Before I had kids I always had a picture in my mind that looked exactly like one of the illustrations in my copy of Little Women. Marmie on her chair, the girls all around, as she read. I always knew we’d read aloud even after the kids could read themselves and it’s been a nice way for us to spend a little time together. And, let’s be honest, it lets me impose a little bit of my own taste on the kids, which is nice since I leave the rest of their reading completely in their hands.
Reading together has taught me a lot. Just because I remember something fondly doesn’t mean it holds up. And it’s hard to predict what my kids will like that’s also fun for me to read.
This list isn’t as diverse as I would like, but we have at least got a lot of gender parity. So that’s something. (I would love recommendations for middle grade readalouds from authors of color in the comments!) Presented in reverse order of how recently we’ve read them. Links are to Amazon, purchasing through them helps support the blog.
The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street by Karina Yan Glaser. Vanderbeekers is delightfully old school, with big enough issues to feel weighty but light and sweet enough that you never finish a chapter actually feeling sad. The Vanderbeeker family has two parents, five kids, a dog, a cat, and a bunny who live together in half of a brownstone in Harlem, but when their lease isn’t renewed the kids team up to figure out how to convince their hermetic landlord on the top floor to give them a chance. The kids range from twelve-year-old twins Jessie and Isa to adorable five-year-old Laney, with rambunctious Oliver and thoughtful Hyacinth inbetween, there’s a kid in the Vanderbeeker clan for every personality. This is a family that always loves each other and looks out for each other, it’s heartwarming and warm as one of Mrs. Vanderbeeker’s freshly made cookies.
A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle. I wasn’t sure if the kids would want to see the movie, but I figured the book wouldn’t take us too long. I tried to read this when I was Graham’s age and really struggled with it, but it works just fine when read aloud. (It’s a surprisingly high reading level for a relatively simple story.) The book is more weird and unusual than you remember, more frustrating and slow, but the kids never seemed phased by it. It helps that it’s barely over 200 pages, we got through it faster than most books. By the end they decided that they were interested in the movie, which they liked even more. Graham peppered me with commentary on what was different, and Tessa was so hyped about being a “warrior.” Overall a great experience.
The Wild Robot by Peter Brown. This is one of the books that did the best job of engaging the kindergartener in the room. The Wild Robot has a long arc, but it doesn’t use a traditional structure. It has short chapters and sometimes there will be a shorter story that takes place over three or five or ten chapters. Roz the robot wakes up after the boat carrying her crashed to find herself the only robot on an island full of animals. Roz doesn’t know what she is or how much of anything works, so she gradually learns the ways of the world, eventually becoming foster mother to a gosling. For a book where animals can speak (albeit in their own languages), this is more realistic than you’d expect. Animals die in the ways animals often do, and winter brings with it constant threats. But the kids really got into this book and we’re also loving the sequel, The Wild Robot Escapes, that just came out. And reading in a robot voice is just fun.
From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E. L. Konigsburg. This was a big nostalgia pick for me, I bought my copy when I was in college because I was so determined to read it to my hypothetical children. In the present day I realized that the concept of wanting to run away from a house full of kids that spoke to me so much when I first read it was totally foreign to my kids. I remembered that Claudia was a prickly protagonist, and I definitely remembered correctly. It took the kids a little while to warm up to this one, and the reading level is high so it might have gone better if I’d waited another year. Still, for me, I like to intersperse nostalgia fests when I read to the kids. I want to enjoy it, too! And this one really hit the spot. Like so many books I read as a kid, they are enjoyed the most when you slow down and read them out loud. If you have an amazing art or history museum nearby, you should make a visit as a tie-in.
Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee. We were recommended this book and I was amazed at how quickly the kids got into it. It is fairy-tale-esque, a little scary, and takes place in a large museum full of things, many of which are described in great detail. Because the setting was such a big part of the early chapters, I was worried, but I think the tone really won the day. As a reader I loved it, it was a lush experience, the language and the story gave me so much to enjoy. This is called a retelling of The Snow Queen but it’s an homage at best, which is fine by me. Note: dead mother.
Gooney Bird Greene series by Lois Lowry. When we moved we were looking for books about being the new kid in class and a bookseller recommended this one. This was a great read for younger kids (Kindergarten through second grade), which is tricky when so many chapter books are for older kids, so we just kept reading book after book. Gooney Bird is the actual name of the main character of the book, a new girl with a big personality, who is partial to purposely mismatched outfits and tells stories that couldn’t possibly be true, could they? But these books are about the whole class, all kinds of kids that may remind your kids of people they know. Each book also tackles a particular skill. The first book, appropriately, is about how to tell a story, another one was about geography, another tackled the human body. We didn’t quite read in order, just took what was at the library, and got through several before we moved on to other tales. Really light and funny.
All the Ramona books by Beverly Cleary. The first and most effective of our nostalgia-fests. With a kindergartener or first grader you’ve got a decent shot. I was worried the first book, Beezus and Romana, the only one where older Beezus is the main character, wouldn’t fly but I’m glad we read it. The kids were fine with it and I remembered fondly how much I loved Beezus growing up. (I was so mad when the rest of the books were about Ramona.) But the thing about these books is that even if you are hugely familiar with them as a child, they are a whole new world as an adult. You will see the Quimby family totally differently. All the things you remember are still there, but all the things that you don’t remember are even better. What kid really pays attention to the parents in a book? But wow, this was a turnaround that hit me right in the feelings. I could feel all the things that Ramona felt, but as a parent I could see a whole other level, too. I won’t lie, I cried more than once. We read the whole series. (You can skip the last book if you want to, it’s not as good as the rest.) It took us ages but I wouldn’t take back a minute of it.
We’re always looking for new reads, so please share what’s worked for your kids (and for you!) in the comments. You can continue to follow along with our reading on my Goodreads Read Aloud shelf.