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Reading is absolutely the most important activity in which to engage a child of any age. In much the same way that adding oatmeal to chocolate chip cookie batter gives it a hidden fiber boost (shhhh), children unwittingly absorb nuances of sentence structure, grammar, spelling, and vocabulary as they turn every page of a fascinating story or have it read to them. There is no down side and no doubt that, especially in today’s competitive academic climate (your children practically have to bio-engineer vaccines and distribute them personally to the remote village they built previously in some equally remote corner of the globe in order to make an impression on a seen-it-all college admissions staff), reading provides critical enhancement for both their written and spoken skills. Every page-turning susurration (great SAT word) is a small mark of progress until, closing the book at last, you hold in your hands another tidy accomplishment. Satisfying, entertaining, and educational, in one small rectangular construct that can be taken anywhere.

Here are of a few of my favorite books for children, listed by author, chosen because they are both fun and very well-written. For many of these authors, I have mentioned a book that anchors a series. Naturally, because they are my favorites, their subject matter skirts the supernatural. There is something life-affirming about facing your fears but I’ve always preferred mine on the improbable side.

Blue Balliett,  Chasing Vermeer, Scholastic, paperback,  304 p. Two children, Calder and Petra, combine their talents to solve the mystery of a missing Vermeer painting, besting their teachers and a detective or two along the way. The reader can even take a crack at code-breaking. Teacher and student guides are also available.

John Bellairs, The Mummy, the Will, and the Crypt, Puffin, paperback,  176 p.   A sequel in a series devised around Johnny Dixon, whose best friend and fellow conspirator is a retired university professor. Bellairs’ plots are delightfully creepy and full of references to works of literature. In this story, an unpleasant cereal magnate has died, leaving only a cryptic note to show the location of his will; his widow has offered a $10,000 reward to the person who solves the puzzle. Natural curiosity and a family emergency provide sufficient inducement for Johnny to work it out and soon he is running for his life in an old mansion, using his twelve-year-old wits and a keen power of observation to outsmart an ancient evil.  The publisher has given this book a new cover but I am partial to the original Edward Gorey design (the image at the top is from the back cover of the original).

Michael Chabon, Summerland, Hyperion, paperback, 500 p.   A boy who’s not very good at baseball is recruited to play baseball to save the world; of course, this game has giants, goblins, werewolves, and a Sasquatch to contend with.

Susan Cooper, The Dark is Rising, Aladdin, paperback, 232 p. Eleven-year-old Will Stanton discovers he is the seventh son of a seventh son, the last Sign-Seeker, sought out by a wizard to find and guard symbols of the Light which can be joined to defeat the Dark. Okay, it sounds a little hokey (the series was first published in the ’70s) but, really, the writing and the story are solid.

Roald Dahl, The Witches, Puffin, paperback, 208 p.  A boy is both entertained and instructed by his grandmother’s stories of witches. One day, he comes face-to-face with The Grand High Witch herself and, learning of her fiendish plot against all children, must find a way to defeat her. Scary and funny and a must. And don’t forget Matilda!

Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book, HarperCollins, hardback, 307 p.  A tragedy allows a baby to crawl unobserved to a nearby cemetery where he is adopted by a ghostly couple and raised by a variety of other ghosts from all periods of history. Called Nobody Owens, the boy eventually discovers what happened to his real family and, using his specialised skills, finds a way to avenge them and save himself. Addendum: My instincts are good–this book recently won the prestigious Carnegie Medal for children’s fiction. Readers may also be interested in the publisher’s discussion guide for this book.

Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time, Dell Yearling, paperback, 211 p.  Meg Murray, the daughter of scientists, thinks she is a very usual girl in a very unusual family. Her father has been missing since his experiment with time travel went awry and, when a mysterious visitor arrives to give Meg a clue to enable his return, she sets out to find him. Covering dimensional travel, the existence of evil, and the power of love, L’Engle created a classic in which a young girl learns to trust herself against overwhelming odds. Rebecca Stead‘s recently published and Newberry candidate When You Reach Me is an homage to L’Engle’s treasured Wrinkle in Time. Do your child (and yourself) a favor and read both.

Arthur Ransome, Swallows and Amazons, Godine, paperback,   352 p.  This is the first book of a very special series, first published in 1930, about two families of children, the Walkers and the Blacketts, living in England’s Lake District between the First and Second World Wars. They have their own small boats, the Swallow and the Amazon, in which they are free to explore the waterways and islands that surround their homes. Pirates figure prominently in their imaginations as they take full advantage of their independence, developing a good deal of self-reliance and organisation along the way. I learned the rudiments of sailing from these books, and what ‘pemmican’ is, and generally admired the extraordinary freedom these children had to both explore a natural paradise and to have the influence of such a wonderful setting on their imaginations. Granting so much autonomy to children does not even seem possible today, a factor which, very sadly, allows me to place it in the ranks with fantasy. But these stories are very real, based on Ransome’s own childhood wanderings and should be read by every child, so they can learn how much they can do, and read by adults as well, so we don’t forget our own adventures in a less complicated world.

There are, of course, many choices from the fantasy/mystery/scifi genres that I did not include but would certainly put on this list (J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis among them). These authors stand out, for their messages as much as for their writing, especially for readers from the 8+ age group who I hope will pick up the habit of reading as easily as they master a video game. Learning to see pictures in your head is much more difficult than maneuvering through those placed in front of you and infinitely more personal. And imagine how great they’ll do on the SATs later on!