What to Read to Your Kids During the Pandemic

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Don’t settle for books that put you to sleep.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE I f you find yourself at home all day with young children during the pandemic, you’re probably spending more time than usual reading to them. And you might have found that a substantial portion of their library bores you.

If you’ve ever sneakily skipped a couple of mind-numbing pages of a children’s book, hoping that little junior won’t mind missing the tantalizing fact that a dog has (no kidding!) brown spots, then you know how to mitigate suffering. But why suffer unnecessarily? Reading to your child may be a duty, but it can quickly turn into a delight if you select books that you also enjoy.

Too many “children’s books” are written to include concepts that a four-year-old can perfectly grasp, instead of stretching their imagination and broadening their language. A good children’s book allows you to enjoy the story’s subtleties, jokes, and good English—while your young progeny learns that language has rhythm, that unknown words make sense with context, and that stringing together certain words can conjure up vivid images and feelings.

Here’s a short list of time-tested books that never get old.

The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
While Beatrix Potter is best remembered for the adventurous and disobedient Peter Rabbit, who lost “a blue jacket with brass buttons, quite new,” don’t overlook her many other smart and funny tales. Nutkin’s story crackles with wit while creating a poetic and imaginative world that any child can delight in.

Riddles (and their answers) are woven into the fabric of the story, and even though a younger child may not understand the full concepts as an adult will, they can still enjoy the sing-songiness of it all—and learn that language can sparkle and sizzle and taste as delicious as the squirrels’ “present of wild honey” that is “so sweet and sticky that they licked their fingers as they put it down upon the stone.”

Ox-Cart Man
The pioneer family created by former U.S. poet laureate Donald Hall may help social-distancing families feel a little more normal—and they may find a spark of creativity from reading this classic American story of a family making wares to be sold at market.

This family of craftsmen (and craftswomen) make birch brooms “carved with a borrowed kitchen knife” and “blankets from sheep sheared in April,” before finally enjoying one after-dinner mint each from the family’s stash of “two pounds of wintergreen peppermint candies.”

The poetic language is simple and charming, and the story’s hardworking cow, who gets a parting kiss on the nose from the farmer, would get my vote for president.

Where the Wild Things Are
Maurice Sendak’s well-known classic is about a wild young boy, Max, who gets sent to his room, but his adventures continue in his imagination — where he tames all the wild creatures he meets on his travels, making him king of all the wild things.

But even kings need their mothers, and the smell of supper recalls Max back to the place where “someone loved him best of all.” Ultimately, the story shows that taming the beast within doesn’t make you weak; it makes you a king in your cozy home.

Corduroy
Don Freeman writes a heart-warming story about an imperfect teddy bear named Corduroy that goes unnoticed in a cold department store until a little girl walks in and realizes his worth. Despite her mother’s objection to the missing button on his overalls, the little girl, Lisa, is determined. She empties her piggy bank and comes back for him the next day.

The message is simple: You don’t need to be perfect to be loved — but love perfects you. Safe in his new home, Corduroy has his missing button sewn back on by Lisa, who says that she likes him just the way he is, but she wants him to be comfortable. A classic tale of friendship and belonging, Corduroy still fascinates almost 60 years after publication.

Guess How Much I Love You
Children have a lot of deep questions when it’s time for bed, and this story takes time to answer the deepest one: How much do you love me? The answer through analogy builds from the easy to grasp (the distance from your fingers to your toes) to the mind-blowing (the distance to the moon — and back!), proving the point that a parent’s love is so great, it’s impossible to imagine.

Despite the hectic routine of living 24 hours a day with your quarantine buddies who you just happen to be related to, it’s magical to snuggle at the end of a long day and marvel at the unfathomable love of parents for their child.

Tikki Tikki Tembo
Arlene Mosel’s story sold more than a million copies thanks to the mouthful of her title character’s name: Tikki tikki tembo-no sa rembo-chari bari ruchi-pip peri pembo! (A great long name reserved for a family’s first and honored son.)

The book charms its way through an exploration of family dynamics in which parental favoritism exists, sons fall down wells because they didn’t listen to their mothers, and younger brothers come to the rescue of pretentious older brothers. The message? Pretentious people are funny — and will probably need saving one day.
Children love hearing stories again and again — and these stories are so packed with meaning and so layered with fun-to-say words and phrases that you’ll enjoy revisiting them, endlessly.

Clara Fox is a freelance writer who lives in Los Angeles.

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