Special Report: Read Aloud Round Table copy
Emily Whitten talks with three WORLD reviewers about their favorite books for kids in 2021, including WORLD’s Kids’ Book of the Year. They discuss how to capture kids’ imaginations with family read alouds, offering tips from authors like Gladys Hunt, Jamie Martin, and Megan Cox Gurdon.
Look for the book list included at the end of the transcript.
PAUL BUTLER: From the creative team that brings you The World and Everything in It, this is a WORLD Radio Special Presentation. Here’s interviewer Emily Whitten.
EMILY WHITTEN: This past February, WORLD Magazine published its Kids’ Book issue. In it, Senior Writer Janie Cheaney announced WORLD’s Kids’ Book of the Year. Kristin Chapman, editor of the kids’ book review section, also presented WORLD’s 2022 Picture Books of the Year.
Recently, I hosted a virtual roundtable with Janie and Kristin to talk about these books. I wanted to hear what they loved about them, and why Christian families should bother reading them…and maybe even buy a few as Easter presents.
I also brought one more WORLD writer in on the conversation–correspondent Mary Jackson. She contributed to the Picture Book of the Year committee. Mary also recently interviewed Megan Cox Gurdon, kids’ book reviewer for The Wall Street Journal and author of The Enchanted Hour. Mary shares insights from that interview during our discussion.
Reading a book aloud, or listening to the right audiobook at the right time, can open amazing new doors of insight and imagination for our kids. It can also bring families together in new ways.
For those reasons, we share this longer version of our kids’ book roundtable discussion today. When you’re done, don’t forget to check the transcript at wng.org for a list of the book titles and authors mentioned here.
We begin now with Kristin on the picture book winners this year.
CHAPMAN: This year, one thing I wanted to try to find were some books that would just delight the youngest of our audience for you know, just because they were simple, beautiful stories. And I think often of my own children, I had to read and reread Sandra Boynton books all the time. And to the point where some of the lines became like, I memorized parts of the books, because it was just that's what they were drawn to. They love the fun of them.
WHITTEN: Moo, Baa, La La La.
CHAPMAN: Yes. So when I came across, somehow Mel Fell was one of the books I was just instantly smitten with for that reason. It's there's nothing particularly profound about the book’s message about being brave enough to try something new. But the way the author carefully merged the text with the illustrations, and then there's like this unique aspects where you have to turn the book to kind of follow Mel's adventure, it just adds this engaging dynamic to the story, which just makes it a delight to read.
And additionally, the same can be said about Steve Light’s Road Trip because it features these really delightful illustrations. They're very detailed, very captivating, and it has this really sweet message about friendship, as these characters go on this road trip together to try to help their friend bear find a headlamp for his truck. So both books are just really sweet.
WHITTEN: So tell me because we, we wanted to encourage people to read aloud. That was one of the things we wanted to talk about today was reading aloud. What is the benefit of reading aloud? For this younger age? And how do these, how do these books kind of fit into that aspect of what we're talking about today?
CHAPMAN: The delight in these two books is I think parents will enjoy reading them to their children as well. And then because the kids are going to be captivated by the illustrations, I think it'll also allow an opportunity to kind of linger, especially with Road Trip, there's an opportunity. You're not like turning pages quickly with that one. You're just kind of poring over the pages, you know, capturing that experience. I know often with little ones, you have them on your lap, so it's just cultivating this beautiful atmosphere.
WHITTEN: Sometimes we think you know, I don't know, it’s supposed to be hard. But especially with the little ones. If you're having fun, and you're reading and talking to the kid, it's probably that's the gold standard right there. Would you agree?
CHAPMAN: Absolutely. And you know, when we're cultivating this culture of reading aloud to our children, we're going to need to gravitate to some extent, to the books that our children gravitate toward. Because initially, when you're trying to, you know, expose them to reading. If they're not sitting there and enjoying it, then you know, it's not benefiting them. And it's just probably frustrating you. So sometimes it takes experimenting with different books to figure out which, you know, child enjoys what and I think that's also a good thing that, especially when your children are different, having a variety because it also exposes them to different books, you know, maybe some poetry mixed in, I can remember reading poetry with my kids. And maybe it wasn't their favorite book to reach for, but we integrated a little bit here and there such that it was giving them more exposure to something different, a different literary style.
WHITTEN: Yeah. Great. Thank you, Kristen. Mary, you're I'm gonna go to you next. what do you want to talk about? Tell us about one of the other winners.
MARY JACKSON: The first one was John Hendricks Go and Do Likewise. And I think it really just gives kids a compelling colorful interpretation of Jesus. I think he he talks about 12 parables in the Beatitudes. And so I as a real read aloud I found this book really had appeal to younger and older kids. Hundreds Hendrix's style of graphic art really appeals to older kids.
WHITTEN: Remind me, is he mostly known for his art and then he came into picture books. Is that right?
JACKSON: Yeah, he did. Okay, this is a follow up to a 2016 book he did called Miracle Man. So it just really has like bold artwork which is what he's known for, but also concise writing and a way of captivating younger children and helping them engage with the parables.
And then Kristin will tell you all along, I was buying for Little Pilgrims Progress to be on our list. And I reviewed this book, I think it was last October. And it's over 300 pages. So we couldn't, as a committee justify having it be the picture book of the year, because it's just too long. You can't read it in one setting. But it's just an exceptional book. And we knew our readers would want to have this in their personal libraries.
WHITTEN: Would you say if someone wanted to buy one book for a wide range of kids to read aloud, Is this the one?
WHITTEN: I'm gonna let you all weigh in? Kristen, what do you say?
CHAPMAN: I would definitely agree. And the illustrations are just so beautiful. They're going to completely capture younger children's attention, as well as the storyline.
WHITTEN: Janie, agree or disagree?
JANIE CHEANEY: Oh, yeah, I would definitely agree. I haven't read the whole thing. But I, I have read enough of it. I bought a copy to give to my daughter. And she reads it. Yeah, she she's been reading through it.
WHITTEN: so Mary. What did your kids actually think about that book, the Pilgrim’s Progress book?
JACKSON: My six year old just loved the fact that there were these furry animal creatures and so it was very rewarding for him but then my older son had read other adaptations of Pilgrims Progress such as Dangerous Journey or, and, and so he was familiar with the plot-line. But just having the added bonus of some pictures to look at and the story retold with animals. He's 13 and that holds his attention. And it was also one of those books that I was reading aloud to them alongside some friends. And it's just one of those where it's a tear jerker and you as a mom have to pause and gather yourself, you know, just thinking of elements of your own walk and faith. And so it's it's extremely rewarding as a read aloud, and when that I was interacting with other moms and and you know, we were all into and enjoying it.
WHITTEN: So I think that this would be a great Easter present. It's a bunny, right?
WHITTEN: So. And there's lots of spiritually edifying material for the whole family. And it just sounds like the perfect Easter gift.
JACKSON: Yeah, it really is. That's a great idea.
CHEANEY: You might say that the text is older. I forget the who, the author of the text, but it's an older text, but she I read an earlier version of her Little Pilgrims Progress, and she did a really good job of complimenting Bunyan's story. I think she included she included everything that was important, but she made it relatable.
JACKSON: Yes, it's Helen Taylor. And the illustrator is Joe Sutphin. And he basically took her, Helen Taylor's adaptation, and just added the pictures and did some editing adding the woodland creatures. So, so yeah, he just kind of took what she did, which was a beautiful work. And really, as Janie said, catered to children and making John Bunyan story so much more relatable for them. And, and he just took it up a whole, to another level with the illustrations. And they're not every page, which is another reason why we couldn't give it that picture book of the year award. But we wanted to highlight it for the readers because we knew our readers would love it as we did.
WHITTEN: One thing that I mentioned, I can't remember if it got edited out or not Janie, but the the fact that it's animals means that people who look who have all different skin colors, all different shapes of eyes, they there, there's no family that's less centered in this presentation. So to me, if you've got a multiracial church, it would be a great thing to have in a nursery or a school. I don't, that's one of the things I don't know of another version of Pilgrim’s Progress that is going to be as accessible.
CHEANEY: Yeah, that's true. That's a good point that the animals make it sort of create a common ground for everyone. Unlike Dangerous Journey, for instance, which I love and read my kids several times, but…
WHITTEN: Very European. And delightfully so. Janie, why don't you tell us another one that you really liked?
CHEANEY: Ah, well, I will talk about our children's book of the year. The age range that we're looking for is roughly at 8 to 14. So it's a pretty broad age range. We are looking for books that are not necessarily Christian, but but will uphold a Christian worldview, or that will be compatible with a Christian worldview, or will say something that's very true about the world. And also positive. So there's a lot of books out there that are real downers, even for middle graders, and we're not interested in those. We are looking for books that are positive and uplifting, even though they may deal with some very tough subjects.
So Across the Desert, for instance, is one of our one of our runners up. And Across the Desert deals with, it turns into a survival epic. It's about a girl trying to rescue another girl in the desert. But her mother, the girl's mother, the protagonist’s mother is dealing with drug addiction. Very serious drug addiction. And her father is who knows where so her father has abandoned the family. The mother is seriously drug addicted. And that's tough stuff. But it comes to a positive conclusion, I believe and the author is a Christian. Dusty Bowling is a Christian, and she does write from a Christian worldview and includes some of her own experiences growing up with a drug addicted father. So we don't shy away from tough situations. But we do look for positive conclusions.
So our book of the year is called The Swallows’ Flight. It's by Hilary McKay and all of us on the committee, we really like Hilary McKay. She's not a Christian, as far as I know. She's a British writer. So she writes very well. Of course, the English just seem to do it better than we do. But The Swallows Flight, we just–our decision was unanimous. Everyone loved it. It just has a classic feel to it. The setting is England during the, actually just as World War Two is beginning. So there are clouds in the sky, it's looking very bad. She goes back in time back a few years to outline or chart the friendship of two boys in Germany. So we really liked this, she included the German perspective. These are two young men growing up in Germany, they become best friends. And even though they're very different, they're both very personable. We just love these boys. You know, we just got so involved with the characters. As Hitler comes to power and bad things start happening, both the boys are very uncomfortable about this. You know, they don't go along with the whole Third Reich ideology, but they both love flying. So they end up flying for the Luftwaffe more as scouts, not as bombers.
Meanwhile, there are two girls, younger girls growing up on opposite sides of Great Britain who are not friends and they don't have much in common, but they will–circumstances will bring them together.
And there's another main character who is a dog. And this dog is growing up in a junkyard. He knows nothing but kicks and chains, and he's never been free to roam. He's always been tied up. And as the war begins, he is set loose, and circumstances will bring him into this circle with the two girls and they will eventually meet the two young men.
WHITTEN: They all crash in together….
CHEANEY: Kind of literally. So one of the planes goes down. One of the Luftwaffe planes goes down in the countryside. But what I, what we loved about it was the way that she ties in very commonplace situations. That's a family story. They're, these families are interrelated. In Germany and in England. And one thing that was cool about this book, whenever we choose a book of the year, I always try to contact the author, sometimes they will respond. Often they won't. But Hilary McKay wrote back to me. And I just, you know, I asked her a few questions, I was able to include that in my write up. And when the review was published, I sent her a link, you know. I thought she'd like to see it. And she wrote me that, she said, ‘Thank you so much for this, I really do mean that. You have found the book that I meant to write and that doesn't always happen.’ So I was thrilled to get that.
WHITTEN: Yay. That's wonderful.
WHITTEN: And it's, is it more for boys or girls or you feel like it's both?
CHEANEY: I think it's I think it's both she gives equal time to the boys and the girls in the story and the family. There's a very, she wrote an earlier book called The Skylarks’ War. And this is actually a sequel. So some of the characters from The Skylarks War, the older characters are carried over into this one. So you've got that intergenerational connection.
I haven't read it yet, because I, I finally just ordered it. I couldn't get it from any library. But from what I understand it's, it sounds like it's for a slightly older age group. It's a little bit darker. It takes place during World War I. And force Europe really suffered. England suffered through World War I. So it sounds a bit darker.
WHITTEN: So let me clarify, you may have already said this. Because I have mommy brain, I'm going to ask you again. Who did you say what was the age level? You're thinking for this?
CHEANEY: I would say 10 to 14. How old is your son, Kristin?
CHAPMAN: He's 11. Okay, but I believe my 14 year old also listened to it. We were on a road trip. And so I I tried to upload as many of the WORLD picks, of the books that I could. And several of them were actually in audiobook format. So that was fantastic. So I believe they both have now listened to it.
WHITTEN: Okay, great. Good. Well, and I'm curious now, does anybody know if the other books we talked about? Are any of them good audiobook possibilities? Does anybody know?
CHEANEY: I'll have to say, one of our picks is Amari and the Night Brothers, which is a fantasy. And I did not think the audio was good at all. I did read A Place to Hang the Moon. I mean, listen to A Place to Hang the Moon, which Kristin can tell us more about, but that was a good, that was a good audio version.
CHAPMAN: It was. I listened to it by audio as well. But then my children listened to it by audio again. I couldn't get a copy of it at our library. So the audio book was available. But it's about three children whose grandmother has recently died, and they are orphans. So their family solicitor concocts this plan–it's in the middle of or at the beginning of World War II–concocts this plan to send the children along with the other evacuees to the countryside, the other children being evacuated, in hopes that they will find a new family because he has no other idea what to do with these three children. So off they go to the countryside, and they have a series of mishaps with their various foster families. And eventually, they meet this kind librarian, and then they develop this relationship. And the book has this beautiful happy ending at the end. But it's another one of those books that I would say, kind of has more of a classic feel to it. It just was such a delightful middle grade read that in twined, some of that history from World War II. And all three of my children thoroughly enjoyed listening to it, and I thoroughly enjoyed listening to it as well.
WHITTEN: Great. And the oldest, your oldest is how old?
CHAPMAN: She's 14. So I have an 11, 12 and 14 year old.
WHITTEN: Okay, so what I was just going to say is that there is an audio version from 2017 of Helen Taylor's Little Pilgrim’s Progress. And I think it would be wonderful to listen to that and read along with it and kind of see the pictures, you know. If you have a kid who's–that would be, you know, if I had a tip, that's something we did with my kids when they were right on the cusp of being able to read books by themselves, like we did the secret garden and they would listen and read along. So anyway, for what that's worth, if somebody wants to try that they can.
CHAPMAN: One thing to note with the new Little Pilgrim’s Progress, and Mary can probably weigh in a little bit to make sure I'm not mis-speaking, but I believe so they've integrated some of the new animal characters. So it might not match exactly with the text in the sense that, and there were some little nuances of wording that was changed because you're dealing with animals and such. So the setting of the homes and things are a little different. So as long as you know, families understand that it's not going to be a definite matchup.
WHITTEN: Okay, so, um, yeah, let's go to Mary. Mary, so tell us a little bit about your discussion with Megan Cox Gurdon. Didn't you talk to her about reading aloud a little bit?
JACKSON: I did. It was really delightful to connect with her. She's a book critic for The Wall Street Journal, and formerly was a foreign correspondent, mother of five. She's just become a grandmother. And I got to talk to her about how she, she read to all of her children every night, throughout their whole childhood.
She says 25 years of reading out loud, and I think her youngest is now approaching graduating high school. So she just had an amazing perspective about the way it shaped her as a mother. And also, you know, weighed in on some of the the benefits of reading aloud that she discovered as she wrote the book The Enchanted Hour which I highly recommend. And in that book, she goes into a lot of the kind of developmental benefits on children on their brains, as you read aloud to them beginning and infancy.
And then she goes into, you know, the importance of continuing to read aloud, or as we've talked about audio books, as our kids get older, in the technological age, where we all tend to kind of be glued to our phones, including parents, and kind of the way technology separates us. But but having that, that discipline, and that habit and rhythm of reading aloud can really bring the family together and unite the family around stories and give give the family kind of a common language. So it was really great talking to her.
WHITTEN: Yeah, I'm so glad you got to do that. Um, have you guys seen– Janie and Kristen, have y'all seen her book? The Enchanted Hour? Are you familiar with that?
CHEANEY: I reviewed it.
WHITTEN: Okay. Did you like it?
CHEANEY: Oh, yeah. Yeah, I did.
WHITTEN: Okay, well, so Mary, you've told us what Megan Cox Gurden said. What do you say? What's your one tip for somebody who is just needs a little encouragement or maybe some practical help getting going?
JACKSON: My advice would just be to, you know, take those moments that you have their attention, and that you're all together and, and just try to incorporate something, you know, Philippians 4:8, something that's, you know, true and good and beautiful and pure and lovely. And just kind of let a book frame that time where you have your kids attention.
WHITTEN: I love that. I love that you're saying maybe it can't be perfect, but take what God gives. Like, look for the little corners and scraps that you can find, and then gather it up when you can. And when I interviewed Jamie Martin, she wrote Give Your Child the World which has a lot of books that you could definitely read aloud. She said, one of the best things you can do is just try to find one spot in your day where it can become a habit. Did anybody else want to chime in on what Mary said?
CHAPMAN: Well, I completely agree with what Mary said, because we found in our house that I needed to anchor reading aloud to something we do regularly because it did develop that habit. And it started when my kids were younger, with lunchtime, like Mary was saying meal time, I would have a stack of picture books from the library, I would bring home this massive bag of library books. And then each day during the week, we would read through, you know, five of them or so during lunchtime because they were busy eating and they were captivated with the story. And So I definitely agree that if you can anchor it to something you do regularly, whether it's bedtime, or meal time or some other time, you know maybe you're waiting in line, I know my sister has to wait in line to pick up the older kids. So you know there's sitting in the car. It's a perfect time to read a book to the littler ones. So yeah.
WHITTEN: Summer is a great time to try some of these things. At the beginning of the summer, you can start some of these and have a summer. It doesn't have to be forever; it can just be a season. Maybe try something new. Janey, what's your tip?
CHEANEY: I think I read somewhere that shared reading is shared life. So like Mary was saying, if you're reading the same story, and you can talk about it, you can talk about the characters, you can talk about what happens in the story and how you know how you were affected by it. It's just a great conversation starter. There's so many trends in culture that drive families apart. That reading aloud is something that draws families together. And just for that reason alone, it's worth pursuing even when your kids are teenagers. We homeschooled our teenagers. So that was a little easier than if they were going to school. But still, as they get older, it's hard to find a regular time because they get involved in dance lessons or sports or, or play practice or whatever they're you know, you're running them all over the place. And it's hard to find a regular time to sit down and read. But that's when what you said Emily about seasons. That's where you can think rather in rather than thinking of a daily reading time you think of your seasonal reading time. And that might make it a little easier with with older kids.
Gladys Hunt wrote, of course, she wrote Honey for a Child's Heart. But she also wrote Honey for Teen’s Heart which I read a few years ago. And she said one of their best family memories is when they went on a long road trip, they went on a vacation camping road trip. And they read Lord of the Rings. I don't know if they read the whole trilogy, but they read quite a lot of it. And one day they were stuck in the tent because it was raining and they just passed around the book. They stayed in their sleeping bags and passed around the book and she said it's one of the one of the best memories we ever had. So there are so many good reasons that it's worth taking the time, and, you know, being creative in how you use your time.
I know some some parents may not feel like they have the ability to do this or they're they're not good readers or they're not good at reading aloud. I would just say you know you get you get better with practice. So practice it. Read books that you enjoy, first of all. And chances are your children will find things to enjoy about them too. I always enjoyed reading aloud because it brought out my inner drama queen. But I know not everybody's like that. So that's something that you might need to give a little extra thought to. But it is worth it. And it is loads of fun.
CHAPMAN: I love what you said, Janie, about the inner drama queen. Because one thing with my children that has been so amusing to me over the years is that so sometimes their dad will also reach them. But if I am in the middle of a book series, they do not want him to start reading it because the voices won't be right there. And it's it's just a precious memory for me. And it will be a precious memory for years to come because of that bond we've shared with the books.
WHITTEN: Okay, well, I think those are all good suggestions. And I, you know, I think I struggled a lot more than I thought I would with, read alouds with with my children, And like, I would just say, don't give up, keep trying. Keep looking for, because with books you never know that one book that's going to open the door. I've noticed that with my own kids, like, they just have struggled and even with myself, like, I really didn't like reading that much until that one book just opened the door. And all of a sudden, you know, I was able to see a whole world that I hadn't seen before.
JACKSON: I would echo what you're saying, Emily, I remember a particularly tough season, for my husband and I he was traveling a lot for work, and all four children were, you know, under 10, I would say, actually, I'm sorry, if it was I can't remember the ages. But anyway, they were all younger. And my father in law offered to start coming over one night a week, or, you know, in some cases, we would go to their house, and he offered to read aloud to them. And it just, it felt like such a gift and such a present from the Lord, that He would offer to do that, and is still a precious memory for our kids that he read through several books aloud to them. And, you know, of course, like we said he had his own way of voices and reading that was also memorable for them. But for me as a mother in this stage of being completely overwhelmed. And, you know, reading aloud can be another one of those things that you know, amongst other things in our list of things that we know we should be doing and maybe we're not doing enough of it. But like you said, a lot of times the Lord will give you some measure of grace through another person or a window of time that you didn't realize you had.
That's a great thing for grandparents to remember. And to consider.
WHITTEN: Anybody want to add anything else? I think we’ve gone plenty over.
CHEANEY: Have fun editing this.
WHITTEN: Well. Thank you all so much. I won't keep you any longer. I appreciate you sticking with me and Y'all have a great day.
JACKSON: Thank you, Emily.
CHAPMAN: Thanks, Emily.
ROUND TABLE BOOK LIST
Please note that just because we recommend one book by an author doesn't mean we recommend every book by that author.
Here are all the books recommended/mentioned in WORLD’s Read Aloud Roundtable. For more book suggestions for kids and young teens, see the online reviews linked below or WORLD Magazine’s 2022 Kids’ Book Issue from February 2022.
Picture Books of the Year
Mel Fell by Corey R. Tabor (Ages 4-8)
Road Trip by Steve Light (Ages 2-5)
Go and Do Likewise by John Hendrix (Ages 8-12)
Little Pilgrim’s Progress by Helen Taylor and Joe Sutphin (Ages 8-12 independent reading)
Across the Desert by Dusti Bowling (Ages 12-15)
The Swallows’ Flight by Hillary McKay (Ages 8-12) **
A Place to Hang the Moon by Kate Albus (Ages 8-14)
** We caution against The Skylarks' War by Hillary McKay. See here for Janie's Redeemedreader review
Books on Reading Aloud
The Enchanted Hour by Megan Cox Gurdon (Here’s Mary’s interview with Gurdon.)
Give Your Child the World by Jamie C. Martin (Here’s Emily’s interview with Martin.)
Honey for a Child’s Heart by Gladys Hunt
Honey for a Teen’s Heart by Gladys Hunt
WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.