Summer vacation is here (although you can't tell by our weather), and most kids are out of school for two or three months - a great time to catch up on reading for fun! Make weekly trips to the library to choose books to read, and take a little more time to read to your kids on these long summer evenings, or on a hot afternoon when they can sip lemonade while they listen.
Often children or teens will want to re-read a book you have read aloud to them, or an old favorite they have read before. Sometimes parents worry that this is a waste of time, but actually, re-reading is a great way to build up reading fluency and speed. If a child ONLY wants to read one book, over and over, you might want to encourage him to try something else in addition to the favorite - and remember, one of the best ways to do that is to read something new out loud to him!
The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Carle - not really a natural history lesson (though the caterpillar does turn into a butterfly at the end), but a colorful, fun counting book - a classic that doesn't seem to ever go out of print, for two-year-olds and up.
The Windigo's Return, by Wood, illustrated by Couch - an Ojibwe tale that explains the origins of mosquitoes, with lovely, sometimes almost batik-like, illustrations. The Windigo is a man-eating monster who must be trapped - maybe a little scary for some little ones, so use your judgment - for three or four year olds and up.
The Legend of the Whale, by Stansfield - this reads like a folktale, and the illustrations are brightly-colored, stylized paintings with an aboriginal feel to them, but it is actually an original story that explains the origin of the whale in a kind of allegory about peace. I often find myself irritated at children's stories with a "message", but this one has enough fun details to win me over. A bit long for really young children - probably good for four & up.
Miss Rumphius, by Cooney - Miss Alice Rumphius wanted to travel to faraway places and then come back to live by the sea - and her grandfather told her she must also do something to make the world more beautiful. This story has been criticized by some because it tells how she planted lupine seeds around her community (ie, bringing in possibly "invasive species"), but it is truly a classic, wonderfully written and illustrated. When your children are older, you might want to discuss reasons it might not be a good idea to spread around plants that aren't native - but for now, enjoy the story! Short enough to read to a three year old, meaningful enough to read with elementary children, or even teens.
Once There Was A Tree, by Romanova, illustrated by Spirin - originally written in Russian, and translated into English - an old tree is struck by lightning and then cut down for firewood. The story follows what happens to the stump, as it is used by insects, animals, and eventually decays and a new tree grows. It is both a natural history story, and a rumination on philosophy - who does the tree stump belong to? The illustrations are delicate and intricately detailed. For three and up.
The Bee-Man of Orn, by Stockton, illustrated by Lynch in this oversized picture-book, but available in various editions - as picture books go, this is quite a long story, and the sly humor would go right over the heads of young children, although they might enjoy the story anyway. I'd try it with second graders and up.
Survival Stories for Elementary & Middle School-Age Children
Hatchet, by Paulsen - probably now the best-known survival tale for kids, this is about a boy who is in a small plane over the Canadian wilderness when the pilot dies of a heart attack. Brian must survive months waiting for rescue. Realistic fiction, listening for third grade and up. (There are also sequels.)
Swiss Family Robinson, by Wyss - though dated in some ways, this classic is still a good read with a little "suspension of disbelief". A family is ship-wrecked on an island with exotic animals and plants, and they begin to build a life for themselves using supplies retrieved from the wreck, and resources they find on the island. (The tree-house home alone is worth reading the book for!) Third grade and up.
Island of the Blue Dolphins, by O'Dell - historical fiction, based on an actual incident - a native American girl is accidentally left behind on the island where she has been raised when the rest of the tribe leaves. She must find food, maintain shelter, make clothes, and conquer loneliness as she grows up all alone. A classic that still stands up to expectations, well worth sharing - third or fourth grade up.
The Sign of the Beaver, by Speare - historical fiction, set in early Maine - a twelve-year-old boy's adventures when he is left to take care of the family's cabin while his father goes to get the rest of the family, and is befriended by a local native American boy. Third or fourth grade up.
Julie of the Wolves, by George - a thirteen year old Eskimo girl runs away from her village when she is told to marry an older boy, and learns to survive and become accepted by a wolf pack. There is a scene early in the book where the older boy knocks her down and attempts to rape her, but a child who didn't already know about sex wouldn't realize that was what was going on, since it is implied rather than described. The information about the wolves is scientifically-based (the author is from a family of naturalists/biologists), and the book is well-written and haunting. The ending is ambiguous - did she choose to go back to civilization or not? There is a sequel. Fifth or sixth grade and up.
Touching Spirit Bear, by Mikaelsen - realistic fiction - a violent teen juvenile delinquent who has not been improved by previous punishments is sent to live alone on an island off Alaska, where his anger management problems get him into more trouble, but there is no one to blame it on but himself. This book has been a favorite of some of my teen students. I'd try it for sixth graders and up.
One you might want to read with teens...
Life as We Knew It, by Pfeffer - realistic fiction, except that it is set in the VERY near future after the moon is knocked closer to the earth by an asteroid - setting up for floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the breakdown of society and government. The main character, Miranda, is an average tenth grader before the disasters, wondering if she will ever be asked out, living just outside a small town in Pennsylvania. None of the spectacular disasters occur where she lives, but until the power and radio stations go out, a few months into the story, we hear about the news. Gas gets terribly expensive and eventually unobtainable, food gets scarcer and scarcer, and the weather turns terribly cold. The ending is optimistic, but much of the story is quite frightening, especially set against the general anxiety these days about gas prices and climate change. If your teen is a worrier, you might want to skip this book. On the other hand, it is a gripping and powerful story, in the main believable, and shows Miranda maturing and becoming responsible rather than self-centered.
...and one you probably DON'T want to read with your teen -
How I Live Now, by Rosoff - don't get me wrong, I really liked this book in many ways, but I wouldn't want to read it aloud to my children. You need to know, right up front, that two of the main characters are teen-age cousins who fall in love and have sex. No, it is NOT graphically described, but it is happening. The main character, Daisy, is an American girl not getting along well with her father and stepmother, and is sent to England to spend the summer with an aunt and cousins she has never met. She immediately likes them all, and within days her aunt leaves on what is supposed to be a weekend trip, but a war breaks out. Daisy and her cousins are fending for themselves on the farm without adult help or supervision. At first it seems idyllic, since the war doesn't impinge on the farm for a while, but then the farm is commandeered by the army, and the teens are sent off to live with other families - the girls to one place, the boys to another. A subtle sub-plot is that Daisy is anorexic, but that is one of the things she matures out of in the course of the book. It doesn't sound like an appealing book, but Daisy's narrative voice captured me in the first couple pages, and never faltered. I was completely swept into her world. If you find the fact of the sexual relationship to be objectionable, you probably don't want your teen reading this book. As an adult reading it, I loved the book.