Should parents control what children read? Writer Neil Gaiman says no: in a lecture published in Tuesday’s Guardian, he argues the idea of “bad books” for children is “tosh,” “snobbery and foolishness”:
There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories. A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is a route to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you. Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st-century equivalents of Victorian “improving” literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.
Gaiman has a point. Many parents take comics away from their children, fearing they’ll never read “real stuff”—yet often comics serve as a bridge into deeper material. Victorian morality tales usually present cardboard, cookie cutter pictures of childhood life. Little girls and boys don’t want to read it—they can see it’s fake.
But should children have free rein over reading material? While exploration is key to fostering imagination, it is also true that strong ingredients build a healthy mind: just as most parents won’t allow their children to only eat junk food, so children should not be allowed to only consume sugar-coated reads. Parents should encourage children to pick up substantive books. This encouragement needn’t “destroy a child’s love of reading,” as Gaiman writes. The very best books merge excellent content with delightful style. They foster knowledge while appealing to the imagination.
In case it might be helpful to readers, here is a list of 10 titles—many Newbery winners and classics—that seem to fit this description. The books are organized loosely by complexity.
The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
This book tells the story of a stranded airplane pilot, who meets an otherworldly little prince in the Sahara desert. The little prince is a fascinating character, and the author’s watercolor illustrations are beautiful. There is a gorgeous pop-up book version.
The Phantom Tollbooth, by Norman Juster
The Phantom Tollbooth was a personal childhood favorite. Its protagonist, Milo, is a bored little boy who discovers a “phantom tollbooth”—and with it, an imaginative world in which numbers, words, music, and sounds come to life.
A Wrinkle In Time, by Madeleine L’Engle
This work is another imagination-stretching tale: Meg Murray’s father, a government scientist, has disappeared. Along with her little brother Charles, Meg sets out on an intergalactic adventure to find him.
At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald
George MacDonald has written several other lovely children’s books—The Princess and the Goblin is a must-read. But this book is perhaps his sweetest. A little boy named Diamond meets the mysterious lady North Wind one blustery night, and she brings him on many adventures through the night sky.
The Tale of Desperaux, by Kate DiCamillo
DiCamillo’s book was recently adapted for film, but of course the book is better. It has lovely, interesting characters: perhaps most notably, the deeply conflicted rat Chiaroscuro.
Carry On, Mr. Bowditch, by Jean Lee Latham
This excellent book explores the world of sea travel and colonial England through its protagonist, Nat Bowditch. Nat has to gives up dreams of Harvard to become an indentured servant. Nonetheless, he teaches himself advanced mathematics, and grows up to become captain of his own ship.
The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare
After growing up in the Barbados islands, Kit Tyler must accustom herself to the Puritan lifestyle of her New England relatives. The story explores superstition, virtue, and love within this context.
Little Britches, by Ralph Moody
Moody shares memories of his own childhood, after his family moved from New Hampshire to a Colorado ranch in 1906. The book is full of excitement, adventure, and heartbreak.
Laddie: A True Blue Story, by Gene Stratton Porter
This book is another personal favorite. Porter shares the story of love, family, and community from the perspective of a nine-year-old girl. It is a humorous and heart-touching read.
Holes, by Louis Sachar
Hole’s plot and characters are excellently crafted. Despite being a good-hearted kid, Stanley Yelnats has terrible luck. When he ends up wrongfully at a juvenile detention facility, he begins to unlock clues to an incredible mystery.
These are just a few books that came to mind after reading Gaiman’s article (I excluded some “obvious” but wonderful titles, like Charlotte’s Web or The Jungle Book). It is senseless for parents to let children exclusively read the Captain Underpants collection simply because “they want to.” Children “want to” because they don’t know better—they are ignorant of countless treasures to be enjoyed. A child might love the idea of eating Lucky Charms for breakfast for the rest of their life. But if you let them, they’ll never know the joy of homemade cinnamon rolls or eggs benedict.