Fourteen Chapters with Joss

My favorite children's books that introduce 'subject matter' concepts such as art, classical music, ethics, etc.

I‘d imagine that, by now, no one would be surprised to hear me admit that I am really looking forward to reading chapter books with Joss–to introducing him to Harry Potter, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Chronicles of Prydain, etc. I have fond memories of reading the Narnia books, “The Phantom Tollbooth” and “From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler” with my dad and siblings before bed while growing up and am eager to duplicate these peaceful moments with my son.

Alas, at three years old, he is still a teensy bit young for sitting through picture-free pages, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t tried! Recently, we finished “The Cricket in Times Square” by George Selden, another childhood favorite. Did he sit quietly through the entire thing? No; he explored his room and dug through his closet looking for jackets as I read a chapter or two each night–but he did know what I meant when I asked if he’d like to read “the cricket book,” he enjoyed Garth Williams’ charming illustrations and asked me to turn back pages so he could look at them again, and he learned that the cricket’s name was Chester…so all in all, not a complete failure!

One great thing about “The Cricket in Times Square” is that it provides opportunity for a little musical education, should you choose to use it that way. As Chester learns new symphonies, arias, hymns and pop songs to perform for his adoring audience, it would be easy to look up the numbers on YouTube and listen along as you read. Even if you don’t look up the pieces, hopefully the very names and excitement that the book’s characters feel over Chester’s music will inspire some interest in your child for classical music. You never know!

This got me thinking about other books that subtly teach subjects like art, music, history, literature, etc., by incorporating these elements into the plot. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. “Framed” by Frank Cottrell Boyce

I only recently discovered Frank Cottrell Boyce when an author I follow mentioned that another of his books (“Millions”) was his very favorite book of all time. So of course, I had to look into that, and “Framed” somehow found its way into my Amazon shopping cart at the same time. “Framed” tells the story of a young boy, Dylan, whose family runs a struggling gas station at the edge of a struggling town somewhere in the United Kingdom. One day, excitement comes to the village when a parade of cars travels up the mountain–and doesn’t come back down. The townspeople eventually learn that the mountain and its abandoned mine now holds the entire collection of the National Gallery, which needed to be moved temporarily. As Dylan and his friends visit the mountain, they get to view some of the famous paintings–and each painting changes their lives and the life of their town in some positive way.

“Framed” teaches a basic course in art appreciation, familiarizing young readers not only with the names of famous paintings, but instilling the idea that art is powerful.

2. The Enola Holmes Series by Nancy Springer

I recommended this series in an article from our April 2018 issue, which focused on literature and literacy. What I love most about the Enola Holmes mystery series, whose protagonist is Sherlock Holmes’ brilliant young sister, is the insight it gives into the lives of women in the late 1800s. Enola chooses to survive on her own in London in order to escape being sent to boarding school–and the inevitable corsets, which at the time posed a serious health threat. Throughout the series, I learned about the “language of fans,” the language of flowers, and various freedoms, expectations and restrictions placed on women during the Victorian Era–including the assumption that, as a woman, she is inevitably less intelligent and capable than her brothers. Sorry that’s vague–it’s been a few months since I read the books! But trust me, they’re fantastic, and Springer’s language is descriptive and beautiful as well (Plus, I want to buy the entire series just for the fantastic cover art!).

Verdict: Read the Enola Holmes series if you love a little history with your mystery 😉

3. “The Wednesday Wars” and “Okay for Now” by Gary Schmidt

Gary Schmidt may be best known for his award-winning “Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy,” but my personal favorites of his are “The Wednesday Wars” (for which he did receive a Newberry Honor) and “Trouble.”  But “Okay for Now” is also amazing and is the sequel to “The Wednesday Wars,” so I’ll keep my focus there.

Schmidt is a master at making you think his books are about one thing (a boy’s annoyance over a new teacher in “The Wednesday Wars” or a boy’s loneliness after moving to a new town in “Okay for Now”), but by the end of the book, you realize that the scope of the book is so much larger than you expected. They’re about war, loss, neglect, suburbia, illness, difficult family relationships and more.

Plus, they both fall into the category of using plot elements that can spur an interest in something beyond the book. In “The Wednesday Wars,” protagonist Holling Hoodhood learns to appreciate Shakespeare (despite being forced to wear yellow tights as Ariel in “The Tempest”); and in “Okay for Now,” protagonist Doug Swieteck, who was a side character in “The Wednesday Wars,” discovers the beauty of Audubon’s bird drawings in his new town’s library. Both of these young boys have to overcome their perceptions about the value of drama, art and nature, and it is encouraging to see their growth.

I could go on…possibly forever! “The Phantom Tollbooth,” mentioned earlier, does a great job of entertaining while educating and really expanded my vocabulary when I read it for the first time! Shannon Hale’s Princess Academy trilogy (Embarassingly, I only just realized that it’s a trilogy, so I corrected my oversight over the course of a few days and finally finished it!) introduces concepts of commerce, ethics, revolution, poetry, etc., and the joy of learning in general–but since I just wrote about Hale a few weeks ago, I won’t say more on that now!

Please share your own recommendations for children’s books that expand a child’s knowledge of various “subject matter” while focusing on great plot and characters–and let me know if you read or have read any of these books and what you think!

Categories: Spaghetti on the Wall