5 Great Books to Inspire your Young Reader
Updated: Apr 3
Do you have that one kid in class that is a spastic handful? I was that spastic handful. I grew up in the prehistoric times of the 1970s. ADHD had no name. Adderall might as well have been a character out of The Sorcerer’s Stone. Teachers had to just deal with a barrel of monkeys. Say hello to one of the head monkeys.
What kept my teachers sane? Well actually I’m not sure. I’m a teacher, now, so I’m not always sure sanity is in the cards. Teachers care quite a bit. Teachers remember what it was like when we were in school. Sanity? I’ll let you decide.
Lucky for me, my elementary school did not have a kindergarten class. My mom panicked and taught me how to read. The only thing that kept me out of the principal's office was reading. I have a few golden memories from when before I was old enough to go to school. One memory was learning to tie my shoe. I struggled and struggled and the day I figured that out, it felt like I could conquer the world. (It doesn’t take much for a five-year old.) The second memory was struggling to read. When the sea of symbols became a word I understood, it felt like a magic trick. Again, it felt like I could conquer the world. I was trouble. I read. I didn't go to the principal. Most days. Hopefully one of these five books will help another child conquer the world.
Coming Soon: Before I get started, I wanted to thank all of you who have supported Cave Moon Press over the years. Next month there will be a drawing for an Amazon Fire Tablet for Kids! I’ll post how to enter with the blog comin up in May. Thanks!
1) Malala’s Magic Pencil, by Malala Yousafazai
Culture and Critical Thinking
Aimed at preschool to grade 3, this book probably works best as a read-aloud given the density of the text. Why read this book? One of the ingredients for success in school is to develop critical thinking skills. (For more information on the need for early critical thinking, consult Reboot.) The great thing about this autobiography for children is that it can plant the seeds of critical thinking in very young minds. Some families can foster this mode of thinking with travel to various locations. Children can experience how other families live when they visit new places. Some families don’t travel as much. One joy of reading, however, is that you can experience other cultures through books.
Reading is a way for me to expand my mind, open my eyes, and fill up my heart- Oprah Winfrey.
This book does an awesome job of exposing young children to the traditional life of a child living in Pakistan. Kids can learn of different traditions. They can learn about how different families live and eat, while still offering love and support. Beyond that, the book provides the inspirational nature of Malala’s story. It remains a powerful tool in helping girls trying to gain self-esteem and an education,. Pick one up today! Also, consider picking up a copy of our poetry anthology Stronger Than Fear . Proceeds benefit the Malala Fund.
2) Magic Tree House Series by Mary Pope Osborne
Reading as Play
Play, as a verb, conjures up various meanings. When we think of children playing, we first think of toddlers laughing and running around the playground. That is one aspect. The Fred Rogers Center continues his work around helping foster competent and kind children.
He was a huge proponent of play as children practicing at becoming adults. Teasing out his intense focus on play will honor his legacy and help us all help children grow up to be competent and kind.
Play can conjure up the nuance of practice. When the word play means practice, it brings up memories of my mother yelling, “Go practice the piano!” I was ten. Pure drudgery. Practice creates avoidance. Children are incredibly adept at avoiding things they don’t want to do. Clean your room? Avoid. Practice the piano? Avoid. Adults hide it better, but we still avoid. Need to lose weight? Practice? Avoid. Need to save money? Practice? Avoid. Need to play violin? Practice? Avoid. How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, Practice, Practice.
Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.- Fred Rogers.
The ancient joke applies to the third nuance of the word play. When you perform music you play. When you play a sport, you have to perform. When you play like that, you perform. Performing well, however, is interwoven with practice. Enough practice creates flow. Flow happens when champions, like Michael Jordan, makes achievement look effortless. That looks like the toddler playing, and the person performing at that level feels like that toddler, I mentioned at the top of this review.
This concept was made famous by the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow. If you have not already read this, please pick it up. It is a masterwork that started with a study he completed in 1971. His book is a fascinating analysis of what creates optimum results in all people. (The book inspires the bulk of this review.) When we have grunted through all the tedium of practice we perform. As Csikszentmihalyi implies, this level of performance creates effortless joy when a person engages in a task. We play with joy. It is that joy that we envy in the toddler when we watch them laugh on a playground. That joy elevates the potential of all humans.
In play a child always behaves beyond his average age, above his daily behavior. In play it is as though he were a head taller than himself.- Lev Vygotsky
What does this have to do with the Magic Tree House Series? Aimed at grades 1-4, you find one of these books in a classroom where children still giggle on the playground. The children aren’t much into practicing piano, but they will willingly engage in what they enjoy. Mary Pope Osborne uses magical elements, to introduce students to academic subjects. The teacher trick she uses is to engage their imaginations so that the children practice reading. The fanciful worlds spark interest, and kids continue to learn. It can help your child reach their dreams. It can trick them into practicing. Practice leads to mastery of a skill. The current buzzword is engagement. Play as practice. Play as performance. Play as joy. Using this engagement trick boils down to the academic equivalent of pouring chocolate on broccoli to get a child to eat it. Luckily, it’s a book, so there’s fewer calories. (The chocolate does tend to make the pages stick together. Probably better to leave it on the broccoli.) Pick up some copies!
3) Harry Potter Series by J.K. Rowling
Archetypes and Flaws. Self- Esteem from the Inside.
Archetypes are characters that find themselves repeated in many different cultures. It seems to be a miracle that a version of the Cinderella story pops up in different cultures, but it happens. Flaws may be an overstatement. Cinderella is flawed because she is covered in soot all the time and is treated like a servant. She pops up in so many cultures because she is a flawed heroine who overcomes. That creates hope. We are all different, but all human narratives reach for some version of hope. There was magic in the Cinderella story. Recent stories in the media can find people burning Harry Potter books because of magical content. People aren’t burning Disney DVDs of Cinderella stories. Magical elements are present in all human stories. When we don’t understand things, we offer magical answers in our narratives. We offer these answers to our children to feel safer.
The challenge with avoiding stories, like Harry Potter, is that the avoiding books, in the name of protection, creates two competing feelings in a child. Curiosity. Fear. “What is in this book that scares adults so much that I cannot read it?" Decide what you want on that question. No worries. This post will only confront the impact of fear on children. Many studies have been done on the impact from persistant fear in children. Harvard provides one here. Fear becomes a powerful operator in a child’s life. Fear comes from internal messages that cause kids to believe they are flawed human beings. Without that fear they could not identify with a girl like Cinderella or a boy like Harry.
You gain strength, courage, and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
Sometimes the flaws are real. Sometimes the flaws are childlike perceptions that have little basis in fact. The bottom line is that reading about heroes overcoming their flaws offers children hope. The power of Harry Potter doesn’t come from waving a wand. It comes from discovering that Harry doesn’t have to live in a closet under the stairs. Maybe he isn't as flawed as he feels. Aimed at grades 4-7, this books series offers many lessons of hope and how a hero can overcome the internal messages that they are flawed. It works great as a read aloud, but Rowling’s sentence structure allows young readers to make it through the text on their own.
J. K. Rowling has a foundation that tries to help orphans. Check it out here! She is trying to help all the Harry Potters in the world that are still stuck under the stairs. She helps children overcome fear. Find books that can help soothe children’s fears. Pick up the books. Check out her charity.
4) Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed
Archetypes and Flaws- Self- Esteem from the Outside
I discovered this book when I purchased Malala’s autobiography for kids. Also aimed at preschool to grades 3, it is much more of a picture book. The child can enjoy the illustrations on their own if an adult is not close by to read it to them. It is still a powerful book for an adult to read aloud because it speaks volumes as to how the messages offered by parents and teachers impact self-esteem.
Mae Jemison, the heroine, became the first African American woman astronaut. The picture book reinforces how compounding the concepts in the first three posts about culture, play and fear can have incredible impact on a child.
In the 1960’s, like Malala, Mae Jemison bumped up against the educational culture of caste. (I’ll talk more on that in a bit but need to set up the other two elements that came from her parents.) When little Mae was somewhere between toddler and kindergarten status, she announced to her parents that she wanted to be an astronaut. Her parents were all on board with her dream. The messaging was powerful. You can do whatever you want.
If cauliflower can be rice and zucchini a noodle, you can be anything you want.
Mae's self-esteem was boosted by her parents' agreement with the fantasy of a toddler. Were they positive it would happen? None of us has a crystal ball. The parents just encouraged her to dream. The little picture book goes on to show that they got her supplies to make her own astronaut costume out of cardboard and an old piece of clothing. Her dad got a telescope to show her the moon and space. She played astronaut. Between the messaging and the play, Mae was very excited about her dream.
Back to the cultural caste system. Later, the teacher at school asks the students what they want to be when they grow up. Mae’s hand shot up and she announced she wanted to be an astronaut. The teacher frowned and replied, “Wouldn’t you rather be something like be a nurse?” Maybe the teacher’s comments were innocent. However, innocent comments that try to make a student be realistic kill dreams.
Mae was devastated and went home disappointed. Given her adult life, it’s obvious that her parents were able to overcome the messages of the school. One caveat to this book, to me, is that it speaks to gender as much as race. With good reason, history hails Mae for her strides as an African American. However, she made just as many strides as a woman. The reason I say this is that, from family experience, I know in the 1960’s, women of a certain caste in America were encouraged to be secretaries, teachers or nurses. In fact, if female teachers became pregnant, they lost their jobs because their duties were seen as more important at home. My wife, who is not African-American, (in the 1980s) was encouraged to stay home and support her husband. Her great leap, was to dream, like Mae. Her dream was to become a registered nurse and has since completed a Master’s degree to become a clinical director. Nursing is valid. It was my wife’s dream. It's the dream, not the vocation that is most important.
In the end, pick this book up for your young daughter, niece, or student. It teaches that positive messaging and play can not only overcome self-esteem issues, positive messaging and play can overcome the cultural messages that tend to hold people back.
5) Out of my Mind by Sharon M. Draper
Different instead of disabled
Speaking of famous African Americans, Sharon M. Draper became famous as an author when she won a contest for Ebony magazine. Alex Haley wrote to congratulate her, and suddenly the schoolteacher had a new dream. She has many awards to her name and typically writes about African American adolescents.
This book is different for Draper. The reader struggles alongside the heroine as she tries to negotiate the world of school and home. The girl has cerebral palsy and cannot speak or walk. She spends her life in a wheelchair.
The pointed conflict, in the book, is that the protagonist is very smart but struggles to communicate that fact. A compounding conflict revolves around the social dynamics in a normal school. Children run in packs and herds, especially starting around middle school. If you don’t fit, it is painfully obvious. The heartache plays itself out in this book. The school tried, but they ultimately failed the protagonist.
It is aimed at grades 5-6. The chapters tend to have a great deal of text, so it might make a better read-aloud. That may not apply if you have child that devours divergent content and has a pretty high reading level. Divergent thinking pours out of teacher trainings and books. Check out an article here. The people in the buildings are trying to get it right. Somedays it works. Somedays it fails. Books like this help.
This idea about not fitting into school brings back memories of my father-in-law, Jim. He grew up before the era of special education, and barely made it through high school. He served his country in the Army and became a master carpenter. The being smart and reading thing haunted him, but he could build anything. He built two houses for his family over the course of his life. Both were about 3000 square feet. I helped with the second and I watched him do everything from pour the foundation to set the trusses. He was amazing. Saying, “I helped,” is an oxymoron. I don’t have a mechanical cell in my brain. I can’t fix my car and my nail pounding looks like a toddler took a hammer to the wall. I was mostly handed a shovel.
Why do I bring that up? Like I said in the intro, the only thing that saved me in school was reading. I was trouble. Reading calmed me down, so I read and sailed through school, bored. Maybe I'm a teacher because I'm only good at school. I can’t pound a nail. I can read. My father-in-law couldn’t read, but he built houses. School became a haunted mansion of ghosts that chased him his whole life. He has passed on. I hope he has escaped the mansion. I hope schools can do better. The universe tends to even things out. If you have a kid that is struggling, please remember Jim. He was awesome. You wish he would have built your house. Pick up this book!
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