Growing up as an only child, I had a lot of time on my hands. Road trips were especially problematic, without a sibling to harass me or steal my food each time I gazed out the window. Fortunately, I loved to read, and spent many forays into America's national parks in the back of my family's Toyota, devouring any book I could get my hands on. In some ways, I learned just as much from the pages of these stories as I did from the towering mountains and flowing streams that loomed outside the car window.
While my kids have each other for entertainment, along with ever-present modern technology, there is still much they can learn from the solitary, contemplative act of reading. Aside from sparking the imagination, books are filled with life lessons they won't find on Monster High, characters they won't encounter playing Candy Crush. And so, reflecting on the stories I loved as a child, here are ten books to teach my kids, as they grow up, a little something about life, words, and the beauty of imagination.
1. Anne of Green Gables (L. M. Montgomery). Anne Shirley was supposed to be a boy. At least that's what the couple who adopted her had requested from the orphanage. Yet Anne constantly defies expectations, competing with a male academic rival and winning over her small town. But even more importantly, she uses her vivid imagination to overcome a difficult life, befriending her reflection and renaming the world around her. Given how dependent kids are today on electronic entertainment, Anne offers an important reminder of the power of imagination to transform our worlds.
2. The Phantom Tollbooth (Norton Juster). A bored little boy named Milo receives a mysterious tollbooth, and, having nothing better to do, drives through it in a toy car. From there he goes on a surreal journey beginning with Expectations and taking him through the Doldrums to the dueling kingdoms of words and numbers. Along the way he encounters a "Whether Man," a "Which," and literally eats his words. I can't think of a better way to get my kids to care about vocabulary or math than with this charming story about a boy, a car, and a talking dog.
3. The Lord of the Rings (J. R. R. Tolkien). Yes, I know technically these are three books. But my list would be incomplete without this fantastic saga of hobbits, men, dwarves, and elves determined to save Middle Earth from destruction. Admittedly, Tolkien paints a rather black-and-white world; real life is often more complicated than "Quick, kill that orc!" But the idea that any person, no matter how small, has the ability -- and responsibility -- to make a difference is an important lesson indeed. Plus, there's a giant man-eating spider, and that's just cool.
4. Bridge to Terabithia (Katherine Paterson). This heartbreaking, beautiful tale does the unthinkable: it presents children as mortal. It introduces kids to loss and grief, as well as the incredible power of friendship to bring magic to the world and provide solace from the everyday struggles of childhood.
5. A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L'Engle). This classic novel has taught generations of readers that you don't need drugs to have a mind-bending, surreal experience... just a little imagination and a really good book.
6. Heidi (Johanna Spyri). Heidi is a charming reminder that goodness, hope, and optimism can change the hearts and lives of those around us. Plus, Heidi has something like four outfits and everyone still loves her -- clearly an important message for my kids.
7. The Secret Garden (Frances Hodgson Burnett). Difficult, unhappy children can be cured by going outside and exploring nature. Maybe we all should read this one.
8. Oh, the Places You'll Go (Dr. Seuss). This may be the most inspiring and accurate description of venturing out on your own I've ever read. And it rhymes! There's a reason why parents (including mine) give this book to kids as a graduation gift. It's certain to inspire -- "98 and 3/4 percent guaranteed"!
9. Izzy, Willy-Nilly (Cynthia Voigt). A high school cheerleader goes to a party, accepts a ride from a drunk driver, and, after an accident, loses a leg and must rebuild her life as an amputee. This book so traumatized me that I was forever after terrified of getting in a car with anyone who'd even been thinking about alcohol. Needless to say, my kids will be reading this when they hit those teenage years.
10. The Diary of a Young Girl (Anne Frank). More than an introduction to a dark period of human history, this journal reminds us that all of our experiences, from first crushes to arguments with parents, occur in a world larger than ourselves, where events are often confusing and out of our control. It's also a reminder that we can remain human in inhuman times -- a tough but important message for young people in an increasingly complex world.
Certainly this list is incomplete, and there are many classics (such as Huck Finn and Little Women), as well as more modern works (like those of J. K. Rowling and Philip Pullman), that I hope my kids will one day discover. But mostly I'll be happy if they put down whatever device they're glued to those days, and surrender to the beauty and imagination found in books' pages. And if it means a little quiet in the car during road trips, that works too.