The best family books, revisited

Bookcase on stair landing with reading bench

We’re big readers and we try to read together as a family as much as we can. This isn’t always easy – good weather, busy schedules, projects on our land, can all conspire to make it difficult to do this every day (not to mention the other books that we all have on the go). We simply don’t manage it every day. But we do read a family book together as often as we can, and have weekend or several-nights-in-a-row binges when we make up for not reading our shared book every day.

I summarized our favourite reads together to date nearly 18 months ago, in The very best family books. Not long after that I added another must-have title for our desert island book list in Another family book we can’t live without. I’ve had cause to revisit these posts in recent weeks and months and realize it’s time that I updated our family’s list. (Our children are 14 and nearly 9, both boys.)

Here’s the original list, reprinted and with some additional comments

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; recent family conversations about these books have focused on whether we can get involved in reprinting them ourselves and what the cost of secondhand versions of those four titles fetch (hundreds of dollars, in case you’re wondering)

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 nearly nine-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. More recently we’ve read Lost in the Barrens (1956) and The Curse of the Viking Grave (1966), which focus on the adventures / trials / coming of age of two young men, one white the other Cree, in Canada’s north; these are also terrific reads with some interesting historical details and lots of good talking points

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…). One of my favourite sayings of Pa Ingalls’ is “A miss is as good as a mile”, which I had cause to say just yesterday to my youngest when he had tearfully confessed to nearly vacuuming up one of his precious gerbils.

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!

Our additions to this list now include

Watership Down by Richard Adams – this is one of those novels that truly gripped the four of us; we didn’t have a lot of trouble reading this book daily, in part because we read it in the cold months when we’re indoors a lot more, but largely because it was a very compulsive read. This imagining of the life of a rabbit warren and the individual rabbits who break out before it is destroyed by a modern housing development and their subsequent journey is full of rich detail and is beautifully told.

Tolkien’s The Hobbit – this title was simply forgotten when I first prepared our list in late 2010; at this point we’d already read it twice as a family, and we’ll no doubt read it again before too long. This classic tale of hobbits going up against the fearsome Smaug is simply full of charm, adventure and fascinating detours, and is a great introduction to Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Like millions of others, we’re very excited that Peter Jackson’s film version is in the works!

Swallows & Amazons, Winter Holiday, both by Walter Ransome – these very British books are time capsules of a particular era, but they also capture wonderfully well what childhood is at its best and most free, full of ongoing games, constructed adventures and references to adults that clearly mark them out as ‘other’. Our children are very comfortable in a more British world, even one that no longer exists in time, because of their father and the fact that ‘British-isms’ pervade our household. Even I contribute, as having worked and had my first child in England, ‘nappies’ became a firm part of my lexicon instead of diapers, and that’s just one example.

A special mention
There is one series of books that we’ve missed out on the chance to read as a family, largely because I unthinkingly started the first book with my youngest and after that the boat had left the dock. My husband joined us early on, however, so it’s become a ‘mum/dad/youngest son’ book, instead of a true family book, and that’s nice too. I’m referring to the five-book series The Borrowers by Mary Norton about the little people who live under the floors, behind the walls and in other parts of human habitation, ‘borrowing’ food and small household items for their living. The adventures of Pod, Homily and their daughter Arriety are so engagingly written and truly at their best when the characters speak for themselves. The conversations are so real and achingly funny at times, with harrassed and anxious Homily (the mother), calm and unflappable Pod (the father, nearly a Yorkshireman in his preference for fewer words: “Have done, that’s enough” he says to his wife!), and adventure-hungry Arriety. The only quibble with the books is that they tend to feature preambles to the main action which bore our younger son; they concern an elderly woman and a young girl who travel back to the scene of the woman’s childhood and they provide context for why anyone knows of the little people called the borrowers, but these scenes just don’t capture our son’s attention enough. A small detail, however, as the main story with the characters that he cares about take up most of the books.

So besotted with The Borrowers is our son that he has taken to occasionally leaving them bits of food or little items he thinks they may need, along with handwritten notes. Recently he decided that they probably need his dollhouse furniture more than he does, and so he’s been leaving curbside collections for them! I can’t think of better proof that a story has successfully woven its spell than this:

Dollhouse furniture for the borrowers

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