I remember a decade or more ago while helping my friend Beth reorganize her homeschooling room, seeing her table spread with children’s picture books and chapter books, and saying, “You are allowed to get rid of books you don’t like.” Responding to her quizzical look, I said, “If reading a book out loud to one of the girls hurts my stomach, I don’t keep it around.”
In my early twenties, even before little hands helped me turn the pages of The Tale of Peter Rabbit, I read Madeleine L’Engle’s insightful thoughts about children’s books. She wrote, “If it’s not good enough for adults, it’s not good enough for children. If a book that is going to be marketed for children does not interest me, a grownup, then I am dishonoring the children for whom the book is intended. . .”
C.S. Lewis affirmed it the same idea when he said, “I am almost inclined to set it up as a canon that a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story.” These words of Lewis really spurred on my hunt for good books to love and to share with my daughters.
Nineteenth-century educator Charlotte Mason’s brilliant philosophy concerning what to give children to read connects well with L’Engle’s and Lewis’s words. Because children are born persons, she insisted they be offered a feast of living books on which to grow their minds and hearts. Living books are “the fit and beautiful expression of inspiring ideas and pictures of life.”
When my daughters were little, I learned how a bland story or insipid illustrations would cause an anxious ache in my stomach. These were not the books that stayed long in our house. For example, 1995’s Toy Story is a movie I will still happily watch, but I wasn’t able to finish reading out loud the movie’s picture book without that familiar “gut reaction.” Did I ever actually read it more than once?
A gut reaction—the anxious ache I described to my friend Beth—was the canary-in-the-coal-mine warning system I used to avoid boring books, but most of my book choosing was positive. I delighted in cultivating an eye and heart for excellent writing and illustrations. Ever since my first visit to the children’s section of the library with my oldest daughter (she was not quite two), discovering books that are worthwhile reading and sharing has been a hobby. My family has joined me in this hobby, and together we keep growing our list of beloved Bustard Chick authors and illustrators. When they were younger it was the coziness of Jill Barklem’s Brambly Hedge, the beautiful paintings of PJ Lynch, and the well-told stories of Tomie de Paola. New storytellers and artists such as Sally Lloyd-Jones, Christian Robinson, Jon Klassen, and Philip C. and Erin Stead grab our attention.
Here is a sample of books still sitting on our shelves of BookEnd, our city row home. You can find more inspiration in the book Wild Things and Castles in the Sky: A Guide to Choosing the Best Books for Children, a book of essays edited by my friend Théa Rosenburg, my oldest daughter Carey Bustard, and myself (published this April by Square Halo Books).
- The World of Robert McCloskey by Robert McCloskey
Robert McCloskey’s stories and pictures were the first seeds of loving living books.
- Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran and illustrated by Barbara Cooney
Each daughter states this book inspired their young imagination in their everyday play.
- You Can’t Take a Balloon into the Metropolitan Museum by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman
This book helped grow our enjoyment of art and museums.
- Mr. Putter and Tabby Paint the Porch by Cynthia Rylant and illustrated by Author Howard
We love all the characters in this series. And we imagined an elderly man we saw in a window of a neighboring house to be Mr. Putter.
- Treasury of Fairy Tales Forward by Naomi Lewis
This book is full of classic fairy tales—the ones children ought to have in their imagination. Each tale has pictures by different illustrators, which adds to its richness.
 Madeleine L’Engle Circle of Quiet
 C.S. Lewis, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children” from On Stories
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