Quote from "What Makes Finnish Kids So Smart?" by Ellen Gamerman, Wall Street Journal, February 29, 2008 : " ... by one international measure, Finnish teenagers are among the smartest in the world. They earned some of the top scores by 15-year-old students who were tested in 57 countries. American teens finished among the world's C students even as U.S. educators piled on more homework, standards and rules. Finnish youth, like their U.S. counterparts, also waste hours online. They dye their hair, love sarcasm and listen to rap and heavy metal. But by ninth grade they're way ahead in math, science and reading -- on track to keeping Finns among the world's most productive workers.... One explanation for the Finns' success is their love of reading. Parents of newborns receive a government-paid gift pack that includes a picture book. Some libraries are attached to shopping malls, and a book bus travels to more remote neighborhoods like a Good Humor truck."
- Max's First Word, by Rosemary Wells - one of my favorite very simple stories for toddlers - Max's sister is trying to teach him to say something besides "bang".
- The Year at Maple Hill Farm, by Alice and Martin Provensen - a book of months and seasons, this picture book focuses on what is happening with the animals on an old-fashioned farm. It looks like it could be set in the northeast US. (Pre-school through first grade)
- Ox-Cart Man, by Hall, illustrated by Cooney - a simple story about life in early New Hampshire, with lovely, spare text and simple, folk-style illustrations (Pre-school through first grade)(Caldecott book)
- Bedtime for Frances, by Hoban, illustrated by Williams - a charming story about Frances making excuses not to go to bed (or stay in bed) - every parent will recognize some of these ploys! I suppose some modern parents might not like the reference to a possible spanking, but I can't think of any other reason not to love this classic!
- The Mousehole Cat, by Barber, illustrated by Bayley - this book is by a British author, so it was not eligible for a Caldecott, but it must be one of the most beautiful picture books of all time. The story is of an old fisherman and his cat who brave terrible, stormy weather to bring back fish for the starving villagers, written in beautiful prose and illustrated with gorgeous, detailed pictures and decorative borders. It is a little long for younger preschoolers, but good for pre-K through second or third grade.
- Paddle-to-the-Sea, by Holling C. Holling - a longer picture book, to be read over several days, with lots of information about the Great Lakes, the story follows a hand-carved canoe from where the boy who made it sets it into a melting snowbank in a stream that feeds into Lake Superior, through the lakes and eventually to the ocean. (Grades 1-3)
- A World of Faith, by Stack, illustrated by Peterson - a brief introduction to 28 different religions, listed alphabetically. There is a page of text about basic beliefs, and a full-color illustration of people in historical dress for each faith. Again, this is not a book you would probably read straight through at one sitting, but maybe do one, or a few, each day, and then use as a reference book. (middle elementary to middle school)
- Dogs and Dragons, Trees and Dreams, by Karla Kuskin - whimsical short poems (Pre-K and up)
Longer books for reading to third graders and up:
- Surviving the Applewhites, by Stephanie Tolan - realistic fiction, funny, this book is a romp with various outrageously stereotyped (but mostly lovable) characters. The two main characters are Jake, a middle school boy who has been expelled from school for bad behavior and is sent to the Applewhite family's "home school", and the middle-school-aged Applewhite girl who feels like the only ordinary member in her brilliant, artsy family. Jake starts out smoking and swearing, but gives up both along the way. Great literature? Probably not, but a lot of fun to read. (Newbery Honor book)
- The Secret Garden, by Frances Burnett - the old-fashioned classic about friendship between a lonely, spoiled orphan girl, her invalid cousin, and a local farmer's son who share a hidden, walled-off garden, and how working in the garden heals bodies and spirits.
- An Edge of the Forest, by Agnes Smith - a book I remember my mother reading to us, and that I read to my children, this one can't be classified into the usual categories, but it is a wonderful story to read aloud. An orphan black lamb wanders away from her flock and is befriended by a young black leopardess, a doe and fawn, and an owl. Yes, it does have "talking animals" and sounds entirely unlikely, but the way it is written makes it work. It can be hard to find - try interlibrary loan or bookfinder.com. I found an old copy in our local library in the late 80's, considered stealing it (no one else had checked it out in years), and instead asked to buy it from them. They wouldn't sell it to me, but not long after, they weeded the stacks and threw it away. I searched through boxes of discards, but I was too late. It was one of the first books I bought, a few years later, when the internet made it possible to find rare books.
- The Indian in the Cupboard, by Lynn Reid Banks - fantasy set in our modern world - a boy finds that he can turn a plastic toy Indian into a "real" (though still miniature) live man - the ultimate toy. Of course, when a "toy" is a live person, soon many practical and ethical dilemmas crop up, some funny and some serious. Avoid the movie, but read the book. It also has sequels your children are likely to be inspired to read themselves after you read them the first one.
- Flipped, by Wendelin Van Draanen - realistic fiction - this story is told in alternate chapters by the two main characters, starting when they are in early elementary school, and the girl has a huge crush on the boy, who is constantly coming up with schemes to avoid her. When they get to middle school, though, he begins to notice that he likes her, right about the time she decides maybe she isn't interested after all. A light story with some humor, but also some serious undertones (about social class, stereotyping, and how we look at the mentally handicapped). The "romance" is handled in age-appropriate ways.
For reading to teens:
- Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand - nonfiction - although this is about horses, it is also about the Depression, and the lives of Seabiscuit's owner and trainer and jockey, who were all amazing people. The interwoven stories of their personal struggles to overcome injuries and adversity create suspense even if you know the outcome of most of the races.
- A Story Like the Wind, by Laurens Van Der Post - historical fiction, set in southern Africa; the main character is a white boy who has grown up, home-schooled, on a remote farm in southern Africa (first half of 1900's). This is a quiet story about his experiences as a boy, with his hunting dog, building very gradually to a dramatic ending that will probably leave readers wanting to go immediately on to the sequel, A Far-Off Place, which is more of a survival story, as the boy, a teen-age girl with only a few weeks experience in the area, and a Bushman couple must make their way across the Kalahari desert. (The movie A Far-Off Place bears very little resemblance to the book - even less than most movies bear to the books they are based on.)