My thoughts on movies and books to share with your kids through the age of nine

Two things happened this week that prompted me to write this post. The world celebrated what would have been Roald Dahl’s 97th birthday, and, a day or two later, my friends Murph and Cara welcomed two beautiful little babies into the world. So, as Linette set off in one direction this evening, to arrange for some awesome local ice cream to be delivered by bike to their now sleepless home, I began thinking about which Roald Dahl book I’d suggest that they begin with, and at what age. And, this, in turn, led to the following list.

Here, for my friends with kids, and those who love them, is a list of what I’ve found to be the best series, both digital and print, that you can share with your children as they grow into intelligent, decent, confident young adults… Or, at least that’s what I’m hoping my kids are evolving into… (The evidence would suggest that we’re on the right track, but I guess we won’t know for a while.)

A few notes before we start.

First, there are lots of awesome things in this world that haven’t been serialized. From the board books of Eric Carle and stories of Dr. Seuss, which are all different, and yet wonderfully familiar, to incredible stand-alone books like To Kill a Mockingbird and Charlotte’s Web, there’s no end of brilliant, non-serialized work that you can share with your children. When reading with Clementine, though, I’ve just really enjoyed the continuity of jumping from one book to the next, and following the same characters as they advance through life. And the same goes for the videos that we’ve been watching of late. So, yeah, I know that I’m leaving a lot of really great children’s literature off this list, but, for the purposes of this post, I’m just sticking with series that follow the same characters. SO, for the purposes of this list, I’m just focusing on series. And, second, I’m sure I’m leaving out some great series that we’ve made our way through over the course of the past eight years. So, if you’re a famous writer, who just happens to be reading this, and you don’t see your series mentioned here, don’t be sad. I’m sure we read it and loved it. I just have a terrible memory.


YEAR 1: Nothing matters. Just read anything you like to them. The important thing is that new little person, or persons, sharing your home hears your voice. For the most part, we went the board book route early on, sticking to classics like Goodnight Moon, and the works of the folks noted above. The only series I can remember introducing the kids to at this age was Columbo. Generally, I’m against video, especially in the early years, but I made an exception for Columbo. (One of Clementine’s first words was “Mumbo”.) Yes, there’s always a murder within the first 20 minutes, but they’re generally over in seconds, and not terribly graphic. And you can see them coming a mile away. Plus, it’s easy enough to cover the eyes of a baby, given how slow and weak they are. It’s not like they watch that intently anyway. At least that was the case with my kids. They’d just snuggle down into my beanbag chair of a stomach, watch for a few minutes, and then drift off to sleep. I’m convinced, however, that hearing Peter Falk question suspects, even subliminally, will pay big dividends later in life, whatever side of the law they might be on.

YEAR 2: Arnold Lobel’s Frog and Toad books. They’re sweet, crazy, and chock full of things that only someone with OCD, like myself, would truly appreciate. A great way to introduce quirkyness to your kids, setting the stage for things much later in life, like Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. More than just being funny and quirky, though, Frog and Toad teaches about compassion, empathy, and the importance of friendship… all things your children will likely need later in life.

YEAR 3: L. Frank Baum’s complete Oz series, starting with The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. As much as I love the movie, the books are better. Sure, they get a little repetitive over the course of the 14 books, but I’ve found them to be a great gateway into the world of imaginative thinking. (The thought of sprinkling magic dust on inanimate objects and bringing them to life, as happens often in the Oz books, is worth the price of admission, in and of itself.) And Baum, unlike a lot of other authors, doesn’t talk down to kids, which is more rare than you’d think. Sure, he tries his best to impose his somewhat strict view of morality on his readers, but he does so in a very gentle way. He’s also great at social commentary. And, through his writing, Clementine and I were able to have a number of thoughtful discussions on the complex nature of human existence. Baum, for instance, in one of the books, introduces us to an entire race of people who wear giant pasteboard masks in hopes of hiding their true “doorknob” sized heads, and I found that to be an incredibly insightful jumping-off point to discuss insecurity. “They foolishly imagined,” said Baum of these people, who were called Whimsies, “that no one would suspect the little heads that were inside the imitation ones, not knowing that it is folly to try to appear otherwise than as nature has made us.” Yes, some of the lessons he’s attempting to convey to his turn-of-the-centry audience are a bit calculated, and overly transparent, but the old sawhorses that come to life with magic powder, living paper dolls, and ponds that alter your mind so that, once bathing in them, you can only tell the truth, more than make up for it. (I remember telling Clementine many times that I was going to take her for a swim in the “truth pond.”)

YEAR 4: Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books. I don’t know that it really helps all that much when stacked up against the massive wall that is modern consumer culture, but I’m of the opinion that kids should know that, not too long ago, it was expected that people their age would get up before dawn and milk cows in the freezing cold, that kids were lucky to get a shiny penny and an orange for Christmas, and that they would have gotten their asses kicked for rolling their eyes at their parents… So, if you’re looking for a “Bad Cop” foil to your “Good Cop,” I’d suggest checking out Pa Ingalls… But, there’s more to it than just showing kids how good they have it, comparatively speaking. It’s just awesome to learn about history through the eyes of a bright, inquisitive little girl. (Warning: Ma Ingalls is a bit of a racist when it comes to Native Americans. So you’ll also have an opportunity to talk about genocide, and the attitudes of American settlers that made it possible.)

YEAR 5: Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. A children’s author with a license to kill. I think that pretty much says it all. (Dahl’s contempt for adults is contagious, and, in my opinion, it’s good for kids to get a healthy dose of skepticism early on in life. It will serve them well.)

YEAR 6: It was around this time, that, between Thin Man films, Clementine and I jumped into the movies of Billy Wilder in a big way, bringing us terribly close to fulfilling the Onion’s prophecy about the father who raised his daughter on a diet of media that “put her entirely out of touch with her generation”. And that was the point when we decided to slowly start down the Harry Potter path, so that she’d have something to talk about with the kids at school. (The bonus is that it’s not that bad, at least when compared with all of the other nonsense out there for young girls… And Hermione can kick some ass.) And, it was around this time that I also introduced Clementine to the original three Star Wars movies. (We have very few hard and fast rules, but she’s not allowed to watch the “bad” Star Wars movies until she’s out of the house, and on her own. I’ve made that clear.

YEAR 7: Maybe it’s not technically a series, but we read The Iliad and The Odyssey when she was seven. We’d read an awesome kids’ mythology book before, but, after Harry Potter, we were ready for something a little more weighty. I had some concerns going in, as I didn’t want to traumatize her, but I thought that she was of an age to at least start thinking about conflict and war in a serious way, as little bits of news about Iraq and Afghanistan were surely making their way to her ears. I wanted her to be aware of what it meant to be at war, and and the costs associated with it. And I thought the risk of upsetting her was worth it. As it turned out, I think that she was ready for it. And many good conversations were had.

YEAR 8: After reading The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, substituting “slave” for the n-word (not because I disagree with the use of the word in the context of the book, but because I didn’t want to run the risk that she might accidentally say it at some point, when discussing the book), we moved on to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. Sadly, I think this might be it when it comes to my reading to Clementine. She’s getting to be quite a good little reader in her own right, and I’m sure that, soon enough, she’ll be choosing to read The Boxcar Children Mysteries on her own, instead of having me read Sherlock Holmes to her. And I’m purposefully showing down in hopes of making it last a little longer. Having read to her almost every night for nine years, I don’t want it to end. We only have about 50 pages left in the Sherlock Holmes collection, and I’ve gotten to down to the point where I’m only reading about a page an evening, after our nightly 15 minutes of Star Trek. (I read somewhere that Star Trek was Martin Luther King’s favorite television program)

Thankfully, it’s time to start ramping up my reading to Arlo soon.

And Clementine and I will still have old movies and classic TV to bond over between listenings of Marquee Moon. (That’s a reference to the Onion piece mentioned above, for those of you who didn’t pick up on it.)

[One more thing… Clementine doesn’t know it yet, but, once we make our way though the original Star Trek, and revisit Columbo, we’re headed straight to The Prisoner.]

So, that’s my advice. Start with Frog and Toad (compassion), make your way though Harry Potter (bravery), and come out on the other end reading Sherlock Holmes (deductive reasoning) and watching Star Trek (exploration of the unknown). If you can do that, I give you an 85% chance of raising a good human being.

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  1. grandma
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 3:30 am | Permalink

    It’s 4:00 a.m. I couldn’t sleep, so just read your blog. Now I can go back to bed with a happy heart, knowing that we raised a good human being. You are an awesome dad!!

  2. C Maynard
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 4:37 am | Permalink

    From your Dad. @ 5:26 am your mother got me up, as well, to read you blog. It would not cover it to say we’re grateful and proud of how you are working with Clementine and Arlo to expand their view of the world. It makes we wonder how you developed these skills, since I cannot remember a book in the house when I was Clemenitne’s age and we did get you up to milk the cow and bring in the firewood.

  3. anonymous
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 8:55 am | Permalink

    The Lord of the Rings probably fits in there somewhere as well.

  4. Eel
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    When’s the Breaking Bad marathon?

  5. Posted September 18, 2013 at 9:24 am | Permalink

    I think “The Hobbit” is year 5 (which is a four-year-old) material. LOTR may be a year or two later unless you want to do some on-the-fly abridging. Parts of the trilogy can be tedious even for adult readers.

  6. Meta
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 9:37 am | Permalink

    It also looks as though Twin Peaks may be coming back.

  7. Elf
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 10:29 am | Permalink

    I don’t know if it’s any good, but I hear that a lot of kids are reading Percy Jackson’s Olympians series nowadays. Also, The Warriors is quite popular. Not sure how they stand up against Potter.

  8. Posted September 18, 2013 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    “Og was very powerful, but he did not take warning by the ruin of Sihon, and desire conditions of peace. He trusted his own strength, and so was hardened to his destruction. Those not awakened by the judgments of God on others, ripen for the like judgments on themselves. (De 3:12-20)”

  9. Kate
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 11:46 am | Permalink

    My kid is 7 and still not ready for the violence in Star Wars. She’s gonna be Ozma for Halloween this year. I’m proud and validated to this list. It looks a lot like ours.

    I have one to add. You must read Dominic By William Steig. Bravery, compassion, magic and love…..and amazing writing….

  10. Mr. X
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Quoting scripture, Peter? What’s the inference? Are you suggesting that our children would be better served to burn their copies of the Sorcerer’s Stone, and pick up the good book instead?

  11. John Galt
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    I guess it’s not a ‘series’ yet, as he’s only released the first one, but I would hope that you would consider adding Rush Limbaugh’s “Rush Revere and the Brave Pilgrims: Time-Travel Adventures with Exceptional Americans” to your suggested reading list.

  12. anonymous
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    I thought this guy “owned” time travel.

    Someone should tell on Rush.

  13. megan
    Posted September 18, 2013 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    The Prisoner rocks. We were not sure if Bridget is old enough for it at 12. Hope you all enjoy it. We have recited lines from it for years. When our cousin turned 6 we called her “number 6″for months. Enjoyed the article and all the books.

  14. Posted September 18, 2013 at 6:06 pm | Permalink

    Subjecting your child to Tolkien may lead to lawsuits later on. Try the Moomin books instead; Tove Janssson is wonderful.

  15. Posted September 18, 2013 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

    “My kid is 7 and still not ready for the violence in Star Wars. She’s gonna be Ozma for Halloween this year.”

    I think I had just turned 8 when I saw Star Wars in 1977. I thought it was completely amazing.

  16. L.
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    I know you’re just talking about series, but Jules Vern books are great feeders for HG Welles.

  17. Posted September 19, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    Your “year 1” list is a little short — as I currently seem to have something like 22 waking hours per day, we could probably be done with the entire run of Columbo by sometime next week.

    Is 3 days too young to start Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle?

  18. anonymous
    Posted September 19, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

    ruth krauss
    james marshall
    ronia, robber’s daughter (and everything by astrid lindgren)
    matilda (roald dahl)
    everything by jean craighead george
    everything by e. nesbit
    everything by patricia polacco

  19. Posted September 19, 2013 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I LOVED reading aloud every night, and we had a deal that no one would read ahead. But then they all started gobbling books and the only thing left to count on to be new to each of them was the next HP installation – which I read, alright, but with vodka. My father read aloud to us every night – the Hobbit and the Trilogy AND all the Narnia books. Maybe he was ambivalent about raising a bunch of atheists?

  20. Posted September 19, 2013 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for all the thoughts… Just a few responses.

    1. Dad, I know you had at least one book in the house when you were growing up, because I have it… The old Florian bible. Whether you read it, though, I don’t know.

    2. Yes, I’m familiar with a lot of these other books that folks are suggesting, and we’ve either read or listened to many of them. Clementine has books-on-tape versions of Ronia the Robber’s Daughter and a few pieces by Jean Craighead George. She’s also quite fond of a series called The Pinderwicks. For the purposes of this list, though, I just tried to focus on things that she and I had shared together. Like I said, though, there’s tons of good stuff out there, if you know where to look… Oh, and Clementine has read a bunch of Patricia Polacco on her own. She loves her.

    3. As for Pete’s quoting the bible, there’s an explanation. He’s nuts. The good news it, though, it doesn’t seem to be his fault. It would appear that he may have been exposed to some bacterial while doing work with livestock in Africa that causes people to act in strange ways. And I’m not making this up. We had lunch today, right before he began his treatment. The good news is, he knows what it is, and he’s dealing with it. The bad news is, he’s got to stay in this really dark place for the next few weeks. So, if he makes weird comments here, just ignore them. It’s the depression causing bacteria that’s to blame. And, here’s a lesson for you. If you go to Africa, stay away from the feces of sick animals.

    4. Once you make it through Columbo, Murph, I’d suggest moving through the entire Joss Whedon catalog. Once you’ve done that, call me, and I’ll give you your next assignment. And thanks for coming back to the site so soon after childbirth.

    5. Damn, I just remembered another series… All of the PBS reality shows where they trap people in periods of American history, like Colonial House, 1800 House, and Frontier House. They were really good. Maybe I’ll update the post.

    6. I haven’t read Rush’s children’s book. If someone wants to steal a copy for me, though, I’ll review it (and draw penises on all the pages).

  21. Posted June 26, 2014 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Thanks a ton for this, Mark. I’m working with a 3-year-old and its good to have some sense of how this might fit together, along with our own adaptations.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By Win Mark’s copy of “To Be or Not to Be” on October 29, 2013 at 9:42 pm

    […] Billy Wilder fatigue. (As we’ve discussed previously, I’m trying, as best that I can, to raise my daughter on a severely restricted pop-culture diet.) Unfortunately, Clementine’s “To Be or Not to Be” indoctrination was cut short […]

  2. By Is Star Trek good for girls? on June 28, 2014 at 8:07 am

    […] gotten to an age where our interests were diverging, and she no longer wanted to drift off to sleep hearing me read from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Not yet ready to acknowledge the fact that she was growing up and developing interests of her own, […]

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