Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Books to Enjoy with Your Children this Summer

July 7, 2018

K.C. Ireton


Reading with my children is one of my superpowers. Except it’s not really mine. I just channel it when I read aloud. The power belongs to the stories themselves and the ways they work on my children’s hearts, minds, and imaginations. Here are a few of our family’s favorite summer read-alouds.

Picture Books


The Relatives Came by Cynthia Rylant, illus. Stephen Gammell

A rollicking romp of a book about those crazy relatives who drove up from Virginia and filled the house with their laughter, hugs, love, and joy. Gammell’s colorful illustrations complement Rylant’s playful text to create one of my favorite celebrations of summer road trips and family get-togethers.


My Great-Aunt Arizona by Gloria Houston, illus. Susan Condie Lamb

This is not really a summer book, but the spirit of the story is wholly summerish, which is why I include it here. It’s the story of Houston’s great-aunt who was born and raised in the Blue Ridge Mountains. Arizona read and dreamed of the far-away places that she would one day visit. But she never did. To find out why and what she did instead, you’ll have to read it for yourself. Be forewarned: my kids have a love-hate relationship with this book: they love the book, but they hate that I cry every time I read it. I don’t mind the crying: they’re good tears, the kind that spring to your eyes when you’re face to face with beauty. 


Thundercake by Patricia Polacco

A delightful story of a girl and her grandmother in mid-century Michigan, and how Babushka teaches young Patricia about overcoming fear and the true nature of courage. And for the intrepid among you, there’s a recipe for thundercake in the back of the book. My kids and I made it two summers ago during a thunderstorm. It was delicious, but the book is better.


Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran, illus. Barbara Cooney

How do I sing this book’s praises adequately? Cooney’s illustrations are like jewels, or desert glass, a perfect accompaniment to McLerran’s lyrical and poignant paean to the power of children’s imaginations. Together, they paint a picture of Roxaboxen so vivid, it transports me to the desert and at the same time sends me straight back to my own childhood summers of playing make-believe and spinning stories to act out and live in. A simply beautiful book.


The Raft by Jim LaMarche

When Nicky arrives at his grandmother’s house for the summer, he is not excited, to put it mildly. Grandma lives by a river in the Middle of Nowhere, Wisconsin, and there’s nothing to do. No friends, no video games, no nothing. But then he discovers a mysterious raft, and his summer unfolds in an unexpected direction, and Nicky discovers an unexpected talent. In the process, Nicky’s dejection and disappointment about his summer in Wisconsin turn to wonder and delight. LaMarche’s illustrations beautifully capture life on the river and Nicky’s quiet transformation.

Books to Enjoy with Your Children this Summer - Image (c) Lancia E. Smith




Once Upon a Summer by Janette Oke

My 11-year-old daughter just read this book and says it’s her favorite Oke novel. I read it at her age and it was my least favorite. The narrator is a boy, and who wants to read about boys? “But Mama,” Jane protested, “it’s funny! And I love the characters.” The characters include 12-year-old Josh (the narrator to whom I objected because he wasn’t a girl); his 18-year-old aunt, Lou; Josh’s Grandpa (Lou’s father); Grandpa’s brother, Uncle Charlie; and Grandpa and Charlie’s father, Gramps, who all live together on a midwestern farm in the late 1800’s. Grandpa and Uncle Charlie think it’s time Lou got married, so they start matchmaking. Gramps and Josh disagree and start interfering with the matchmaking. You can imagine how that works out. A simple, sweet story, just right for 10-12 year olds (so long as they don’t mind male narrators).


Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

The first in a 12-book series, this perfect summer read-aloud introduces the four Walker children (the Swallows, after their agile little boat), the two Blackett girls (the intrepid Amazons), and their camp on Wild Cat Island. Adults graciously disappear and leave the youngsters to their adventures on the lake and the island. We’ve read one Ransome book each summer since we first discovered Swallows and Amazons, which remains my favorite in the series so far (but we’re only on book four…).


Holes by Louis Sachar

Holes is about a bunch of boys, including one Stanley Yelnats, who spend their days digging (what else?) holes in the Texas sun. If that compelling hook doesn’t make you want to read it, maybe the fact that it won both the Newbery and the National Book Award will. It’s a masterpiece of tightly braided storylines, both past and present, woven together to create a seamless whole. Plus it’s just plain fun. And funny.


The Penderwicks by Jeanne Birdsall

Words cannot convey how much I love this book. It’s the family story of The Railway Children (see below) and The Moffats updated for the 21st century. The four Penderwick girls can earnestly say things like “family honor” and “chivalry” and not sound the least bit priggish; in fact, they sound cool. Plus, there are two rabbits and a very interesting boy in this tale of an almost magical summer. And there are four sequels, none of which are as good as the first, but which are delightful nonetheless.


The Railway Children by E. Nesbit

After the mysterious disappearance of their father, three children and their mother must move to a house in the country where the children quickly befriend the workers at the nearby railway station and charm the passengers whose daily commute takes them past these urchins waving happily from beside the rails, relationships that ultimately lead to a delightfully happy ending. We enjoyed this book so much we took our big fat illustrated hardbound edition with us on a camping trip (yes, really), just so we wouldn’t have to wait till we got home to finish it. 


The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame

My dad read this book to me at least three times when I was growing up. It’s the first book I remember following along with silently as he read aloud. I confess, Mr. Toad’s antics gave my young good-girl heart very anxious palpitations, but homebody that I was (and am) I loved Mole. This is the perfect summer read: find a blanket and a shady tree and some children and make an afternoon of it. Lemonade and cherries and maybe a pie or two wouldn’t hurt either.


Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Long John Silver is such an iconic figure that every child ought to have the privilege of meeting him in person. Besides, Treasure Island is a rollicking adventure story—pirates, buried treasure, gunfights, friendship, treachery—what’s not to love? The language of this book is difficult for young readers, so I highly recommend making this a family read-aloud. N.C. Wyeth did the original illustrations, and they are wonderful (though not as plentiful as one might wish).


Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne

Milne is one of the most delightful writers I know. His sense of humor, his keen understanding of human (and stuffed animal) nature, and his playful wordsmithing keep me returning to his books again and again. If you’ve not read the real Pooh (the Disney rip-offs, which are obnoxiously bad, don’t count), get yourself a copy, grab the nearest child, and treat yourself to an hour of whimsy and delight.

The opening image of the young boy reading at sunset is from the marvelous photographer, Aaron Burden. You can find this image at, along with hundreds of others of Aaron’s beautiful images.  Find out more about Aaron’s work on his website here.  

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