Classic Lit for Kids – Getting Started

April 13, 2011

As a big proponent of public education (and a critic) I realize the tough jobs teachers face and, as a former part-time instructor, I know the difficult job at hand. However, schools no longer teach a comprehensive, deeper understanding of literature due to the pressure on teachers to teach for standardize tests at the expense of critical thinking abilities.
Six years ago, that became my job.

Last weekend I took my son (3) to Barnes & Noble for a cup of coffee (daddy), a Batman book (for him but that’s often disputed in our household) and a creme puff which he generously split with his old man. While at the store I was looking for a book for my daughter (6), because as you know, a parent cannot buy for one child without the other getting anything.

The fact that mother and daughter went $hopping for a $ummer wardrobe the day before is, seemingly, inconsequential when it comes to bestowing Bat-gifts upon her younger brother.

Due to my spectacular failures of intro-to-classics in the past (“Charlotte’s Web” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”) when she was younger I had to be extra careful. My beloved wife also had a few words of caution. According to her I’m a freak of nature, I read many of the classics before I was 12 (although I enjoyed Chipopo the monkey a lot more) which is most likely the cause of my failures to introduce books with complex themes to my young children. After all, I cannot remember if I enjoyed “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” at age six or ten.

If you’ve never been at a book store’s kids section, they have a wall of classics. Some of the classics are the full length novels which, quite honestly, scare even the most voracious readers. However, many of the books are abridged version which I think are perfect as an introduction to the stories we love because they tone down (not dumb down) the vocabulary and complexity. There is even a whole “classic starts” series.

I chose Swiss author Johanna Spyri’s “Heidi”. A book often referred to by a quote from the author as: “for children and those who love children”. This is a simple book as there are no complicated plot lines which will frustrate the child. The abridged version’s chapters are short (3-10 pages or so) and the theme of “grandfather” has been prominent in our house since my dad past away recently.

I also noticed that children like to read about someone which is the same sex and same age, actually a year or two older is usually preferable. I almost blew it this time also. It appears that it is a major faux pas to compare a six (AND A HALF!!!) year old American princess with a five year old Swiss goat herder. Not due to the occupation, but due to the vast difference in ages – but we quickly got over that hurdle.

But before we begin I had to do a little research. I haven’t read “Heidi” in a long, long time. I wanted to do some research so I’ll be able to answer questions and put the historical and social issues which might be brought up in context if needed. Granted, “Heidi” doesn’t have many of those issues but if you’re reading Twain or Dickens prepare to be prepared.

So we started.
Currently I read a chapter a night, sometimes two, but no more. We had a short conversation about each chapter after we finished. What was the chapter about? What happened? What did she think is going to happen?

Currently we’re still going strong!

What have I learned?
• The story must be good. I’m aware that these books are “classics”, but all kids want is a good story – not labels. Which means…
• Don’t discount current literature. Today’s Harry Potter is tomorrow’s classic book.
• Not every literary classic is appropriate for your child. Only you can make that determination.
• The protagonist should be of the same sex and age or a bit older.
• You must be able to read the story out loud.
• There is nothing wrong with getting the abridged version, you want to encourage your kids to read, not challenge them with themes and vocabulary they are not yet ready to tackle.
Don’t go by your own experience. Time blends together quickly and while you might have loved “Black Beauty” when you were eight (or was it seven? twelve?), your six year old might not be ready for it.
• Even if your child can read, make sure you read with them. This will open up room for discussion and critical thinking. Discussions can also give context which kids do not know to even ask.
• Always read at least a chapter ahead.
• Make sure you beef up on the historical and social issues in the book.
• Don’t overlook teachable moments (see previous two points).
Most important: make it fun – the book must inspire the child to want more and should not be considered a task.

Update- 17 August, 2011

  • Find out what’s the right time for you to read these type of stories. For us, bed time wasn’t good so we scheduled a time after dinner.
  • Listen to some professional audio-books. These are not the Dr. Seuss type books and need more refinement. I downloaded a few books from librivox.org which really helped me out a lot.

So tell me: Do you have any other tip? What did you do?

Zohar – Man of la Book

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21 Comments

  • Marla April 13, 2011 at 11:02 am

    Those are very good “learned” points!! Getting kids to read classics is a hard job – I actually didn’t read many that I can remember (until I was a bit older – teens to early adulthood) and now I’m trying to go back and ‘catch up’ so to speak.

    Using the abridged is a great idea and one I often overlook – I’ve often worried about picking something over their young little heads, but this would work great if I found a good abridged version – definitely going to go check out some of the Classic Starts versions!

  • Rose City Reader April 13, 2011 at 12:45 pm

    Great essay! You could also try my parents’ trick: They gave me a dime for every book I read, but a quarter for every “classic” (they were the judges of what counted as a classic). They allowed abridged versions, although I didn’t know it at the time. Bribery worked and I read classics to this day. Although my husband wonders why I demand a quarter from him when I finish. 😉

    Heidi was one of my firsts and I loved it. I think I must have been five when I read it, so maybe that’s why I loved it so. Pippi Longstockings soon surpassed it in my estimation and remained a favorite for a long, long time.

    Contra to your reasoning, Treasure Island (abridged version, I now know) is the one classic I remember from when I was in first grade. I couldn’t relate in age or gender, but, man, I loved that book!

    Good luck with your new readers!

    • zohar April 13, 2011 at 12:47 pm

      I’ll certainly try bribery, thanks.
      For now I want to be able to discuss a little bit with her though.

      Funny you mentioned Treasure Island, my mother also said that it was one of her favorites as a girl.

      Maybe that will be next.

  • Lisa Almeda Sumner April 13, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Don’t forget the other essential ingredient: let your children see you reading often (not a problem for you!)I loved watching my daughters become readers, and allowing each of them choices was key to engaging them. I did stack the deck a little with classics, especially with ones I remembered fondly, which we read together (A Little Princess, Caddie Woodlawn, Little House on the Prairie). And it worked, they are both readers to this day.

  • Theresa Stevens April 13, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    My 10-yo nephew lives with me. He loves to read, but he’s very picky about his reading material. And the selection for boys his age is pretty thin. I might try Treasure Island, see if he goes for that. It’s a good idea!

    • zohar April 13, 2011 at 9:48 pm

      Treasure Island is great, I also saw a classic starts for the Three Musketeers.

  • Rebecca Reid April 13, 2011 at 9:34 pm

    My three-year-old and I have been trying readaloud novels, and given my interest in classics, I’ve been eager to introduce the classics. Last summer when he was still two, I read Charlotte’s Web and The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe as he played. I don’t think he remembered the books, but he loved the picture of the lion on the cover of the later!

    Now that he’s a little older, I’m finding he’s more receptive to a readaloud experience if he knows something going in to it, if there is some key to draw him in. For months every time we got on an elevator, I mentioned, in passing, that I knew a story about a boy named Charlie that visited a chocolate factory with a glass elevator. After a time, I suggested reading the book and he immediately wanted to. He LOVED it to pieces.

    I cannot get him interested in other books sometimes — definitely not if it’s about a girl (Charlotte’s Web for example); for some reason he just wants the little boy stories now. But the same thing happened with Pinnochio. I’d mention him in conversation. He watched the Disney movie. And now we’re reading the original classic. It’s perfect and he thinks Pinnochio is one of his imaginary friends.

    I think what you say about recapping is very important. I tell it like a story before we read the next pages. “Once Upon a time….” I start at the beginning, skip some things and then focus on what happened last night. Then we read tonights. It works very well.

  • Konnie April 14, 2011 at 7:36 am

    Reading aloud to your kids is great! Not only is is a wonderful bonding experience it, it teaches fluency through modeling. Great job dad! There are a few of the newer classics that some may be interested in that have special “read aloud editions”. I do not believe they are in print anymore but you can readily find them on half.com or paperback swap. com. I have read “Charlotte’s Web”, “Stewart Little”, and “Little House in the Big Woods” to my now 5 year old in these editions and we love them.

    • zohar April 14, 2011 at 9:36 am

      Hi Konnie, thanks for the advice and comment. I don’t know about “Steward Little” but I could swear I saw “Charlotte’s Web” at the bookstore.

  • Shannon Young April 14, 2011 at 8:11 pm

    My mother read aloud to us every single day when I was growing up. Those are my best childhood memories. Our favorites were The Chronicles of Narnia and Cheaper by the Dozen. Both of my parents read every night before bed, too, and it wasn’t long before I was doing the same.

    It sounds like you’re on the right track!

  • Lesa April 17, 2011 at 1:40 am

    As I’m a contrary sort, I think kids should be encouraged to read across gender lines. Or just exposed anyway– especially where classics are concerned. I know I never discriminated by gender as a little kid or big kid–a good story is a good story. My 6 yr old won’t walk down the pink aisle but he doesn’t give a hoot about the gender of the protagonist in a book.

    :o)

    • zohar April 17, 2011 at 8:15 am

      Thanks for the comment Lesa. As I mentioned it’s all very individualized. I don’t “encourage” any genre or gender specific stories besides what they’re interested in. For now that is, once they start to read I’ll certainly encourage them to read out of their comfort level.

  • Julie @ Knitting and Sundries April 18, 2011 at 9:48 am

    I love this! With 3 girls, 27, 22, 17 and one 10-year-old boy, I’ve managed to raise 3 readers out of the four. (The oldest would rather listen to something on audio, which I guess counts as a reader .. but not really, since even then it’s far-between). Even the oldest still loves “Where the Sidewalk Ends”, though. “The Giver” is a great book that each of the girls was introduced to in fifth grade (it provoked a lot of discussion, too, and now they want Bebe Boy James to read it too, but his tastes go more towards “Diary of a Wimpy Kid”, the Rick Riordan series, Guardians of Gahoole, and LOTR). He has his “read to himself” books and then there are our read-together books. It is essential to read together with them until they’re at that age when they say, “OK, Mom/Dad, I’m too old for this now” 🙂

    • zohar April 18, 2011 at 10:18 am

      That’s great Julie. I’m waiting for my girl to get the reading bug, I don’t want to push her though.

      Thanks for the recommendations.

  • Sean Giorgianni April 18, 2011 at 5:16 pm

    This is one of the best posts on children’s literature I’ve ever read!

    My daughter is almost 10 and a champion reader at her school. I’ve learned to take her to the Salvation Army and let her buy as many books as she wants – thy’re only $0.25 each and usually in great condition! We even researched together how to clean books (to make them nicer and teach her to take care of them in the first place).

    Keep doing great things for your kids! I’m glad that there are “freaks of nature” out there like you.

    You might also enjoy this short Will Smith video on YouTube called Running and Reading. I shared it with my daughter and she loved it. It’s at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-08M7JpLpl4

    Enjoy!

    • zohar April 18, 2011 at 9:39 pm

      Thank you very much for the kind words and great video.

  • Che August 17, 2011 at 12:28 pm

    I loved the abridged version of Call of the Wild when I was a kid. I guess anything with animals is a safe bet with kids. Also Black Beauty.

    • zohar August 18, 2011 at 12:43 pm

      I think Black Beauty is somewhere at the top of the list, even though it’s not really a children book.

  • Bev@My Reader's Block August 17, 2011 at 4:49 pm

    It really is an interesting journey trying to turn your kid into a reader. My son loved it when he was small enough for us to read together. I introduced him to some of my favorites (Clifford The Big Red Dog for one) and he helped me discover Tintin and Captain Pugwash (two books that I would have loved when I was growing up, if I’d known about them). But when he got old enough to read for himself…that’s when I was just about ready to give up on him ever being a reader of any sort. I suggested all kinds of books that (based on what he had loved as a read-along) I would have sworn he would love. Nothing. It wasn’t until he discovered Harry Potter that he took off. He’s still not the reader his mom is, but he certainly puts away more books than his dad. A victory of sorts!

    • zohar August 18, 2011 at 12:42 pm

      Thanks for the comment Bev, I hope my children will be readers, just not maybe as much as their dad LOL

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