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Gift Guide: Classic Children’s Books

by Erin Pihlaja on December 6, 2012 · 1 comment


I was an avid reader as a child (my mother once questioned the pace of my consumption during an elementary school book-a-thon), and my tastes and range were quite varied. Now that I have two daughters, one 5 and the other 3, I find myself encouraging them to read books that I read in my youth. It is downright insane how books from my generation differ so much from those produced today. The tales I read seem more dangerous; they are often filled with death and despair. Still, if you can suspend your fear of potential early childhood trauma, some of those “classics” hold up well, even in the most stringently sanitized nanny-state.

One of my early favorites was Rumplestiltskin as told by Edith Tarcov. Scholastic first printed this in 1973, and it follows the original tale quite closely. A miller sells his daughter to the king after convincing his royal majesty that the girl can spin straw into gold. It is obviously a lie, and the daughter cries at night over her impending death. A wee little man, the namesake of this fable, appears in her room at the end of each evening. She gives him all of her jewelry and he spins the straw into gold. On the last night, she has nothing to give so she promises him her firstborn. Later, when he comes to collect, she bargains with him to spare her baby. She must then guess his name in order to keep her heir. She finally does, and Rumplestitlskin pitches a fit, that we assume leads to his death. One of the best things about this particular edition is the illustrator: Edward Gorey. His drawings lend the visuals to this creepy tale, and they are wonderful. You can find this online for around $4 to $10 depending on the condition, and if you’re really lucky you might also score the little record that originally came with it. But your kids will probably have no idea what to do with it.

No children’s library is complete with at least one work by Roald Dahl. There are so many excellent Dahl titles to choose from, but I remember swooning over James and the Giant Peach. Somehow this sad tale of an orphaned young boy (his parents are eaten by a rhinoceros) becomes the sweet, fantastical story of a boy escaping a horrible fate (a life of abuse at the hands of his own aunts) via a giant, enchanted peach. After many adventures, he eventually finds happiness and a permanent home in the Big Apple (New York City). While a first edition of this book could easily cost you hundreds of dollars, there are many paperback versions available for under $10.

Sixth grade wouldn’t have been complete for me without The Yearling by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. I read this religiously once a year, and my mother always knew when, because after turning the last page I would wander down from my bedroom sobbing hysterically. Good, good times. I won’t spoil the ending, but this is the story of a young boy named Jody Baxter and his longing for companionship in the rural backwoods of central Florida. He finds a friend in an orphaned fawn, which eases the pain of tough times and a harsh environment. The soft and happy bits take place mostly in the first half of the story; expect the tough lessons to hit home hard by the end. Amazon is selling the 50th anniversary edition (which I first read sometime around 1989) for $6.99.

Tough times call for cool survival skills, and Hatchet by Gary Paulsen (online for under $10) was, in my adolescent mind (it was first published in 1987), the epitome of awesome. Brian, the 13-year-old main character, gets stranded in northern Canada after the plane he is on crash lands. He is the only survivor and spends 54 days in the woods with little more than the hatchet that his mother gave him. I wasn’t allowed to play with sharp instruments, at that time I had never even been on an airplane, and the most time I had ever spent away from my parents was one night. I found this story fascinating, partly because it represented a world of freedom and maturity won by powerful survival instincts and ingenuity, but also because it taught me that not everything can be taken for granted. There is a scene at the end of the book, after Brian has been rescued, where he is shopping in a grocery store. He finds himself amazed by how much food is available to him—rows and rows of clean, organized, life-saving nutrients all at an arm’s reach away. No lie, I sometimes think about these passages while I’m food shopping, more than 20 years later.

Two books that have come highly recommended to me, but that I haven’t yet read (ahem, Santa) are The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster ($6.99 online) and My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett (under $10 in most retail outlets). The Phantom Tollbooth was first published in 1961 and has been compared to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. It is filled with adventures, princesses, and heroism. It’s fully illustrated and recommended for readers ages 8 and up. My Father’s Dragon is part of a trilogy (Elmer and the Dragon and The Dragons of Blueland), and the plot, no surprise here, revolves around the rescue of a baby dragon. This book seems to find its way on many “best-of” lists, but still has somehow stayed slightly under the radar. The illustrations, done by Gannett’s stepmother Ruth Chrisman Gannett, are gorgeous and worth the purchase price alone.

I have holiday favorites like Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas ($10-$15 in various retail outlets) and The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg ($10 online), but when you have built your literary foundations with Fairy Tales by the Brothers Grimm ($25-$40 depending on the version), one doesn’t mind if a narrative runs a bit dark. I recently tried to read a few of the Grimm tales to my daughters, and stopped more than a few times to ponder whether or not I should continue the tale. I skipped over some of the stories, but read through many of them, especially “Rapunzel” and “Hansel and Gretel”; both were always favorites of mine and of many other parents that I know. And we all turned out alright, didn’t we?