If you’ve been hanging around these parts the past few weeks, you’ll have read the first two installments of a delightful interview with Sarah Clarkson, author of Read for the Heart, an annotated list of good books for children, which I regularly pore over in my quest to keep our family reading well. Sarah is thoughtful, smart, and better read than I will ever be (though I’ll keep trying to catch up!).
Two weeks ago, she talked about the synchronicities that led her to write Read for the Heart (RFTH from here on out). Last week, she mused on her own character formation by way of stories. Today she shares, among other things, the answer to a question I asked with bated breath: her top ten desert island books for kids. Read on!
KCI: In your book’s introduction, you mention some of your criteria for inclusion. For my readers’ benefit, would you share how you decided which books to include?
SC: First, I (or a very close and trusted friend) had to have read them. This may seem obvious, but it greatly formed the material within the book because I can only offer the books that I have known and loved. I know there are hundreds of other books that deserve to be in RFTH, but the books I included are the ones that were the companions of my own journey. I want RFTH to be the book that gets a reader going on a lifelong journey. It’s just the start.
Second, literary excellence is quite important to me and was a major criterion for what was included. Again, every book that a child encounters forms their view of the world, and also their literary taste. If you want a child to love Dickens and Dostoevsky when they get to high school, give them MacDonald and Milne and Tolkien and Nesbit when they are young. Obviously, some books were included for the excellence of their content even if they were of lower literary quality, but for the most part, I chose good writers. I wanted RFTH to be filled with books that contained language at its loveliest, words at their sharpest.
Third, of course, content—the ideas presented within the stories, the meat of meaning. I chose the books that I would want my own someday children to read, stories that would form them to live heroically, to choose wisely, to behold beauty with wonder. I am an idealist; I love to be called toward what is good, true, and beautiful, so that was a constant question to me as I sorted stories: what will this story cause a child reader to think, desire, become, do?
Fourth, variety. I wanted a feast of books for RFTH. Picture books, poetry, historical fiction, golden age classics—I worked hard to include favorites from each genre. Reading isn’t a complicated system of learning, it’s a feast, and I wanted a variety of books to to offer as nourishment to my readers’ souls.
KCI: Are there any books that you’ve read since that you wish you’d included? What about them makes them inclusion-worthy?
SC: I really enjoyed The Penderwicks—one of the few more recent children’s books that I have encountered that had the same flavor of wonder as the Anne books by Lucy Maud Montgomery.
The Wingfeather Saga by Andrew Peterson—these fun, funny, fantastical stories make for great read alouds. Also, The Rise and Fall of Mount Majestic by my friend Jennifer Trafton.
All of these are of high literary quality and carry what is to me one of the marks of the best sort of children’s book: wonder. They inspire curiosity, they present the world as a place strange and marvelous and sometimes grievous, but definitely worth a hearty adventure of exploration.
KCI: And finally, the question for whose answer I can hardly wait: if you were stranded on a desert island with a child, which ten books would you most wish you had with you? (I mean, apart from a wilderness survival handbook and a how-to-build-a-boat-from-material-commonly-found-on-desert-islands guide.)
SC: Oh my. My goodness. How can I possibly choose? Here goes.
- Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery. (The series, if I’m allowed a series!) Anne taught me to see the world as a living place, to find companionship in the beauty of the natural world. To walk, to wonder. And she named everything. It would be so much more fun to be stranded on a desert island if one had name’s for the trees and hills and streams and…everything.
- The Golden Books Family Treasury of Poetry, edited by Louis Untermeyer, illustrated by Joan Walsh Anglund. I love poetry. I love to quote poetry at poignant moments – it makes them so much more memorable! And this collection has excellent variety, but also provides the reader with the classics. And the whimsical illustrations are pure delight.
- The Railway Children and/or The Treasure Seekers by E. Nesbit. Both about children in tight places who are forced to become quite ingenious in their quest to right the family fortunes.
- The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis. Of course.
- Just David by Eleanor Porter. By the same author who wrote Pollyanna, Just David is far less known because it was published around WWI and couldn’t be distributed as widely because of the paper shortage. It is one of the loveliest children’s stories I have encountered—music, a father who believed in crafting the soul of his son, the healing that comes through a child – all of these are themes in this beautiful story. I want a son like David someday!
- Heidi by Johanna Spyri. A family favorite. So much about grace and forgiveness, and I still crave toasted cheese just from the descriptions I encountered in it when I was a child.
- At the Back of the North Wind, by George MacDonald. Really, any of MacDonald’s stories, but this was the first I read and I love it especially for the way it sets the heart longing for what is just beyond our touch in this world.
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Because there just isn’t another story quite as satisfying as this one with its portrayal of friendship, home, fellowship, and the delights of knowing one’s place in the earth.
- Freckles by Gene Stratton Porter. I love this book. I still want to live in the Limberlost because of the beauty I encountered in this story. And the courage of Freckles is something not to be missed. It would help us to explore our desert island.
- The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. I have to include this, even though it teeters on the edge of what I would define as children’s literature. It’s a world of a book, a quest and an adventure you can explore endlessly. No desert isle would be complete without it.
Thanks to Sarah’s desert isle book recs here, I moved The Railway Children, which I bought at a library sale almost two years ago, to the top of our family read-aloud list and brought it on our vacation. Last week around our campfire in Glacier National Park, I read it to Doug and the kids till it was too dark to read anymore. Two of my favorite hours of the whole trip.