Updated: Dec 20, 2020
“When I look back, I am so impressed again with the life-giving power of literature. If I were a young person today, trying to gain a sense of myself in the world, I would do that again by reading, just as I did when I was young.”—Maya Angelou
Reading has always been a big thing in our family. We’ve been reading to/with the kids since they were only a few months old. The benefits are innumerable, from cognitive, to emotional and psychosocial development. Reading is an active process that requires the reader to be imaginative, step into the shoes of different characters (empathy-building), builds their vocabulary - including their emotional vocabulary, and so much more!
Plus, they have both become such incredible story tellers, understanding plot building, and they even put such intonation into the voices of their characters.
For Dante, the following quote about reading really resonated with him:
“A book, too, can be a star, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.”—Madeleine L’Engle
I believe it has a lot to do with how we’ve curated the books we have at home. We try to choose our books carefully. While I constantly fight with my inner “there’s-no-such-thing-as-hoarding-when-it-comes-to-books” voice, we really do have a dream of being permanent nomads and need to limit our physical books.
Also, while we’ll get reading-only tablets (yes, we're going with Amazon Kindles because of the huge collection of foreign-language books available as well) for everyone when on the road, we will have a strict budget to stick with if we want to afford permanent nomadic travel too. So, in either case, we are choosing to choose our books wisely.
The general rule is everyone can read whatever they want whenever (from our curated collection), which I think is critical to fostering a love a reading. I don’t want reading to be a chore for my kids. I’m allowing them to associate reading with pleasure and excitement and passion
At the same time, once a week, we sit down to read a book I’ve chosen on a topic that is important to our family and our values. In fact, we have turned one of these books into a family project!
While this may sound contradictory at first, I can explain: There are some books that I know are important and of value for my children to read. I also know that I keep their interests in mind when picking these books. It’s just that some of the books require more advanced reading, or I know they start slow but will grip my children when they get further into it, or the book will resonate emotionally but they can’t tell from the cover.
I reserve one ½ hour once a week for these books. My kids end up asking for more anyway and we’ll sometimes stretch it to one hour. I hope that explains the contradiction away a bit. It’s not that they don’t want to read those books or aren’t interested in those topics. They just need a little nudge sometimes.
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Our 2-Step Decision-Making Process for How We Buy Our Children’s books
As mentioned, we curate the books in our house. This really just means that we are the ones who buy the books, and we have wonderful friends who ask us what we’d like for our children for presents (or better yet for the minimalist in me, they give nothing! – way better than a bunch of something we would rather our children not have constant access too).
It is a two-step process that really boils down to picking books that are in line with our family’s core principles and values, and making sure that there are sufficiently different categories of books.
1) We Only Purchase Books that align with our core values and principles
“One must always be careful of books, and what is inside them, for words have the power to change us.”―Cassandra Clare, Clockwork Angel
In our family, we believe in justice, diversity, equity, and inclusion. We believe in the fundamental rights of all human beings and we believe we are all stewards of our earth. And, we believe that our children should be learning about it.
I’m going to pull from a quote that has been circling around Facebook
If immigrant children are “old enough” to experience xenophobia then U.S.-born children are “old enough” to learn about it.
If female children are “old enough” to experience gender-based and sex discrimination, then male children are “old enough” to learn about it. If male children are “old enough” to be put in the “man box,” then female children are “old enough” to learn about it.
If LGBTI children are “old enough” to experience homo/transphobia, then cis children are “old enough” to learn about it.
If children with physical or intellectual differences are “old enough” to experience ableism, then non-disabled children are “old enough” to learn about it.
If children around the world today are experiencing the harmful effects of global warming and our failed stewardship, then privileged children who live in more temperate places or whose government have more resources to deal with the environmental degradation are “old enough” to learn about it.
And so on . . .
I will also just add that we believe:
We are agents of change, we can make an impact, and it is our responsibility to future generations to try.To do this, we also have a responsibility to be aware of our privilege, in whichever way it manifests.
This is what our book collection is about. All of it. The books can be sad or joyful or silly, they can be non-fiction or fiction, they can be in other languages. No matter what, the story must highlight one of our stated values.
One quick side note: we stay away as much as possible from prefabricated commercialized characters and stories. Classic examples are Disney characters, Peppa Pig, classic superheroes like Batman and Spiderman, etc. Not only is it helpful to reduce the consumerist pull of all the character paraphernalia out there, but most importantly, it keeps their imaginations free flowing – they don’t have a set image of what a princess is, what a monster might look like, what kind of clothes are fashionable, what people should look like (anorexic if you went off most mainstream characters), etc.
2) Books we choose should be balanced between 5 major categories:
If I let my children freely choose all their books, Dante would probably only choose non-fiction books and whatever single fictional chapter book series he’s into in the moment. Leila would probably pick books only about unicorns and baby animals. Again, that doesn’t mean those are the only books they enjoy. It’s just that they are still to young to look at the whole collection/big picture to see if their choices are well-rounded.
And, I certainly make sure that all their books about dragons and unicorns and dinosaurs are still infused with all our family values. Still, we really try to make sure we have enough of each of the following categories of books to round out the collection:
a) Multilingual/foreign language books - in every language we speak at home (English, Russian, Spanish, and Italian). I don’t mean “learning Spanish” type books but books with plot lines in those languages – because the language is learned through the story telling. Examples include:
- Spanish books we have:
Cuentos de la Selva, Horacio Quiroga - An Argentine writer with many fables to tell.
Oso Quiere Volar - An English-language book translated into Spanish
Liga de Anti-Princesas, Nadia Fink & Pitu Saá (Anti-Princess League, volume 1) - an incredible Spanish-language series of books on people who have had a major impact on the world, its people and its environment. This specific series includes women from in history (Frida Khalo) and the present (Berta Caceres, Assassinated Guatemalan Environmental Activist), The series also includes separate biographies of Eduardo Galeano, Frida Khalo, Mercedes Sosa, Violeta Parrá, Juana Azurduy, Che Guevara, and many more.
Asi me Siento Yo, Janan Cain (This is How I Feel) - a great book to support the growth of emotional intelligence. Having it in Spanish really helps build emotional vocabulary in Spanish.
La Oruga Muy Hambrienta, Eric Carle (The Very Hungry Caterpillar) - a Children's classic. Since this book is everywhere and the kids have been exposed to its meaning for so long, the Spanish language version really helps with the language learning.
Los Derechos de los Nin@s (The Rights of the Child) - a fantastic book written about the International Declaration on the Rights of the Child and the International Covenant on the Rights of the Child in a developmentally appropriate way for children to learn about their rights and protections.
El Principito (The Little Prince) - a classic tale worthy of reading in any language and since it is available in so many languages, we have it in all languages spoken at home: Russian, Spanish, and Italian
- Russian Books we have:
The Rainbow Fish, Marcus Pfister - this is a bilingual book and we choose to only read it in Russian to get those language skills flowing! It helps me with my Russian, too - I learned to read as a young adult.
Horton Lays an Egg, Dr. Seuss - an excellent translation that brilliantly follows the flow of Dr. Seuss' rhyme to bring out the beauty and flow of the Russian language.
Winnie-the Pooh and the Bees - another lovely find. With the children being familiar with this story, reading it in Russian becomes much easier for them, even with the more difficult words.
The Little Prince, Antoine de Saint Exupéry - see above
Am I small? Я маленькая? - a sweet short story that explores vocabulary related to the words big and small. It is available in many languages. We just happened upon it in Russian.
- Italian Books we have:
Miti Romani, Carola Susani (Roman Myths) - very exciting for the kids to read when we spent our 2019 summer in Italy. Dante loved seeing the Lupa Capitolina (Capitoline Wolf) in different places throughout Rome, especially after reading the myth of Remus and Romulus
Favole di Esopo (Aesop's Fables) - I loved Aesop's Fables in my youth and thought how perfect it is to get it in Italian!
Magia sotto la Neve, Alberto Benevelli (Magic under the Snow) - this book is one of many that we have from an organization called Centro Esserci - at Italian non-profit focused on spreading the message of non-violent communication. We have several of their book series, that address emotional intelligence for different age groups.
- English Books from our Travels in Other Countries
ABC of Trinidad and Tobago, Tracy Lee Son (I'm currently not sure where it can be purchased - I have seen it available on Amazon before). Not only did Dante spend almost 2 years in the country, but also, Leila was born there. This is a wonderful ABC's book that captures many aspects of T&T culture we came to appreciate.
Dante for Fun - Inferno, Purgatory and Paradise, Cinzia Bigazzi - a lovely children's version of Dante's Divine Comedy. Dante really felt connected to Dante Alighieri, especially when we visited Florence. We got these from the Dante museum there and he keeps coming back to them.
Pop-Up London, Jennie Maizels - I brought this back from a previous trip to England. The kids loved learning about the place they were going to visit (pre-trip) and reminiscing while flipping through the pages (post-trip).
b) A few picture/wordless books that allow anyone to be the author/narrator (at whatever language level is developmentally appropriate) and the story to be told in any language.
Aaron Becker’s Wordless Trilogy - you can get the whole trilogy or one at a time: Journey, Quest, and Return. Such exquisite illustration, your imagination came make this series as exciting as you want, you can introduce so many adjectives and so much joy, and you can tell the story in any language you want!
Mirror, Jeanine Baker - parallel lives of two children in different countries. A beautiful illustration of two children in different cultures, languages, customs, cities and yet, show our commonalities too.
c) Science/Non-Fiction books – this is a mix of books on random topics that the children have acquired an interest in (e.g. animals, dinosaurs, body awareness) and books specifically on topics that are important in our household and that explicitly support the principles that guide our family's values:
Topics the kids love - these are a combo of picture books, beginner reading books they can (for Leila, eventually) read on their own, and books that required an adult's support because they are advanced reading
Animals - Smithsonian's Wildlife of the World, National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Animals, Catherine Hughes, What if you Had Animal Teeth?, Sandra Markle, Who Would Win?: Ultimate Showdown, Jerry Pallotta - both children LOVE animals and a lot of learning - reading, vocabulary, science, nature, imaginative play, building (forests and other landscapes get built with blocks and Legos)- all happens through animals
Dinosaurs (Dante's obsession) - Smithsonian's Dinosaur: The Definitive Visual Guide to Prehistoric Life (older kids), National Geographic Little Kids First Big Book of Dinosaurs, Catherine Hughes (younger kids) - same here as with animals, can bring history, discussion of mammals, reptiles, imaginative digs, etc. through this lens
Body Awareness (we believe that to normalize conversations about human/sex development, we have to start young before our children have been made to feel it is a "taboo" or "shameful" topic and when we are in control of the message - of course in a developmentally appropriate way!) - Amazing You!: Getting Smart About your Private Parts, Gail Salts, Let's Talk About Body Boundaries, Consent and Respect, Jayneen Sanders, Who Are You?: A Kid's Guide to Gender Identity, Brooke Pessin-Whedbee
Nature Learning (a new category) - I realized that one thing missing from my children's lives was really getting to know the nature around them. From chats with other moms about "survival" classes, to joining a wildschooling Facebook group and realizing just how little they know (I know), I've dived down into this world. The only physical book we have purchased is:
A Kids Herb Book - a fantastic book filled with herbs, their uses, how to spot them, how to make them into tinctures, balms, teas, poultices, etc. Plus, there are fictional stories interspersed throughout that just add to the magical nature of herbs. For any magic fans, the magic of plants - of the healing power, of the dangers some may pose - is truly the only magic I know of this world. The kids really feel that magic - they feel like wizards and witches brewing up their medicinal teas (garlic, lemon and honey) or like scientists exploring the neighborhood trying to find chickweed. (I'll be updating our learning journey in this realm in a separate post soon!)
Topics that support the learning of our family values:
- Important public figures:
Enough! 20 Protesters Who Changed America, Emily Easton - we love this book because it gives plenty of details in later pages but provides just enough imagery with minimal words in the beginning pages to work for both of our children developmentally. It also brings more modern voices like Colin Kaepernick and the Parkland Students.
Little Dreamers: Visionary Women Around the World, Vashti Harrison - what can I say? We want to raise feminists so there won't have to be feminists in the future! We need them to see more woman leadership and while that is happening more and more around the world, it doesn't hurt to normalize woman leadership even more through these inspirational stories.
Bedtime Inspirational Stories: 50 Amazing Black People Who Changed the World (Volume 1), L.A. Amber - I appreciate that this is a volume set and so, it can get updated with more voices from past and present.
Life Stories Inspirational People 10 Books Collection, Darling Kindersley - Mandela, Goodall, Hamilton, Johnson, Gandhi, Keller, Nightingale, Einstein, King Jr, & Frank (I purchased this set at Costco for 1/2 price. It comes with accompanying bookmarks where your child can jot down what they took from the books) - Dante has loved chipping away at each of these books. I chose this set because of the diversity of life experience and type of activism or issue explored in each of these individuals' lives.
Radiant Child: The Story of Young Artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, Javaka Steptoe - I've loved his art and when I saw that this book also had won the Caldecott and Coretta Scott King Awards for illustration, I felt that it was a beautiful way to expose Dante to Basquiat's work and explore visual art (something Dante isn't usually interested in so, every now and then, I'll throw something at him and see if it sticks - like this book!)
Nadia Fink and Pitu Saá's series on important Latin American men and women (emphasis on women) who have fought to justice, freedom, equality and equity (in Spanish) - including Juana Azurduy, Eduardo Galeano, Violeta Parrá, Frida Khalo, Julio Cortazar, and the various Anti-Princesas volumes (here's a link to #2, which includes many modern heroes and heroines, including the assassinated environmental activist Berta Caceres. I've already mentioned these authors above because it is a Spanish language book series.
I am Rosa Parks, Brad Melzter (part of the Ordinary People Change the World series). Honestly, this was an impulse buy - at a CVS maybe. Dante loved it and constantly goes back to it, especially as there is more and more discourse on race and racism in our family. Leila also recently began enjoying the book - I believe because it mentions how Rosa Parks was a smaller, petite person and how she stood up for great things.
- Whiteness, Privilege, Activism and being an agent of change
Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness, Anastasia Higginbotham - I'd say to be careful with this one. We have never told a lie to our children, not even a while lie. This books speaks to children's sensitivity to unspoken truths that frequently parents avoid speaking with their children about. I know that my children trust I will never lie to them and I will always answer them truthfully in a developmentally appropriate way and so, I could trust that they would read this book and it would not create doubt in our relationship. I have no doubt that all of you try to as truthful as you can with your children. I simply put it out there as a word of caution.
This Book Is Anti-Racist: 20 lessons on how to wake up, take action, and do the work, Tiffany Jewell - Fantastic book that is written in a way that is accessible to older elementary school children (again, Dante is on the younger end).
You Are Mighty: A Guide to Changing the World, Caroline Paul This book is for older children (I'd say Dante is as young as you can go with the book). Although, I will say that Dante and I involve Leila in any projects Dante decides to do. In this way, Leila is also being exposed to this book. I also strongly suggest that you read the book together with them to facilitate discussion of the chapter topics.
d) Fiction books – again, a mix of books the children have begged me for and books that tell stories about topics important to our family. If I do not believe a book fits with our family's values, I will discuss with my children why we will not purchase it. Now, they have been gifted the occasional book/series that I'm not a fan of. I will allow them to read it if it doesn't completely violate our principles (e.g. Pokemon series) but we will also discuss when it will be appropriate to gift/give it away and set a limit on reading it.
Series/chapter books –
Tui T. Sutherland's Wings of Fire is the current obsession (Dante’s onto the chapter books - we started with paperback and now are on kindle, while Leila scours the graphic novels - paperback) - I can't share too much without giving it away but it's about dragons and prophecies and left-leaning parents will appreciate the political statements made in the greater arcs of the storylines.
All of the Geronimo Stilton Series - Original, Kingdom of Fantasy, and Journey through Time I think this is a fantastic introduction into chapter books for early readers and there is a series for every kind of reader (e.g. detective, fantasy, science fiction). There is so much humor and children begin to learn how to play with words and even how words could look like representationally.
Roald Dahl Collection - not a series but a worthy collection to expand the imagination! I don't even know what to say about Roald Dahl. . . We started with James and the Giant Peach and Dante was so far down the Road Dahl rabbit hole, and we haven't stopped - Matilda, Danny Boy, The BFG - I could go on. . .
Justice, diversity, equity and inclusion books
Race Cars: A children's book about white privilege, Jenny Devenny - While I do some clarifying at the end of this story, it's the only one I've seen that describes the systemic nature of racism in a fictional story.
The Undefeated, Kwame Alexander - a poetic tribute to Black America. Dante really appreciated some of the verse and some may have been too much for him emotionally. So, he takes a peek every now and then and puts it back down. He feels it and is taking it in a little at a time.
Horace and Morace but Mostly Dolores, James Howe - a whimsical story about breaking traditional gender lines. The first time Dante read this, he had big feelings about it and it sparked a discussion in his class (they read it in Kindergarten) about gender inclusivity. To this day, he loves that book and asks that we gift it to others for their birthdays.
A Different Pond, Bao Phi - an endearing story that follows an immigrant father and son in their early morning fishing expedition to get food on the table for the family meal as they bond and experience the quiet, still space of the pond.
A Bike Like Sergio's, Maribeth Boelts - This is a book about socioeconomic status, ethical reasoning, and being true to yourself. It really resonated with both of the children and with me.
My Princess Boy, Cheryl Kilodavis - a book about gender-expression and acceptance. It celebrates the beauty of feeling accepted as one's self and one's gender-expressiveness.
Not Quite Narwhal, Jessie Sima - I've seen this book loved by so many children (it was a popular choice at Dante's school book fair). This unicorn is born underwater thinking he is a narwhal but comes upon unicorns later and finds out that is what he is. Missing his friends he returns to the sea, worried that the narwhals will no longer be his friends. To his surprise, they don't love him any less and always knew he was a unicorn. Missing the unicorns, he has the idea to bring the narwhals closer to shore so he can hang out with both and not have to choose between them.
Touch the Earth, Julian Lennon - Great for the younger ones, to introduce them to environmental issues in a fun interactive book.
The Adventures Of A Plastic Bottle, Alison Inches The title speaks for itself and it is an amusing adventure into the world of plastic pollution, an issue Dante feels strongly about.
We Are Water Protectors, Carole Lindstrom It speaks to the urgent need to protect water, our most important resource, and is inspired by the many indigenous-led movements in North America.
Emotional Intelligence and Growth Mindset books
The Worry Woo monster series by Andi Green - builds emotional intelligence, empathy, self-compassion and -love. Each monster deals with his/her own challenges from indecisiveness, to projecting frustration on others, to lack of self-love, and more! Both of my children have loved these stories and continue to pick them up and the illustrations are breathtaking! (The Nose That Didn't Fit, The Monster Who Couldn't Decide, The Monster Who Wanted It All, The Lonely Little Monster, Don't Feed the Worry Bug, The Monster in the Bubble, and The Very Frustrated Monster)
The Book of Mistakes, Corinna Luyken - a growth mindset book about the beauty of making mistakes and how incredibly creative working with and through mistakes can be.
Yuko-chan and the Daruma Doll: The Adventures of a Blind Japanese Girl Who Saves Her Village, Sunny Seki - a book about generosity, perspective-taking, and community.
Stand in My Shoes, Bob Sornson, PhD - The story of a young girl who decides to try out "empathy" and act accordingly over the course of a day, discovering that empathizing with others, acknowledging their feelings, and helping them meet their needs makes her feel better about herself.
The Runaway Rice Cake, Ying Chang Compestine - A poor family makes one lonely rice pancake that runs away. The three children race after it through the village but it lands in the hands and starving mouth of a very old, very poor lady. While the older brothers are upset, the younger one recognizes the older woman's greater need and hunger. When they get home, the whole community comes by and brings something for what turns out to be a feast.
e) Coloring/Activity Books – normally, I’d say I’m not a fan. I’d prefer my children to spend their time exploring their imagination and creating their own images. Still, every mind needs a break sometimes. Enter coloring books with a purpose:
Explore feelings and self-regulation - Anti-Racism Starts With Me: Kids Coloring Book, Feelings and Dealings: Color My Emotions: An SEL Coloring Book to Build Emotional Intelligence, Social Skills, and Empathy
Culture - The Capoeira Coloring Book (explores the movement and instruments of capoeira - an afro-brazilian dancing martial arts that symbolizes resistance and resilience)
And, voilá! That’s how we get our collection. We look for books that are in line with our values and that balance out the 5 categories of books.
As we move forward with our transition to nomadic living, we are beginning to purchase more and more kindle books. The plan is to purchase almost all of our books on the kindle platform. Only in those cases where color is inextricably linked with the value of the books (e.g. Aaron Becker’s Wordless Trilogy) or in the obvious category – coloring books – will we buy physical books.
For those of you looking to minimize your physical collection like we are, we love the Kindle Paperwhite, which is now waterproof and comes with up to 32GB of storage! and you can try the Kindle Unlimited membership with a one-month free trial with millions of books to choose from!
Please share books that are a staple of your home collection so we can share what fills our families with joy!