I recently heard part of an interview with Susan Jacoby, author of a book called The Age of American Unreason. I haven't read it, or anything by Jacoby, but some things from the interview rang true to me. One of them was that all of us, but especially parents, need to be careful how we spend our time. There is nothing wrong with occasionally relaxing by watching TV, playing video games, surfing the web, or whatever form of 'junk thought' (her phrase) you prefer. However, if we allow ourselves and our children to regularly spend a lot of time engaged in 'junk thought', we can't expect our children or our country to excel. If America is going to be a leader in science, innovation, the arts and business, we have to instill the habit of deeper thinking and a respect for learning into our whole culture.
Wisdom in picture books:
First, I want to mention two books many people love that I don't much care for: The Giving Tree, by Silverstein, and Love You Forever, by Munsch. Lots of people love them, and you might, too, so you might want to take a look at them. They just don't appeal to me. Following are some that do.
People, by Spier - A celebration of the similarities and differences among people, with small, detailed, colorful illustrations you could spend hours looking at - good for close-up viewing more than for showing to a large group. Short & simple enough for very young children, with enough possibilities to use with older kids, too.
The Treasure, by Shulevitz (Caldecott Honor book) - a story about traveling far to seek a treasure, and eventually finding it back at home. Lovely illustrations. Ages three and up.
Old Turtle, by Wood, illustrated by Chee - Almost any of the pictures in this book are beautiful enough to make me want to frame them and hang them on the wall to enjoy more often. The story starts as a sort of fable about the animals and elements arguing about what God is like. The message is one of love and responsibility for each other and the environment. Ages four or five and up.
Zen Shorts, by Muth (Caldecott Honor book) - three stories from Buddhist & Taoist traditions within a story of children meeting a bear who speaks with 'a slight panda accent' and carries a large umbrella - and tells stories. Beautiful, watercolor illustrations. Ages five and up.
The Three Questions, also by Muth - This is a more child-friendly adaptation of the ideas from a short story by Tolstoy, also with Muth's typical watercolor paintings. Ages five or six and up. It would be fun to read this and then the Tolstoy story with middle school or high school kids.
Brother Eagle, Sister Sky, by Jeffers - Adapted from the famous speech by Chief Seattle, wonderfully illustrated by Susan Jeffers - maybe there are people who dislike 'environmentalists' who wouldn't like this book, but otherwise it's hard to imagine anyone not liking it - a message of caring for the land, and the inter-connectedness of all life. Ages four or five and up.
It Could Always Be Worse, by Zemach - I mentioned this one not that long ago, but it fits well in the 'wisdom' category - a Jewish folktale with funny, clever illustrations. Ages four or five and up.
The Story of Ferdinand (Leaf) and The Carrot Seed (Krauss), both of which I've mentioned before, can also fall into this category, and are short enough to read to very young children.
Reading the Bible
If you are a Christian, presumably you can think of many reasons to be reading the Bible to your children. Even if you aren't much for religion, there are good reasons to read the Bible aloud with your family. If you don't believe it is divinely inspired, it is still an amazing work of literature, full of spiritual wisdom. Most works of classical literature make allusions to the Bible, and Biblical stories and quotes come up constantly in our culture (for example, people who aren't familiar with the Bible couldn't have understood all the implications of the line in President Obama's inauguration speech where he said we need to 'put aside childish things').
For very small children, there are many lovely picture-book editions of Bible stories. As children get older, choose suitable sections. I wouldn't read young children the story of how King David commits adultery and then arranges the death of the woman's husband, and I can't see myself reading pages of genealogy to kids. But there are many 'kid-friendly' sections even for early elementary listeners - the creation, the story of Noah, and much of the Gospels, for instance - and more for older children. Choose a translation you like - I mostly prefer the King James for its beautiful cadences, even if it is sometimes a bit obscure. Take time to talk to your children about what you believe, and why.
For upper elementary or teens:
Breaking Through, by Jimenez - a memoir of the author's teen years, this tells the story of a Mexican immigrant family. Francisco's family had been migrant farm workers when he was in elementary school, but this book picks up with the family settled, though still doing low-wage farm labor and living without indoor plumbing. In a simple, straight-forward first-person narrative, Francisco paints a picture of what it was like to grow up working hard for everything the family had. He captures the innocence of youth along with the frustrations, and the tone is not bitter - no whining here! The family is briefly deported (his father has a green card, but his mother doesn't, and he and his older brother were born in Mexico), but is able to complete the paperwork to come back legally fairly soon. His dedication to studying and success in school eventually get him scholarships to attend college, and his younger brother agrees to take over the job Francisco had been working to help support the family. A glimpse into another way of life, and a portrait of a realistic, loving family. Grades four or five and up.
Shabanu, by Staples - this is a powerful book, and a peephole into a very different world - the traditional, nomadic culture of Pakistan, where marriages are still arranged by the families, and women have little power. Shabanu is the second daughter, and already, at age twelve, betrothed to a distant cousin, though she is a bit of a tomboy and has a rebellious spirit. When her older sister's betrothed is killed, the family's plans have to be changed, and Shabanu faces marriage to a middle-aged man who already has other wives. There is no magical happy ending to this story, though there is some sense of hope as Shabanu accepts that she will not shame her family, but her husband cannot touch her spirit. The story touches on rape and sex, but doesn't dwell on any details. Nothing would shock a child over ten who has watched primetime TV. Still, I would probably read it to kids of twelve or over. It would be interesting to pair it with Catherine, Called Birdy, by Cushman, about a girl facing an arranged marriage in medieval times, which has a lighter feel and is appropriate for younger children; or with Julie of the Wolves, by George, about an Eskimo girl forced to marry at thirteen, which is also more for teens, and has an ambiguous ending.