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How to Fill Your Children's Book Collection

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.

Three shots of Dante acting out his story, "How the Owl Captured the Moon" with a model magic diorama he made of snowy owls on the Arctic Tundra
Acting out his own story, "How the Owl Captured the Moon"
4 shots of Leila, Creating her own story from our dinosaur encyclopedia based on the expressions of the photographed fossils
Creating her own story from our dinosaur encyclopedia based on the expressions of the photographed fossils

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: