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On a few special days each summer, I have the privilege of putting my feet up, sitting by the shores of Big Rideau Lake and devouring a good novel for hours on end. It is one of my happiest places to be. It is definitely the place where I find the most time to read. This summer the first novel I am consuming is Chimimanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Americanah”. So far it is every bit as wonderfully written as her second novel “Half of a Yellow Sun” which is one of my all-time favourites.

We are blessed with an old family cottage on the shores of Big Rideau Lake. One of the things I love best about being there is finding the time to read with fewer distractions. Sometimes I peruse the bookshelves at the cottage and think back on the memories associated with each title. It was Henry David Thoreau who noted that “Books, the oldest and the best, stand naturally and rightfully on the shelves of every cottage.” Ours is no exception. Its shelves proudly preserve some of the oldest and the best books our family has enjoyed.

I have personally found it harder in recent years to make time for reading. It is a discipline that competes with so many time pressures and distractions. It seems the rapidly expanding role of electronic devices in our lives is inversely correlated with the role of books. I love computers, smart phones and the Internet as much as anyone. But I worry about their pervasive influence and how that affects our time to read.

I am particularly concerned about young children who are now exposed to more electronic devices than ever. Are they going to miss out on the irreplaceable magic that can be found between the covers of the best books? Our older three children had the privilege of spending their earliest years living in the country of Niger Republic. There was no television and little contact with computers. One of the treasures that we collected and carted from home to home was our collection of great children’s books. We spent countless hours reading together. We still talk about the characters we met and the places we went through those books.

My husband is one of the most dedicated readers I know. Our kids are indebted to him for the time he spent reading to them. He used to tell them “Books will take you to a world that you can only get to through books.” Our family has been deeply enriched by the books we have enjoyed together.

Thus, the bonus feature for this blog-post is that I’ve dug up an annotated list I complied in the late 1990s. Back then, I was asked to speak to a parent group about my favourite children’s books. Recently I found that old list and I’ll paste it below. If you are looking for some precious hours of amusement for your children or yourself, I hope you’ll consider some fine book suggestions here.

Jane Philpott – Favourite Family Read-alouds

1.     Canadian authors

Haworth-Attard, Barbara.  Home child.  A sad, but enlightening account of one of the home children sent from Britain to Canada in the early 20th century. By the same author, Flying Geese is a simple and touching account of a Saskatchewan girl who must move to Ontario during World War I.

Little, Jean.  From Anna; Listen for the singing; Mine for keeps.  These are among the best from a favourite author.  Jean understands children and has been writing about “differently-abled” children since I was a child.

Lunn, Janet.  The root cellar.  A time-travel based in eastern Ontario. 

Matas, Carol.  Greater than angelsWinnipeg author.  A Jewish teenager, along with family and friends take refuge in France during the Holocaust.  Sensitive without being sensational.  (Try also Daniel’s story.)

Pearson, Kit.  Awake and dreamingA real page-turner.  Set in the late 1990s Vancouver and Victoria.  Sensitively explores issues of poverty, loneliness and family.  (See also The sky is falling; Looking at the moon; The lights go on again and Perfect Gentle Knight)

Smucker, Barbara.  Underground to CanadaTwo slave girls escape to freedom in Canada.  (Also Days of terror.) 

Young, Scott.  Scrubs on skates;  Boy on defence;  A boy at Leafs’ camp.  My husband has read several of the contemporary sports series to our kids, but none of them match this classic hockey trilogy for its literary quality and technical accuracy.  Written in the 50s with recent revised editions.

2.     Other excellent novels

Babbitt, Natalie.  Tuck everlasting.  Imagine immortal life on earth.  This is the engaging premise of the story of a girl who discovers a magic spring. 

Brady, Esther Wood.  Toliver’s secret.  A young girl disguises herself as a boy to take a secret message to George Washington.  Well written.  Brings history alive.

Brink, Carol Ryrie.  Caddie Woodlawn.  Jim Trelease says “You take The little house on the prairie; I’ll take Caddie Woodlawn…”  and he’s right.  Caddie is one of a kind.

DeAngeli, Marguerite.  The door in the wall.  Set in London in the Middle Ages.  A suspenseful story that takes you to another time and place as good books do.

DeJong, Meindert.  The house of sixty fathers (a Chinese boy on the run from Japanese soldiers) and The wheel on the school (how can the storks be brought back to a Dutch fishing village).  This author is not well known unfortunately.  These 2 novels are amazing – educational…heart-wrenching.

Edwards, Julie.  The last of the really great Whangdoodles.  Three children and an eccentric professor on a search in Whangdoodleland.  A fun fantasy that makes a good read-aloud for a broad age span from 5 to 10.  (Written by the actress better known as Julie Andrews.)

Estes, Eleanor.  Ginger Pye.  A lesser known classic about two children who lose a precious puppy.  A touch of suspense and lots of charm. 

Jiang, Ji-Li.  Red scarf girl.  The true story of a young girl during the Chinese cultural revolution.  A great introduction to the modern political history of China.

Juster, Norton.  The phantom tollbooth.  A clever fantasy.  If you like plays on words, you’ll be intrigued by this tale.

King, Clive.  Stig of the dump.  Barney befriends a boy living wild in a dump!  Such a great story about friendship. 

MacDonald, George.  The light princess; The golden key.  These are good starters for exploring the works of George MacDonald, widely accepted as the father of fantasy and one of the most influential writers of the 19th century. 

McKinley, Robin.  Beauty.  This is an exquisitely written version of Beauty and the Beast (which was written before the Disney movie).  You will want to read it again and again.  McKinley is currently one of the best fantasy writers around.  For mature and advanced readers, try  The hero and the crown and its sequel, The blue sword, which is even better. 

Nesbit, Edith.  Five children and it.  What a fun story as these young children discover a sand fairy who will grant one wish each day.  I love the magical descriptives in all of Nesbit’s books.

Neuberger, Anne.  The girl-son.  The true story of Induk Pahk who starts her education disguised as a boy because Korean schools did not admit girls.  A great example of family sacrifices and triumph over adversity.

O’Dell, Scott.  Island of the blue dolphins.  This is on almost all of the recommended book lists.  When you read it, you’ll understand why.  Look for lots of Scott O’Dell titles – great historical fiction.

Paterson, Katherine.  The sign of the chrysanthemum.  Set in Japan, this is a fascinating tale of a young boy in search of this father, a noble samurai warrior.  Katherine Paterson is an outstanding, modern American writer.  By the same author, you must try Parzival.  This is a retelling of an ancient Arthurian legend.  I started reading this to the children in the car on the way home from the cottage and none of us were willing to stop until it was done – making for a magical (and quiet) 3-hour journey!

Paton Walsh, Jill.  A parcel of patterns.  This book is ideally suited for read-aloud.  It is a somewhat disturbing, yet enlightening story of how the plague comes to a Derbyshire village in 1665.

Rawls, Wilson.  Where the red fern grows.   A young boy’s adventures with two beloved coon hounds.  When one of my sons was seven-years-old, he was brought to tears by the ending – only excellent writing can incite such empathy.  Also recommended  is Summer of the monkeys.

Serraillier, Ian.  The silver sword.  One of the best of the countless children’s stories related to the Second World War.  A real favourite in our home.

Speare, Elizabeth George.  The witch of blackbird pond  (a 17th century teenage girl faces prejudice and danger) and The sign of the beaver (teenage boy from a homesteading family becomes friends with a Native American). Full of suspense.  You won’t want to stop.

Streatfeild, Noel.  Ballet shoes for Anna.  Three children are orphaned by an earthquake in Turkey.  Anna must pursue ballet as her grandfather had dreamed.  Beautifully written.  Look for many other captivating novels by the same author.

Twain, Mark.  The prince and the pauper.  Classics like this have stood the test of time because the stories are captivating and the writing is brilliant. 

Wolff, Virginia Euwer.  The Mozart season.  A young girl prepares for a challenging violin competition.  Great for music lovers.

Karatu farkonka madaci, karshenka zuma.

Hausa proverb which means:

“Reading – its beginning is mahogany, the end of it is honey.”

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