Our love of these books made me reflect on what it is I look for in books for my family and what my children most respond to in books. My kids do not hesitate to tell me to turn off a book if they don't like it, so I have had to refine my skills in choosing books. I've recently listened to many episodes of the Read Aloud Revival podcast and have begun reading Sarah Mackenzie's The Read Aloud Family. I, undoubtedly, have Mrs. Mackenzie to thank for helping me articulate some of these thoughts. She writes in The Read Aloud Family, "[A story] allows each of our kids a vicarious experience, giving them the precious gift of practice. Stories reach us where nothing else can and quicken the heartbeat of the hero within us." The stories to which my children best connect are those stories in which they relate to the characters and something within those characters inspires them to be a better version of themselves.
In a conversation between fantasy writer N.D. Wilson and the Penderwicks creator Jeanne Birdsall (this conversation is available on The Read Aloud Revival podcast here), Wilson notes that while the genres of their works are quite different, their goals in writing are very much the same. He says, "[T]here’s a commonality of the reality of pain, the reality of tragedy, but also the reality of healing, the reality of true conquest, and the sun rising on the other side. Good triumphing ultimately because that’s the way the world is made to work." In her TED talk, Jeanne Birdsall discusses the importance going back to a childhood memory before it was impacted by negative experiences and adulthood. In another Read Aloud Revival podcast, Wilson says his goal in writing fantasy is not to create a new world, but to explore all the magic that God has given us in this world. He says, "[W]hen I try to write fantasy, I'm trying to wake people up to the fact that the world in which they live is in fact a fantasy. This is a magical, magical place."
So what am I trying to get at with all of this? Simply put, growing up I ran into a lot of books that explored childhood and adolescent angst and I don't think a single one helped me through it. Books that changed me were books that showed me beauty in the world and allowed me to envision myself a better person. It wasn't until college that I found Anne of Green Gables, the Narnia series and A Secret Garden and how I wish I would have discovered these beautiful books earlier.
The books we listened to over Easter break all met these ideals of showing vicarious adventure, addressing real pain and ultimately showing good triumphs. Here are the books.
The Vanderbeekers is undoubtedly in the tradition of the Melendy Quartet and the Penderwick books. My family loves those books (and listen to them repeatedly), so it is perhaps not surprising that we love this one as well. One thing that distinguishes it, however, is that it is set in New York City. (The Saturdays in the Melendy Quartet is also set in New York City and I may be the only reader who was disappointed when the family moved to the country). I love it when a book captures the tight community of a particular neighborhood in a city setting. The Vanderbeekers' close relationship with their upstairs neighbors and others on their street reminded me of when Meg and Clare were toddlers and we still lived in a high-rise condominium building. Our kids ran down the hallway to their friend's apartment. Retired neighbors would play with them in the hallway. Families in the building would walk to the park together and run into other families who lived in other high rises. It somewhat hits on N.D. Wilson's point of finding magic in our real world. A child doesn't need to live on Prince Edward Island or a farm in Upstate New York to have adventure and a fascinating community. There is a magic in urban existence as well. Helpful neighbors are a shout away and the need to get out of our tight spaces creates shared parks and unexpected friendships.
I loved the character of science-girl Jessie. Jessie must learn that horrible childhood lesson that our wants are not always what is best for someone else. Jessie has no interest in going to the school dance and doesn't understand why her twin sister, Isa, would possibly be interested in such a dance and doesn't want her twin sister to hit such a milestone without her. Throughout the book Jessie must realize and work towards what is best for Isa, even if it is not what Jessie wants.
Then there is Oliver. The one boy in the family. What an awesome character he is! He is the book lover in the family. As anyone who reads educational research knows, there is huge problem of boys not reading and of boys thinking it is not cool to read. What a wonderful treat to have a boy character, who is very much a rough and tumble boy and also loves to read.
An interesting note is that the Vanderbeeker kids are biracial. Race does not become a huge point in the book. Their particular race/ethnicity are not even clearly stated (I assumed Asian and Jewish). I found the ambiguity refreshing. Race is such a huge topic that it almost certainly would have become the focus of the book. Instead, readers are allowed to envision themselves more easily in the role of the characters regardless of the reader's race. The Vanderbeekers does successfully push this genre of children's books out of being exclusively white. I pictured various neighbors as African-American, Jewish, etc. And it is reassuring for children to see a racially diverse world that works well as a community. It is a lovely, subtle way of "good triumphing."
This paragraph contains spoilers. In The Vanderbeekers, the children must learn that there is more to their mean landlord's meanness than his being a grumpy man. The lesson that struck me most was what happens when someone allows himself to be engulfed in his own grief. Mr. Beiderman was not initially a mean person, but he did become that. Why? Because he allowed his enormous personal grief to cut him off from people. His grief became more important than how he treated those around him. Our family has known people who have faced some heartbreaking tragedies. I have often asked myself how I can teach my children to live loving, full lives even if they face an overwhelming tragedy. I now can point to Mr. Beiderman and say, "He undoubtedly experienced a horrible tragedy, but what happened when he shut himself away from the world and focused only on that tragedy? He became cruel (perhaps unintentionally) to those around him and he was so unhappy. What happened when he finally let himself be loved?"
The Railway Children is set in England at the beginning of the Twentieth Century. The family begins the book in financial comfort in London. The father, however, is suddenly taken away and the children are told very little. Soon their mother informs them that they will need to live less extravagantly, but they will be able to live in a charming, though modest, house in the country. The book then tells about the children's wonderful adventures in the country. These children very much become the heroes that children can aspire to be and their mother continually reminds them how to be humble and dignified through it all.
What a beautiful picture of a family this book provides. The children are aware of their mother's pain, but try to protect her and encourage her. The mother begins writing stories to help provide for the family.Though the children miss the time she once was able to spend with them, they realize she is sacrificing for them. As the children encounter people in need, they never doubt that their mother will help those people although they are fully aware of their own poor circumstances. And of course, all of their generosity to others eventually leads the people they help to save their father. Lest you think all these strong moral messages were too sappy for my kids, they were not. My kids were entranced by the fun, outdoor exploits of the Railway Children and simply like that they were characters they could respect.
While listening to the adventures the children have within the story, something about it reminded me of Beatrix Potter. There were no talking animals, but there was a certain wholesome adventure to it that was reminiscent of her stories. To my surprise, after I had this unspoken thought, my four-year-old asked, "Is this a Beatrix Potter story?" Perhaps it is the English countryside. Perhaps it is language used. Perhaps it is the adventure. Whatever it is, I can safely say that if a preschooler loves Beatrix Potter, this is likely a good chapter book to try when that child is getting older.
The Metropolitans begins on December 7, 1941. Yes, the day the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. An Irish girl named Madge, a Jewish immigrant (whose parents are in German-occupied France) named Walt, a runaway Mohawk Indian named Joe and a Japanese girl named Kiku all find themselves at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and witness some strange happenings. They are soon tasked with saving New York City from a fate worse than even Pearl Harbor as they take on the magical roles of King Arthur and his knights. They must find pieces of an old text hidden throughout the museum and decode a message that will reveal the Nazi's plan.
The Metropolitans is a long book. The audio book is nine hours long. My children, ages 4, 7 and 9, listened to it in two days. Every time I turned on the car from a stop on the trip, they would say, "Turn on The Metropolitans." This book definitely caught their imaginations.
The character of Madge was a particular inspiration to our Meg. In addition to sharing the name Margaret, they are both fiery red-heads, who tend to be called bossy. In the book, Madge's mother tells her that what some people see as bossy is really strength. Madge is a leader and she gets things done. Her strength is revealed to be that she brings out the best in others. I am perfectly happy to have Madge be a role model for my red-headed bossy gal.
Whether as traditional books or audio books, I highly recommend all three of these works. I also recommend trying audio books for long trips if you haven't tried them. We have so much fun listening to these stories all together and talking about them. There is truly no better way to pass the time.