your child, you can request those in the comments and I'll do another post later this month.

Emerging readers: These are the children who are just beginning to read on their own and are moving beyond read-aloud; there is usually a special section in the library for these readers. Unfortunately, each publisher has its own leveling system, so it takes some time to figure out what is what, but you can't go wrong with:

  • Dr. Seuss; Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham are perfect for young independent readers.
  • Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad
  • David Adler's Young Cam Jansen, and when they are ready they can move on to the regular Cam Jansen series.
  • I was very fond of Amelia Bedelia when I was very young; I've noticed, however, that today's children often don't grasp the double meanings of the words the way we used to. A lot of those words are not in common use today, and it just doesn't seem as funny. Take them out anyway; it's worth a little bit of explanation.

Intermediate readers: These are children who read well on their own, and can deal with real chapter books that have lots of words. The subject matter is usually straightforward and the plot is generally uncomplicated. Vocabulary is on or slightly above level.

  • I don't really like series books, but this one is actually not bad (although it's a tad commercial for my taste). The American Girl books, with each series focusing on a child growing up during a particular era in American history, are nicely done, well-written, and comfortingly predictable. The values are quite nice, and each book features an appendix that tells the reader more about the period in history. If you can restrain yourself from purchasing any of the merchandise, you should be fine. The authors vary. These are usually most suitable for ages 7-10.
  • A good author for children ages 8-11 is Eleanor Estes; her Moffat family series is charming and funny. Other good authors for these ages are Elizabeth Enright, whose '50's era books are all now being reprinted, and Edward Eager. Eager is an E.Nesbit wannabe, and for those of you who have never heard of Nesbit, she was an English children's author who was very well known and is still widely read. I would recommend her books to older children, though, because the language is quite British, if you get my meaning.
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder's books are a good place to start for a girl who is ready for a book that is a bit longer. The series officially begins with Little House in the Big Woods, and moves onward. The last two might not be appropriate to children younger than 11 or 12; the last book is actually a bit tragic.
  • Andrew Clements skyrocketed to fame with his bestseller, Frindle, and seems to have been consistently churning out entertaining novels since then. I particularly enjoyed A Week in the Woods, as well as Room One. Parents should be aware, however, that Clements also published several Young Adult books that are not targeted to this age level.
  • One thing (out of many) that is appealing about her books is how they are so suited both to boys and girls. Ramona is a character girls love and boys find hilarious. Ralph S. Mouse has universal appeal.
  • Noel Streatfeild was a great favorite of mine growing up. Her "Shoe" books (Ballet Shoes, Dancing Shoes, Theater Shoes) are endearing and beautifully written.

Older and advanced readers: Children aged 11 and over are often looking for books with more complex plots, abstract themes, that don't unfold predictably. However, this age and level is difficult because much of the fiction marketed to this group depicts values and behaviors parents don't want their children immersed in. Here I offer a short list of some suitable reading material, but it is very important here to know what your child can handle, and what you do/do not want him/her exposed to.

  • Zilpha Keatley Snyder: One of my favorite books, even now, is Snyder's Velvet Room. One of her several books set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Snyder's story carries a lesson but does it so gently that the reader delights in learning it. I didn't love all her books, but she's definitely an author to acquaint yourself with.
  • L.M. Montgomery was the creator of Anne of Green Gables and published oodles of similar books. There's no real middle ground with Montgomery -- either you love her or she sickens you.
  • Newbery Medal books: Click on this link to get a full listing of all the Newbery winners I have read and reviewed.
If you post your requests in the comments section for this post, I will take up this thread in my next post as well. For example, if you have a child who likes fantasy, or mysteries, I would be happy to publish a separate post for that genre.

Be sure to check out my quasi-kid post on this page.


JS said...

As someone with a child who is at an age where books are just another thing to gum, my interest in this post is likely different from parents with older children. I'm curious what is deemed "inappropriate" in child/young adult literature. I was an avid reader as a child and I don't recall ever reading something inappropriate. Maybe time has faded those memories though. Are children's books today different than they we were a few short decades ago? I don't know if it matters, but a lot of the books I read were already classics in my parents' generation. Just curious what definition of "inappropriate" is being used.

Orthonomics said...

JS-I have a friend who considers non-Jewish (non-Artscroll?) literature too risky. But I'm not writing for that crowd, nor is my guest poster. I know we all have our limits.

For me, I have little patience for books that are just junk. In that category I would include most books that were created after the TV show, not prior too. I don't care for books written to promote cartoon characters or TV shows. The books just don't have what makes a children's book a must read again and again and again. Most books my kids have enjoyed thoroughly are also books I've enjoyed.

I have friends who see a different lesson in books than I've seen. I guess we all read things differently. What they are seeing is different than what I am pulling from the book. Therefore, it might be that they see something inappropriate or questionable and I see something different.

Another category of books is just flat out objectionable! When your kid picks up a copy of Julius, Baby of the World you will remember this discussion!!!!

Another book series that one might find inappropriate would be Junie B. Jones books which emphasize vocabulary such as stupid , smelly, yucky, meanie, and cheater pants, and dumb right in the title. . . . .is nothing to be left for the playground?

So, yes, there is so junk out there and some inappropriate stuff out there. There are also tastes to be accounted for.

Orthonomics said...

Here are the review on amazon. I'm surprised how many are positive. Perhaps there is some entertainment value for older people that can comprehend some of the feelings. But I am with the reviewer who said X-rated for its intended audience. The book is written for pre-readers and it is beyond inappropriate. You just don't introduce these feeling to kids that likely don't even have that type of animosity, but rather a normal adjustment issue.

ProfK said...

As one who is interested in seeing children read, thanks for this guest posting. SL, your readers might also want to look through these lists of books that went up way back in 2008:

ProfK said...

Oops, sorry, meant to include the following link in my previous comment. The site has hundreds of books online and allows you to print them out if you wish.

miriamp said...

Thank you! I also wind up pre-reading my kids books but with 10 kids (newborn to 14) it's getting harder and harder to keep up with them.

On the subject of an example of inappropriate children's books - "Arthur's Birthday." Premise of book is that birthday parties aren't fun without boys and girls, because then you can't play spin the bottle. Arthur is turning 9, I believe, and story is at a young reader level. They don't explain how to play spin the bottle in the book, but they are about to play it as the book ends.

Miami Al said...

Green Eggs and Ham?!?!?!?

Where the nice clearly Jewish old man rejects the eggs and ham constantly, only to be broken down by the "enlightened" Sam. At the end, he breaks and gives into the pressure, partakes in the forbidden food, realizes that he loves it, and is totally off the derech, willing to eat all manners of porcine produces in any location?!?!?!?

How could you expose your children to such filth!

Lifetime Reader said...

Miami Al: I find Green Eggs and Ham enchanting, especially since I changed every mention of ham to "lamb". I looked up "lamb chop recipes" on Google and printed a page of pictures of lamb. I carefully cut them out and pasted them on top of every green ham in the book. I made the book kosher, and gave it to my little ones! Now the only problem is when the children go to the petting zoo, the experience might turn them into vegetarians, not the aim of the book!

Even better for elementary school Hebrew students is the Hebrew translation of Green Eggs, titled "Ani Lo Roev, Ani Lo Ohev" or maybe the reverse. It's charming, and never is the word "ham" mentioned! Perfect for building Ivrit skills.

May I add that the name of the author of the Ramona books and Ralph S Mouse is the brilliant and beloved children's author, Beverly Cleary.

Miami Al said...

Lifetime Reader,

My post was extremely sarcastic.

Green Eggs and Ham is a metaphor for vegetables, although my explanation of that to my children seemed to cause blank stares, whenever they insist they don't like something without trying, I ask them if they will "eat it with a goat," which gets everyone laughing and trying it.

Your desire to make the book "kosher" seems like a scene out of 1984... or maybe the evangelical Christian censored movies...

Lifetime Reader said...

Yes, your post was sarcastic. Mine was meant to be light-hearted, two points of view that are diammetrically opposed. I undertook the entire project in a spirit of humor! What could be more perfect than pasting pictures of lamb over ham! Though I think when the children get back from the petting zoo, they may never eat another lamb chop.

tesyaa said...

What exactly is scary about a ham? I understand certain sects do not want their children exposed to even fictional non-kosher animals or food, but why even choose that book, if that is your custom?

As you say, censoring the ham may have further ramifications.

If your practice is that insular, there are many nice Artscroll books to choose from.

Miami Al said...


Well, the people rate your s/ham/lamb review more highly than tesyaa and I do, so what do we know.

That said, my kids know that there are lots of things that we don't eat because we're Jewish that other people eat. Not sure why the idea that a nice gentile would eat ham is terrifying.

sima said...

Um, no one seems to find the green eggs to be highly weird? Why focus on the ham? My kids always zero in on the green eggs (are they spoiled? maybe they're really bugs? why would sam i am offer him spoiled eggs?)

tesyaa said...

sima, the eggs are obviously a yuppie treat prepared with cilantro or another designer herb :)

sima said...

Thanks, Tesyaa -- I'll tell my 5-year-old; he'll be so relieved. It's his favorite book.

Mark said...

I grew up in Boro Park and was an avid reader. Not just an avid reader, a voracious reader. Every Friday I would take a milk crate to the library and get 30 or 40 books for the week. I remember that I needed special permission to check out more than 10 books at a time. The librarian didn't believe I was actually reading them so she "tested" me one week. Sometime around the time I reached 10 years old, I ran out of books in the children's section. Back then the children's section was separate and children were not permitted to enter the adult section. So I literally ran out of books in the children section at the two library branches I frequented (60th and 17th, and 43rd and 13th). And I mean literally, I even read all the "girl" books, Nancy Drew, Judy Blume, etc.

I remember one Friday my mother told the librarian that I ran out of books in the children section and, despite my age, got special permission for me to enter the adult section and check out adult books, but only those books recommended and approved by the librarian. And that week, the first book the librarian recommended and gave me was "The Source" by James Michener. At first I was intimidated that it was almost 1000 pages long, but after a few hours of reading the length turned into a benefit, because I was always a tiny bit let down to finish almost every book I read in one sitting. I ended up reading most of Michener's books and many, many others from the adult section of that library. All generally age appropriate, or nearly age appropriate. And it was nice to have longer books and only need to check out a few each week. Definitely made the milk crate lighter :-)

Now I have 5 kids, 3 of which are avid readers and 2 of which appear to be not-so-avid readers. Okay, okay, we have to incessantly nag those 2 to read. The avid readers all learned to read at age 4 or 5, and all 3 go to sleep with a book in their hand. Sometimes we catch our older 6 year old (he has younger twin) reading in bed in the middle of the night! And every single night we have to scold the avid readers to put their book down and to go to sleep.

JRKmommy said...

It may not be for all your readers' families, but we are Junie B. Jones fans here. Of course, she's over the top - that's what makes it funny! I don't know if kids really relate to literature that just shows perfect kids. Junie B. addresses the less-than-perfect child lurking within, and gives kids an opportunity to say, "yeah, I can imagine doing that, but here's what should be done instead."

For kindergarten and grade one, I'd also recommend anything by Melanie Watt. Thanks to her books, my son went from being a total non-reader to reading aloud to his class, with tons of expression and confidence.

Re L.M. Montgomery - I read the entire Anne of Green Gables series as a kid, but Jewish parents may want to have a discussion about the historical and religious context of the book. I still remember the green hair dye scene, where the rogue peddlar is identified as a Jew.

Orthonomics said...

JRK Mommy, I'm trying to think of books/series/authors that only have perfect children/child-like characters and can't think of any. Am I missing something?

I like stories where the characters have their own quirky personalities.

sima said...

For a great series with a quirky protagonist (who, thankfully, does not have a potty mouth), check out Clementine, by Sara Pennypacker. These are great read-alouds. I also forgot to add to the list the Mercy Watson series, by Kate DiCamillo. Hilarious for all ages, including adults. The main character is a pig, if you can deal with that.

Julie said...


It is funny that the librarian gave you "The Source". That was the one book that my mother forbade me from reading. She said that it gave her nightmares, and she was not going to let me read that book. I was, however, allowed to read practically anything else I wanted.

JRKmommy said...

Frum kids' books tend to have pretty one-dimensional characters. I also remember the Bobsey twins being like that.

OTOH, Anne of Green Gables had flaws that included a vicious temper (physically attacking a boy for calling you a mild name like "carrots" wouldn't be acceptable in most schools today), and that is part of what endeared her to so many readers.

Lifetime Reader said...

To Mark who read The Source at age ten, I thought I'd mention that I recently took it off the shelf in my mother's library - we have had it since it was published - and what do I find but handwritten pages enclosed within the cover, pages of the most vitriolic condemnation, dated 2008, sprinkled with Hebrew words like "apikorsus" - as in full of, "rishus" as in whoever wrote this - and adjurations not to read! Who wrote these judgments of a book I enjoyed at 11 when it was published? A book my religious parents chose? They were signed by a very frum member of my own family. And since I have been "outed" by those of you who looked up "Green Ham" on Amazon, let me assure you that the name under which I wrote the Green Ham review and all the others on Amazon is a pseudonym.

My point? I find it amusing.

Miami Al said...

Lifetime Reader,

I apologize if you thought it was outing you. It wasn't meant as such, you wrote the same thing as you wrote on Amazon on this forum with a handle I haven't seen you use here. I'll delete my reference to it if you want, no injury was intended. I assumed Lifetime Reader was a throwaway name, not a name you were worried about.

Lifetime Reader said...

Miami Al, I did leave myself open to "outing" by including the very details in my post as I described in my Amazon review. You are not at fault, I do not mind at all. If anyone wants to read my Amazon reviews, I'd be honored. By the way, I can use all the "helpful" votes I can get, and would be happy if someone voted my reviews "helpful". But please do not identify the two little boys and new baby in the photo on my profile. They are my most closely held secret!

Miami Al said...


At your recommendation of the Hebrew version, several people no doubt checked it out. The nearly identical comment seemed like it was a logical connection and not a problem.

We have picked up foreign language books from before -- several Spanish language ones, so that was the logical next step.

I didn't think about the "outing" factor, since you listed the story here and on what is probably the most popular web page on that book.

Avi said...

I have often read Green Eggs and Ham with modifications, "No I would not eat them on a boat or on a goat, they are not kosher, Sam-I-am." At some point, Sam points out that there's an OU on the package, it's mock ham, and then our protagonist tries it and likes it. But points out that the green eggs are terrible.

I do this to fairy tales, too, so it's not just a hang-up on kashrut, it's more to amuse myself.