It's funny how as we age, we look backwards at our old selves and marvel at how the smallest things seemed to matter so much. A twelve-year-old looks back at being six and wonders why those pink cowgirl boots mattered so much; a sixteen-year-old looks back at being twelve and wonders why that first school dance was so important; a twenty-one year old looks back at being sixteen and wonders why she cared what that boy thought, he wasn't worth her time. A new parent looks back at being childless and feels smug with new knowledge and their new status; a parent of grade-school kids looks back at new parents and chuckles at how wrapped up they are in schedules and nap time and other quotidian things, and a parent of teenagers looks back at all of it and realizes they know nothing, nothing is for certain, there are no right answers.
I think I messed up a lot. I did some things right--my kids hold doors and don't do drugs--but I think I messed too. But there is one single thing that I know, I just know I did right, and that is reading to them when they were little, up until they were about ten. I would still read with my teenagers if they didn't have so much homework that they don't have time to eat or go to the bathroom, much less read for fun, but that's another story.
There are so many good picture books out there, it's amazing. There are some really bad ones, too. I love that scene in Despicable Me where Gru, reading a book about kittens to his girls, says in his heavy accent, "You call this literature? This is garbage!" Those board books just kill me, and the series for kids who are learning to read ("Come back, silly doggy, it is time for your bath!") make me want to tear my hair out. But there are so many great books that tell wonderful stories that make a kid feel understood. Books that don't have an agenda, but cast a little light on what really matters. Books that don't even have human characters, but say something beautiful or funny or insightful about the human condition in a way a five-year-old gets. I may not have made my kids try salad, or snuck squash into their brownies, or served broccoli spears and dip after school (I wish I had), but I did this one thing right: I read them tons of books. I checked books out of the library by the Lands End extra-large-totefull. I looked up favorite authors and brought home everything they'd ever written. I wracked up fines at the library that would make your head spin because inevitably some were returned late. But I'm convinced it made them smarter, happier, more creative and more compassionate than they'd otherwise have been. There is so much I still don't know about parenting (sooooo much), but I know this: reading is good for you, and stories make you grow. Make you strong.
Here is a list of our favorites:
1. Alice the Fairy. Of course anything by David Shannon is great, but Alice is every four-year-old girl in a tiara and fairy wings, looking for magic and adventure. She's also funny.
2. Baby Brains, The Smartest Baby in the Whole World by Simon James. The pictures are funny, and we see that intelligence is great, but love trumps it every time.
3. A Bargain for Frances by Russell Hoben. This one addresses something all kids realize at some point: not all kids play nice. But sweet Frances deals with betrayal in a feisty-yet-gentle way, and with a gesture of kindness to her sister in the end. And I love those little songs Frances always sings--my girls and one of my boys did that.
4. A Chair for my Mother by Vera B. Williams. A warm little story that shows that not all families have Pottery Barn furniture, but everyone loves their mom. The watercolor pictures are bright and memorable, and wonderful just before bedtime.
5. Crispin the Pig Who Had It All by Ted Dewan. My kids still talk about this one; its about a spoiled pig who discovers friendship is better than toys when he gets an empty box for Christmas, and at some point they realize the box is a multi-level metaphor. Full of humor and British-isms.
6. Chrysanthemum by Kevin Henkes. A little girl (mouse) decides she doesn't like her name when she gets teased, but a happy surprise makes her change her mind. Keven Henkes really captures something true and real about early childhood with his little mice and their predicaments.
7. Edward and the Pirates by David McPhail. The writer is something of a pioneer and legend, and this particular book has it all: a quiet kid who dreams of adventure, parents swinging from the ceiling, reverence for books and stories, a near-miss and a happy ending.
8. Guliver Snip by Julia Kay. He took a trip in a wonderful ship that his mother called the bathtub. A story of adventure, with the boy's imagined escapades on one page and reality on the facing page, it is fun for messy bathers.
9. Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber. From my own childhood in the 70s, this one is a sweet story about a boy who can't spend the night at a friend's house without his teddy bear but is hesitant to say so.
10. Harry the Dirty Dog by Gene Zion. Also from my childhood, a classic about a beloved family pet who has fun getting dirty and must convince his family of his identity.
11. Little Pea by Amy Krouse Rosenthal. A short and sweet backwards tale that will appeal to picky eaters and preschoolers who personify food and objects.
12. Pickle Chiffon Pie by Jolly Roger Bradfield. The ultimate silly story about a princess picking her knight in shining armor, with made-up creatures and schoolhouse rock style drawings. The good guy wins in the end because of his good heart and there is never a boring moment.
13. Stephanie's Ponytail by Robert Munsch. A little tale about marching to your own drummer, with confident heroine and an ending that makes young kids fall over laughing.
14. Smokey, and The Caboose Who Got Loose by Bill Peet. Anything by Bill Peet is wonderful; anything, but these two one involve trains (!) and losing your way and then finding it again. But again; anything by Bill Peet is hilarious and magical.
15. The Queen of Style by Caralyn Buehner. A bored queen takes a correspondence course on beauty and goes a little overboard cutting and curling her subjects' hair, but she makes a lot of friends in the process. A very fun read.
16. The Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman. A great story about a big family of picky eaters, and the loving mom who eventually gets fed up. Wonderful, gentle illustrations and a rhyming text that is poetic instead of annoying.
17. The Spiffiest Giant in Town by Julia Donaldson. A giant named George gets decked out in new duds but on the way home he meets some animals who need help, and winds up in his underwear. His friends repay his kindness in a fun, silly way that doesn't feel like a lesson on virtue, but is.
18. The Way Back Home by Oliver Jeffers. Anything by this writer is sweet and artsy and quirky, but this one is about a boy who goes to the moon on a homemade spaceship and makes friends with a nice little alien, for kids who want big adventure with the safe feeling of home.