Fairy tales traditionally star poverty-stricken orphans who must face the world with nothing more than their own good character, agile wit, and perhaps a talking animal friend. Yet by the end of their story, these protagonists find either a pair of long-lost royal parents or a new spouse and are ensconced in happy families of their own. Far fewer modern stories portray families as intrinsically linked to happy endings.
A peculiarly high percentage of contemporary fictional characters have stupid parents, annoying and malicious siblings, or otherwise dysfunctional relatives. Why is familial happiness so rare in the books we give to our children? Sometimes dreadful families help to create a more interesting tale. Often, however, they simply reinforce the hyper-individualistic cultural message that each person must seek her own happiness in isolation from her relationships to others, and that family is an obstacle to complete freedom. Sadly, this kind of thinking contributes to problems like divorce, loneliness, and statism.
Many real-life families are tragically damaged. However, I want my children to know that families can be awesome even when they are made up of flawed human beings. I want my children to know that siblings should stick together through tough times, that parents can be loving and often right, and that family virtues like love, trust, self-sacrifice, and loyalty are more important than complete individual freedom. In short, I want to provide my children with models of happy and functional families. Here are some wonderful stories that do just that.
(These all received a stamp of approval from my two-and-a-half year-old.)
Shirley Hughes’ delightful books portray a world in which small children grapple with daily life supported by family warmth and neighborly community. In “Alfie Gets In First” (1981), the title character gets his mom and baby sister locked out of the family apartment and himself locked in. One of the follow-up stories, “Annie Rose Is My Little Sister,” provides a sweet but unsentimental take on life with a small sibling. “Dogger” (1977) is the story of a toddler whose big sister makes a sacrificial gesture to restore his favorite stuffed animal.
“I’m a Big Brother” by Joanna Cole (2010) illustrates how to talk to small children about the imminent arrival of a new sibling. The story reassures young readers without suggesting they are expected to be jealous. A big sister version is also available.
“The Maggie B” by Irene Haas (1975) is about a little girl who make a wish: “North Star, star of the sea, / I wish for a ship / Named after me, / To sail for a day / Alone and free, / With someone nice / For company.” Her wish is granted, and it turns out that the company provided is her baby brother.
“The Seven Silly Eaters” by Mary Ann Hoberman (2000) is about a family of seven children who have worn their mother out by being very, very picky eaters. Moms of real-life big families are likely to identify with the illustrations.
“Papa Small” by Lois Lenski (1951) describes what the Small family does each day of the week. I find the vintage household equipment to be rather charming, and I love that the family goes to church on Sunday (where “Baby Small cries and has to be taken out”).
“What Was That?” by Geda Bradley Matthews (1994) is about a family of bears who become alarmed at hearing noises in the night. The littlest bear seeks the reassurance of his big brother. Another set of noises sends them both running to their biggest brother, and soon, all three head for their parents’ bed. I remember enjoying this tale as a kid.
“Tops and Bottoms” by Janet Stevens (1995) follows in the footsteps of the best fables and fairy tales. In this story, an enterprising Rabbit offers to grow crops for a lazy bear in exchange for half of the produce: either the tops or the bottoms. Rabbit’s large family works right alongside him.
“Something from Nothing” by Phoebe Gilman (1993) is a retelling of a Jewish folktale. A young boy in Eastern Europe loves his worn-out baby blanket, so his grandfather not only reinvents it as a jacket, but also continues to make new things as the old ones wear out.
“Over the Hills and Far Away” by Chris Conover (2004), an illustrated version of the English folk song, is adorable. Who doesn’t want to see whimsically dressed otters playing bagpipes? I also appreciate the way the otters pass their love for music down through multiple generations.
“Dr. DeSoto” by William Steig (1982) is a classic. Dr. DeSoto isn’t just a mouse and a gifted dentist: he also models a tight and admirable partnership with his wife.
Chapter Books and Novels for Elementary Grade Readers*
The Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder (1932-1971) follow the travels and adventures of America’s quintessential pioneer family and are a must-read for all ages. Laura and her older sister have their differences, especially in the early books, but their occasional squabbles never dint the sense that their family is a cohesive unit in which each member does his or her best to help the others. Plus, we adults can learn quite a bit about life and parenting from observing Ma and Pa Ingalls.
“All of a Kind Family” by Sydney Taylor (1951) features a tight-knit family of five Jewish sisters who live in New York City at the turn of the century. Sadly, I found the sequels less satisfying.
“The Tanglewood’s Secret” by Patricia St. John (1967) is about a prickly young girl who loves her brother dearly, but quarrels constantly with the aunt who is raising them both. The book includes some evangelical “make a decision for Jesus” theology that not all readers will agree with (I don’t), but I appreciate a story in which a child learns to be kinder to her family. Most stories these days suggest it is always the adult who must change if a child is unhappy.
“Caddie Woodlawn” by Carol Ryrie Brink (1935) and “Caddie Woodlawn’s Family” (formerly “Magical Melons”) detail the frontier adventures of young tomboy Caddie and her six lively siblings. Everyone should have a chance to enjoy these.
“Ivan and the Hidden Bible” (1975) by Myrna Grant is one of a series of books about a boy in Soviet Russia. As Christians, Ivan and his family must live carefully, lest they be caught attending forbidden religious meetings or sharing their faith illegally.
Novels for Elementary and Middle School Readers*
“Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry” by Mildred Taylor (1976) is a gripping tale of a black family trying to survive racism, unjust sharecropping, and violence in Mississippi during the Great Depression. In my experience, the book is most often assigned to fourth graders.
“A Father’s Promise” by Donna L. Hess (1990) is the story of a boy who is Jewish, Christian, and Polish. When he is separated from his father during World War II, he must rely on the promises of both his earthly father and his heavenly Father. Because this story communicates about the Holocaust without being explicit (our protagonist spends the war in the woods rather than the city or a death camp), it is also a way to introduce the topic to readers who are young or sensitive.
The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis (1950-1956) ought, of course, to be read by everyone. We can also learn from the honor code of the Pevensie siblings. I suggest starting with “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe.”
“The Green Ember” by S. D. Smith (2014) is billed as “a new adventure with an old soul.” It includes both family loyalty and courageous rabbits who fight with swords. Who doesn’t love that? This story is perhaps best enjoyed as a read-aloud.
“The Charlatan’s Boy” by Jonathan Rogers (2010), a story set in a nineteenth-century-style world with fantasy elements, is about a boy whose master is a traveling showman and trickster. Although our hero believes himself to be an orphan, the story addresses the longing for a family of one’s own.
“The Story of the Treasure Seekers” by Edith Nesbit (1899) is a delightful tale about six turn-of-the-century siblings who decide to hunt for treasure. The narrator informs the reader that he won’t reveal which of the siblings he is until the end, but an astute reader will be able to deduce the answer rather quickly. Nesbit’s young characters engage in fights and quarrels amongst themselves, but they always make up and try again. They are also utterly loyal in the face of any challenge from an outsider. “Five Children and It,” by the same author, is also a fun read.
“Swallows and Amazons” by Arthur Ransome (1930) follows the adventures of a group of siblings who are allowed to spend their summer sailing and living on an island without much adult supervision.
“Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers” by Ralph O. Moody (1950) is the wonderful first book in an excellent series. Sometimes described as “the boy’s Little House books,” these memoirs detail the author’s youth in the Old West. He lived at a time when boys could ride horses and join in the work of adults from a tender age, and he had a wise and loving father who taught him what it meant to be an honest man. Warning: sad ending (but it’s worth it).
“Cheaper by the Dozen” by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey (1948) will make you laugh. What happens when you combine a family of 12 children with parents who use their family as an ad hoc lab for “motion study” (known in its current evolution as methods engineering)? Read this autobiographical volume to find out.
“Red Scarf Girl: A Memoir of the Cultural Revolution” by Ji-li Jiang (1998) tells the story of the author’s girlhood experiences during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She was forced to choose between renouncing her family in exchange for a better life, or remaining loyal even if doing so meant living as a social outcast. The story is eye-opening in many ways.
“Savvy” by Ingrid Law (2010) is about a family who all manifest a unique magical ability (their “savvy”) at the age of 13. When her father is injured in a terrible accident, all our protagonist wants is a savvy that will allow her to save him. This tale—part road trip adventure, part coming-of-age, part fantasy—is held together by the importance of family and love.
Not all good stories are about intact, wholesome families. However, if we want our children to be able to form happy marriages and provide stable homes for their own kids someday, they need models of what a family can be. It is well worth making sure that their reading lists contribute to this goal.
* These age categorizations are rather artificial. A good book is enjoyable to a broad swathe of the population. A title like “The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe,” for instance, can be read aloud to primary grade children, read independently by kids in elementary and middle school, and also be instructive to teen and adult readers. It is best to get your hands on actual copies of these books before you decide whether your child is likely to enjoy them.