The very best family books

Reading Books I’m Saving for My Grandchildren over at Finslippy has spurred me on to write a blog post that’s been in my head for months. The best children’s books? No, I’ve been arranging that one in my head for a good decade; it’s just become more relevant and finely tuned as my children have grown.

Where to start? Reading is one of my guilty pleasures. I’m so chuffed to have a 12-year old boy who shares my compulsive need to read – we will take shampoo bottles and cereal boxes when nothing else is available, thank you, but a good book or story is so much better. The seven-year old also has a healthy passion for stories and is just learning to read; stay tuned.

We read as a family and as individuals; we trip over books here. So, I guess I’m trying to say is, we’re qualified or something, when it comes to recommending great children’s books. Really, okay?

Right now I want to focus on the best family books – these deserve recognition in their own right, distinct from kid lit. Any book that can entrance readers of all ages simultaneously is a really, really great story. Full stop. Here are the ones that my family would take to a desert island:

Uncle and Uncle Cleans Up by J.P. Martin – wonderful, irreverant stories written by an English clergyman in the middle of the 20th century. Martin wrote six books about the pompous but generous elephant named Uncle, but only these two have been reprinted by New York Review Books (thank goodness!). We keep hoping the other four will follow…

The 21 Balloons – a wonderfully strange story by William Pène du Bois that won the Newbery Medal in the US in 1948. In it, a retired schoolteacher sets out to cross the globe in a hot air balloon and crash lands near the volcanic island of Krakatoa, discovering that it’s actually home to 20 families who share the wealth of a secret diamond mine. The island is in the throes of getting ready to blow in the story and the people on the island go about their daily lives with incredible seismic activity that causes the landscape to visibly roll and buckle under their feet. As my seven-year old would say: cuckoo!

Dominic – a near perfect story of the wanderings of a young dog that mixes exciting physical action and bravery with deep philosophical pondering, this novel by William Steig is our favourite of his many wonderful works (Abel’s Island is a close second)

The Black Joke – Farley Mowat’s gritty and engaging story of adventure on the seas would win if we had to choose, but we’d also prefer to be allowed to take Owls in the Family, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be and the Boat Who Wouldn’t Float. Effortlessly funny, exciting and real, these Canadian tales are what good stories should be

Little House in the Big Woods – the whole series of pioneering life by Laura Ingalls Wilder is strong, but none of the later books pack the perfect punch of the very first one. This wonderful miniature of pioneering life, told through the seasons, is faultless and so easy to get caught up in. Although we haven’t read the books as a family for some time now (too many others to discover!), we regularly talk about “Pa” and “Ma” and “Laura” as though they are family members (well, I suppose it’s really me who does that…)

The Moomins – Finland’s Tove Jansson spun some pretty surreal and affecting stories with her comic strips and novels about the Moomin family. Where to begin? Our family just “gets” these stories and can’t get enough; we can’t be the only ones as the books were made into a tv series and now there are movies (movies!). One of my fondest recollections is of reading a chapter of Moominsummer Madness each day when we were on holiday in the Maritimes in 2009

The Black Stallion and The Black Stallion Returns – Walter Farley’s first two novels about Alec Ramsay and his horse were huge hits in our house, although our youngest demanded a rewrite of the final pages of the second book (if you’ve read it, you’ll know why). I actually had to tape it into the book after typing up the revised ending late one night; my apologies to Mr. Farley. Our older son is particularly offended by the cinematic adaptation of the second book; he sat through the first 30 minutes saying “that’s so cheap” and “that’s not how it happened!”. The film versions of both books change some pretty big “details”, but it’s the movie of book two that really sticks in my son’s craw!

The Mouse and His Child – I’ve already written on this blog about how entranced our family was by an audiobook of this epic and sprawling novel by Russell Hoban. In some ways, I can’t imagine experiencing this book without the vocal genius of William Dufris, so if push comes to shove, I’d say listen to it rather than read it, if you can. It does tend to go on a bit at the end (as in, “When is this going to end? I thought it already had!”), but that’s actually a very minor irritation with an otherwise brilliant story full of colourful characters and set pieces. And a confession: until I found this audio book in our library earlier this year, I had no idea that Russell Hoban had written anything longer than Bread and Jam for Frances and other such delightful titles. That was an eye opener!

And, finally, we’ve recently read Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and its sequels, which we all loved. My older son had previously read them on his own, but that didn’t spoil the experience.

I could go on, but I think this list really rounds out the books that we’d be happy to read again and again, as of now anyway. I’m always hoping that there is another smokin’ book just around the corner.


And, for the three people who read this blog and might not otherwise know, we are finally in our new house! More on that soon…

11 thoughts on “The very best family books

  1. Thanks for the great list. I will be saving it till my 5 nieces and (other) nephews get a bit older (they are all under four).

    I can certainly remember tripping over many a book on Cole Ave… I look forward to doing it in your new house!


  2. What a fantastic post! I am now looking up the titles you’ve mentioned — and I think the 21 Balloons book would be fantastic for my son. He’s only 5, but he has a GREAT attention span when I read to him. So curious. I’m so happy you linked this post in your comment on my site — it’s great!

    1. Thank you Melissa! I really believe that the more reading you do with a child will inevitably lead to more reading, especially if they are curious. I’m certain your son would be enthralled by the 21 Balloons; our boys loved more complex novels from early ages too. I also love William Steig for that age (and upwards) – Abel’s Island is a wonderful adventure story about a a very privileged mouse who becomes stranded on a desert island and must find a way to get home only using his wits, that I bet your son would be ready for too. I’d love to hear your family’s reactions.

    1. No I don’t know that one at all! It looks like a great book for us to check out. Its setting and the age of the characters remind me of Jeremy Fink and the Meaning of Life which never made it to my list, but that we all really loved. Thanks for the tip!

    1. I must check out your book list; so glad that you took the time to connect! I’ve already put in an order from our local bookshop for When You Reach Me for our summer reading list.

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