Our favorite family read alouds, part one

28 April 2023

We’ve read aloud to our children before bed almost since birth – first with board books, then with stacks of picture books. When June entered kindergarten, she and I embarked on a new season of chapter book read alouds, and it’s been the sweetest stage. (This was a few months after Annie was born, and though June needed no convincing to join me into this new world, pitching it as big girl time with mama (which was somewhat harder to come by with the addition of a new sister) surely didn’t hurt.)

Though chapter book read alouds are not a new idea, they weren’t a big part of my childhood. My parents reading picture books to me is a cornerstone memory – a daily occurrence – but chapter books? That’s not really something I remember. (Mom and Dad, correct me if I’m wrong!) I devoured them on my own, but wasn’t read aloud to as much once I graduated to longer stories.

Though I emulate my parents’ parenting in most ways, this is one area I’m willing to part ways, and hope to continue to as long as possible. One of the many reasons I love our nightly read alouds: like family movie night, I choose the books. (Sometimes I’ll give June the choice between two or three options, but it’s more a choice of order than title. Of course, I’m open to this shifting as she gets older!) As with movies, this has been the most delightful way to revisit some of my childhood favorites (and crack open some new favorites, too).

In Habits of Household, Justin Whitmel Early writes about the privilege, joy, and importance of curating our children’s media. I love what he has to say. As parents, we have the gift of pointing our children toward what is good, true, beautiful, and praiseworthy. We also have the responsibility of walking with them through things that are hard, sad, and ugly, and books can help us do that. Through it all, we have the opportunity to show them that books are a joy, and that life as a reader brings delight. We can do this by taking the time to read with them, and by expressing our own excitement for the books we get to read. It’s not always easy (there have been more than a few nights I’ve drifted off leaning against’s June’s pillow), but to me, it’s worth it.

We’ve been at this read aloud thing for about 1.5 years now, spanning ages 6 to 7 for June (kindergarten and first grade). I am always looking for book suggestions from people I trust, and I hope sharing our list can do that for you. Here are our first 15 read alouds, with a bit of commentary for most.

1. Little House in the Big Woods | I loved the Little House books growing up and it was a given that I’d share them with my children. June easily fell in love with the characters and we both were drawn in by the everyday details of pioneer life on the prairie. These books are relatively long and somewhat slow, so I actually might not recommend them for a very first read aloud – but don’t skip them! I value the sweet, unhurried pace they have to offer, the love of the Ingalls family for one other, and the values of hard work, sacrifice, endurance, and happiness in small things as well as the honesty of Laura’s admissions of feelings like boredom, jealousy, and fear.

It’s worth mentioning that these books take place in the 1870s-80s and the characters hold views reflective of their times – specifically, ones that are fearful, ignorant, and even hateful toward native and black people. There are also passages that reflect outdated ideas and societal expectations about women and girls and beauty/body image that I’m not eager to pass on to my daughter.

Throughout our reading of these books, I dealt with these passages in a variety of ways. Sometimes I’d read the text as written and pause to chat briefly with June about how that view is wrong and why they might have held it (a beautiful opportunity to reflect on positive change, too). Other times I’d omit the word, passage, or scene entirely and move along without comment.

Something that has been comforting to me throughout: I read all of these books growing up without parental elision and not only didn’t come away believing those views were correct, but couldn’t even remember they were in the books (some of them shocked me upon re-reading!). What I did remember was the beauty and comfort of spending time with the Ingalls family, and the value of what I learned from them. That’s what I hope my children take away, too.

For more on reading the Little House series and dealing with these issues, you might enjoy this Read-Aloud Revival episode (Sarah calls The Long Winter one of the best children’s novels ever written!).

Note: I haven’t offered individual commentary on most of the Little House books below, but this sums up my general thoughts on all of them :)

2. Charlotte’s Web | The sweetest tale of unlikely friendship. A classic and Newbery Honor award winner for a reason.

3. Little House on the Prairie

4. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe | John was the one to read this to June, but I still sat in and listened a few nights. There is so much to love in this epic classic, from the sibling relationships, the magical characters, the virtuous and moving themes, and the simple but arresting writing.

“Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”

5. Fantastic Mr. Fox | This was my favorite Roald Dahl book growing up – I was enthralled by the clever foxes, the intricate schemes and tunnels, the elaborate gathering of the feast elements. If you’ve read Dahl, you know that his writing and descriptions can be crude and callous in a way that’s jarring to our modern sensibilities – so much so that new editions have been released correcting his perceived wrongs. I appreciated Helen Lewis’ say on the (nuanced) topic and took the liberty to silently edit words or descriptions where I felt it necessary.

6. On the Banks of Plum Creek

7. Matilda | A close second for my favorite Dahl book! June really loved this book and loved both versions of the movie (which we watched after finishing the book). Matilda is the perfect precocious, spunky heroine, and it’s easy to cheer for her bond with Miss Honey and chance to find familial happiness.

8. By the Shores of Silver Lake

9. The Penderwicks | I am something of a Penderwicks evangelist at this point, but with good reason: it is the sweetest story of four sisters. Described as “deliciously nostalgic and quaintly witty, with a story as breezy and carefree as a summer day,” it has the slow, earnest feel of some more beloved older books – a true modern classic, IMHO. I’m always looking for books with positive sibling relationships, and this one hits the nail on the head: the relationships between the sisters and their dad are loving but real. (I’m hoping OAT becomes a thing in our home!) June and I have only read the first book together, but have the boxed set and look forward to reading the next four.

10. The Long Winter | Just a quick note to say that though I enjoyed all the Little House books, this one might be my favorite! It was the one I remembered most strongly from my childhood: Almanzo hiding the seed in the wall! Pa and Laura twisting hay! The freezing sled ride to bring back wheat for the town!

11. Pippi Longstocking | June cackled at parts of this one :) It was a quick, easy read.

12. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone | I’ve shared all you need to know on this read aloud here!

13. Little Town on the Prairie

14. The Mouse and the Motorcycle | A Beverly Cleary classic! I wasn’t sure how June would feel about this one since it feels slightly more geared toward boys, but she LOVED it. It was a quick, sweet read that left us both wanting more. (June’s since gone on to read the sequel by herself, but that’s a post for another day.)

15. Adventures with Waffles | Originally written in Norwegian, this one felt similar to Pippi Longstocking – short, heartfelt chapters relating old-school scrapes and mishaps between two friends who live in the country. June cackled at this one, too :) I appreciated that it incorporated issues like death, faith, sadness, and friendship worries in a way that didn’t feel too heavy for bedtime reading.

This list just makes me smile. Of course, these 15 volumes are only scratching the surface of all the amazing books I hope to share with my children over time. There will be many more posts like this to come if you enjoyed this one! In the meantime, I recommend the reading lists of Everyday Reading and Brighter Day Press for more suggestions – it’s where we find many of our favorites.

I’d love to hear: what books have you loved reading aloud with your kids? Any titles you’re excited to introduce them to in the future?

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Lindsay
April 28, 2023 6:35 am

Caddie Woodlawn is an all time favorite from my childhood, so much so that my husband and I have already read it aloud to our infant daughter. We also love The Breaker Boys and The Land (both probably geared towards more upper elementary age, with lots of opportunity to talk through important topics along the way).

Cherith
April 28, 2023 7:36 am

Will is currently reading Anne of Green Gables to A. Puffed sleaves! I’m going to recommend Little Men next. And here’s another vote for Caddie Woodlawn. I loved that book too.

Michelle
April 28, 2023 8:07 am

My mom read Stuart Little and The Borrowers out loud in installments to my second grade class, and I have vivid memories of it! Our family of four girls loved the Little House books, so much so that the girls dressed up as the Ingalls sisters for Halloween. We’ve also loved thr Mercy Watson books (June could probably read the original series herself, but there’s a companion series that’s more advanced you could read to her!). We listened to The Vanderbeekers of 141st Street and it was excellent. Sibling relationships, problem-solving, general kid escapades, but with a modern setting and more diversity, which I appreciated. I’ve been saving the Penderwick box set for this summer! Thrilled to hear that you loved it.

Katrina
April 28, 2023 8:15 am

While I don’t yet have kiddos of my own, reading aloud to them is one of the things I look forward to most! My parents read three avid readers. I strongly believe that a big part of this was family read aloud! I grew up in an incredibly cool century old farmhouse complete with a “reading room” – a room off the landing by our upstairs bedrooms that had a huge fireplace and was literally only used for reading and homework. We curled up there as a family every night until I was in high school (!!!) to read a chapter book together. We read everything on your list but our personal favorite was The Doll People series – SUCH a delight. We also love Geronimo Stiltskin, Anne of Greengables (my sister is named after her!), and got pretty into upbeat spy books too.
I love reading about your family reading!

Megan
April 28, 2023 10:13 am

I don’t have children yet, but I loved seeing this list as I look forward to hopefully sharing many of my favorite books with my children in the future! Also, I appreciated hearing your thoughts about how you dealt with the Little House books, as they were some of my most favorite books growing up, but I have been wrestling with some similar qualms about some of the content.

Emma
April 28, 2023 10:35 am

Oh this is an endlessly fun topic! One not-from-my-childhood favorite that I read to my nieces and can’t wait to read to my own children is the Dory Fantasmagory series by Abby Hanlon. Sweet stories about sibling shenanigans, laugh-out-loud-funny, and just a touch of magic. Another is the Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich. They take place in the 19th C just like the Little House on the Prairie, but they are written from a Native perspective. They’re also just a fun read about family and nineteenth-century life that we enjoyed a lot!

Last edited 11 months ago by Emma
Emma
May 10, 2023 11:12 am
Reply to  Em

Just seeing this! So I think the mean parents is probably one of those reviews that is both true and not of particular concern. When I first read your comment I was like, “Wait, mean parents?” but now that you mention it I do kind of remember this. I think it was in the spirt of Dory always getting into “scrapes” (as Anne of Green Gables would put it) because she’s so headlong, and then getting punished. I would have to re-read to really assess… the magic elf, the scary imaginary witch, and the overall funniness definitely has stuck with me a few years out from reading a lot more than the parent dynamics, but it might be worth a pre-read!

Kelly Strawberry
April 28, 2023 10:42 am

I tried reading one of my childhood favorite chapter books to Cam last year (Hatchet) and it just didn’t go over well. It may be just a personality difference in children (curious if Shep and Annie will later enjoy this as much as June) but Cam couldn’t really stay interested and after a couple of nights I stopped trying to force it. My parents also didn’t read chapter books to me in childhood, but I had expectations that it would be this great bonding experience, oh well lol.
A couple of my memorable elementary school favorites were Hatchet, Dear Mr. Henshaw, Island of the Blue Dolphins, and Lord of the Flies (5th grade).
My co-worker once told me he always read the same books his high school age kids were assigned to read and also their college summer reading assignments too. He said it was a great way to stay connected to his kids even in the teenage years. They wouldn’t always talk about the books together but he said it always made him feel more connected and it did lead to some great conversations. I have been storing this idea away for the later years!

Pressley
April 28, 2023 7:41 pm

My dad read my high school books, and we even went to a play together based on one of them! I bet that will be your chance for mother-son reading redemption ????

Julie
April 28, 2023 11:00 am

Love this list, so many good ones! I have vivid memories of my dad reading Anne of Green Gables aloud to me around June’s age!

Elisha
April 28, 2023 3:21 pm

This is such a delightful topic! One of our most favorite newer books is Little Pilgrim’s Progress by Helen Taylor. Laura and I read this together last summer. Then she proceeded to read it several times independently and now we are rereading it with Isaac! We have had so many good conversations branch off from characters and circumstances in this book. We also read through the Tale of Deckawoo Drive and the Mercy Watson series! They are so much fun and so quick! Isaac, who typically struggles to sit through chapter books, was all in for these!

Laura Bitler
April 28, 2023 6:59 pm

Such a great list and some new ideas for us to add to our library list. Thank you for sharing! Here’s our favorite so far for read aloud with Jason (also almost 7.)

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Stuart Little
Charlotte’s Web
Mr. Poppers Penguins
Penny series by Kevin Henkes
Mr. Puddy & Tabby series
Sophie Mouse series
Mike Mulligan and the Steam Shovel
Fergus and Zeke
Mercy Watson series
Mia Mayhem series
Nate the Great
Geeber the Robot series (Jarrett Lerner)
Ivy + Bean series
Zoey and Sassafras series
Fantastic Mr. Fox
Babe the Gallant Pig and others by Dick King Smith