the smartest thing I did

Last November and December, I spent hours poring over reading lists and Amazon reviews, and then I slapped down a hundred bucks in exchange for a small stack of brand new books. Thanks to that planning, we have had a whole string of top-quality books to keep alive our bedtime tradition of reading aloud.

In retrospect, it was the smartest thing I did.

Esperanza Rising was the first book we read, and we couldn’t have picked a more fitting one to start with. It’s all about a rich Mexican girl who ends up, due to tragic circumstances, immigrating North and becoming a migrant worker. Her distaste for her lower standard of living closely mirrored what my children were going through. It was perfect.

The Phantom Tollbooth was a bit deep for the youngers, but my older son thought it was hysterical. Also, it gave us The Island of Conclusions (a place we jump to it on a daily basis). Summer of the Monkeys was a fun, light read. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg made us laugh. Shakespeare and the 7th grade came together in The Wednesday Wars.

Beautifully written, informative, and entertaining, The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate hit home on a deeper level for my children. In the book, Calpurnia has a science-loving grandfather called “Granddaddy.” In real life, my children have a science-loving grandfather called Granddaddy. The connection was so startling, so real, that my younger daughter begged me in tears not to say the word Granddaddy while reading—it made her too homesick. But I persisted and she acclimated.

A couple nights ago we started Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy. Next up is The View from Saturday.

I brought other books, too. For me, I brought This Rough Magic, Blood, Bones, and Butter, My Berlin Kitchen, Dignity, and An Everlasting Meal. For my son, I brought All Quiet on the Western Front, Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, and Touching Spirit Bear. Other books have found their way onto our shelves via generous neighbors and blog readers.

My son is branching out from the popular teen books on his Kindle to some of the classics like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and some of our more adult reads such as The Story of Edgar Sawtelle and The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind. That last book, plus Foreign to Familiar, a book I read to the older two children, so impressed him that he wrote to his friends suggesting they, too, read the books. And just this very morning, he copied down the name of the boy who harnessed the wind so he could watch his TED talk during his computer class at school.

In conclusion, three thoughts:
1. The books I brought, along with a few that
some friends have shared, will be enough to get us through our time
here.  I wish we had more books, of course. I miss having ridiculous quantities of
literary entertainment at our fingertips. But you know what? It’s been enough. I don’t know what to make of it. It’s proof, I guess, that I really do come from a culture of excess.

2. If traveling, take books. 

3. The high quality of the reads and the great fun we have gotten
from them make me wonder if it is worth spending a hundred bucks each
year on some brand new, carefully selected books even if I don’t plan to go anywhere. It’d be like menu
planning, but with a literary twist. What do you think? Do you have a tried and true method for selecting your reading material?


  • Anonymous

    I'd be really interested to know how your kids like (or deal with) the non-standard narrative structure in The View From Saturday, and what you think of it. I think it would have driven me up a wall during my pitiably long "all poetry needs to rhyme! all narrative must be in complete sentences! etc. ad nauseum!" phase, but your kids might have entirely dodged that and be okay with the looser (?) form. I thought it was a fascinating way of braiding a narrative together in an unusual way, but that honestly might be a grownup's point of view?

    Also, on a-year-of-books acquisition, I'd note that if you want to save some cash, you can use Amazon as a recommendation engine and then jump from there to the library or to used book spots online (my favorite is Better World Books; they have a lot of books for not very much, and they have frequent sales, and they have free shipping, and they generally make me feel warm and fuzzy – also, they pay shipping for boxes of books for donation, if you want to *clear out* bookshelves), except for books where you super-seriously-definitely want to support the author/publisher (in which case it's probably better to donate the price difference directly if you can, since otherwise not much of that new-book money is getting to them). (Amazon: Making enough money as it is.)

    Oh, and I also really like Danny, the Champion of the World but am not sure what age group it would be right for (since it deals with some Hard Stuff, and also has some stealing-heroism, which can require discussion to get to "no, actually, even though poaching and lying are presented as a good/artistic/sporting/morally-fine [albeit hazardous!] thing, in the real world, you need better reasons to do illegal things than in the book"). But I still love it – bittersweet in parts, triumphant in parts, and some amazing moments/vignettes.

  • Anonymous

    I am fortunate to live in a town which has an excellent library. I don't buy fiction any more, preferring to find it at the library. I maintain a list of "ordered" books on my library website and receive an email notice when one becomes available. My non-fiction purchases come from recommendations, usually online and blog sources that I read. Here's where Amazon comes in. I will only buy a non-fiction book if I am sure I will read it more than once….it takes at least two readings to get what the author is saying, I think. My library also has great used book sales several times through the year. I just contributed 6 large boxes of books and gained one shelf of empty space on my shelves…figure that! Used book sales are a great place to find cookbooks, my weakness!

  • Becky

    My daughter has read a few of those in school. Which reminds me, now that school is out, I should take her to the library.
    As for me, I keep 'lists' written on scraps of paper all over the house of books I want to read. My dear husband finds them and then uses them to buy me birthday & Christmas presents. That as well as the books friends hand me telling me I should read, that's how I determine what I'm reading next.

  • beckster

    Thank you so much for sharing this list! I will see if any of them appeal. I have entered all the books I read and really like on Goodreads and my Amazon account so that suggestions will be made. It is very helpful, particularly Amazon. I also collect suggestions from various published reading lists. In the last 5 years, I have begun checking out what is available from my local library and only buying those books that are not available. I then make a contribution to the library and volunteer there. The libraries in my area are suffering due to lack of funds, and I spent a great deal of my youth there, so I want to support them in any way I can.

  • Jules

    For the past few summers we have done read-alouds after dinner. We've done the Chronicles of Narnia series; it was a hit! Cheaper by the Dozen was a childhood favorite of mine, but it didn't work so well with my kids. I love your list, and will be looking into some of these for our reads this year. (And that's how I find books – on other people's recommendation!)

  • Suburban Correspondent

    I've never understood the allure of The Phantom Tollbooth. I read it when I was 11 and hated it. Maybe I should look at it again.

  • Trailshome

    Good for you for planning ahead. We spent two weeks at a beach cottage this winter and were shocked to find that the promised internet access wasn't working, and never did work the whole time we were there. We did get out and walked a lot, and quickly read through the two books each that we brought along. Then made more trips to a local thrift shops, searching for more to satisfy our voracious need for printed materials. Next time, I'll study some lists and take at least 5 books each. And hope the internet access works too. Thanks for the good ideas.

  • the domestic fringe

    My kids love to read and I think you're right, spending money on books is well worth the enjoyment of reading them. I always seem to find a way to squeeze out book money for my kids. My list, on the other hand, is ever growing.

    I like how you guys read aloud together. I've done this before with my kids and they really enjoyed it.

  • Margo

    oh goody, I'm pinning this for future reference. I am fascinated by the idea of menu-planning books. Must ponder.

    I keep a chaotic notebook of suggested reads that I gather from all over and books I have read and whether I liked them or not. I am chronically worried that I will run out of books or handwork. I wonder how I would act in your shoes, with limited books for a year.

  • Anonymous

    You did it right. I think the benefits of reading and re-reading a great book (All Quiet on the Western Front) far outweigh those of reading piles of mediocre fantasy series. I mean, I love fantasy, but come on.

    So, I like the Guardian booklists for me (they have a good young adult one too), Ambleside Online, and Penny Gardner. But some of the best books I've found were through LibraryThing and plain old searching on Amazon. You know: I'll see that someone who loved "Journey from Peppermint Street" (which we love) also loves "Danny, Champion of the World." It's a fun way to get ideas. We're going through the vintage New York Review Children's Collection at the moment. Super fun.

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