What Makes a Good Book for All Ages?

My many years of book reviewing have taught me that most books labeled “for all ages” are anything but. Such books are generally big and richly illustrated (and expensive); they tend toward the parabolic, offering “life lessons” of one sort or another. In short, they are books for adults with a weakness for cheap piety. So, what to choose when a family truly of “all ages” wants to read a book together? What can satisfy a six-year-old, a ten-year-old, and their eccentric middle-aged uncle and formidable grandma all at once? Our reviewers offer some suggestions. ROGER SUTTON


The search for a family read can take one of two paths. Children’s books of the sophisticated sort are one possibility. In Russell Hoban’s 1967 The Mouse and His Child we get toys for the little kid, a hero’s quest for the middle kid, clever wordplay for the teen, and a Samuel Beckett parody for the adult. The opposite approach involves the lighter side of adult literature. Farley Mowat’s 1957 memoir/pet biography The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be began its life as articles for The Atlantic Monthly and The Saturday Evening Post. It retains its journalistic jauntiness with chapter-ending quips, the use of stock characters (wise, laconic small-town local; conceited New Yorker; crazy cat lady), and a mock-heroic tone. In a set of self-contained comic disasters Mowat celebrates Mutt, a stray dog of mysterious origin and vibrant personality who can walk on fences and climb trees. Mowat uses the point of view of an eight-year-old boy but makes no effort to sound like one. Instead we get a look back — good-natured, warm, and unashamedly nostalgic: “It was on a Saturday afternoon and Mutt and I had been for a tramp along the riverbank looking for dinosaur bones.” The book is a dream to read aloud, with Mowat’s easy, balanced cadences: “Here and there the whitening bones of abandoned buildings remained to mark the death of hopes; and the wind-burnished wood of engulfed fences protruded from the drifts of subsoil that were overwhelming the works of man.” Best of all, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be gives the reader-aloud the opportunity to voice that most euphonious of place names — Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. SARAH ELLIS


Being almost an only child (my brother was ten years older); the parent of an only child; and a middle school librarian with patrons all about the same age, my experience with multi-age books is limited. But last summer, during our family’s annual beach vacation, all manner of kith and kin — children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews, grandnieces and grandnephews — passed in and out of our cottage. The book we read together was Kate Klise and M. Sarah Klise’s Dying to Meet You: 43 Old Cemetery Road. This epistolary novel, humorous and full of wordplay, introduces Ignatius B. Grumply, a children’s author with writer’s block. Liking neither children nor writing, penniless Ignatius is desperate to publish another entry in his popular Ghost Tamer series. He rents a summer home through realtor Anita Sale. Unbeknownst to Ignatius, eleven-year-old Seymour Hope, whose parents just don’t have time for him, and a ghost (and eventual ghost writer), Olive C. Spence, also occupy the house. Letters between the characters (who also include lawyer E. Gadds, publisher Paige Turner, and private investigator Frank N. Beans) provide the stage for a variety of voices. In our cottage, children and adults took parts, and in an extended reader’s theater read several pages every night. Our ten-year-old grandchildren brought newcomers up to date, but youngsters who left before we finished wanted to know what happened. The solution? Early Christmas presents for all, as we sent each child a copy of the book, prolonging both the memories and the pleasure. BETTY CARTER


It sounds uplifting to view life as a journey — except that for many families life is nothing but. Near-constant shuttling among school, games, lessons, recitals — those rare visits home punctuated by cries of We need to leave in FIVE MINUTES, and you don’t have your leotard on yet? — tends not to encourage appreciation for the trip. Margaret Wise Brown and Garth Williams’s The Friendly Book, first published in 1954, reminds us to slow down, look around, and celebrate what we see. “I LIKE CARS / Red cars / Green cars / Sport limousine cars / I like cars.” Somehow soothing and peppy at the same time, Brown’s rhyming litany of likes also includes trains, dogs, stars, snow, and, finally, people — “Glad people / Sad people / Slow people / Mad people.” The Friendly Book helps us gaze more fondly at our fellow passengers. Yes, even at that crabby four-year-old who won’t stop kicking the back of the seat. CHRISTINE M. HEPPERMANN


My family eats string beans with their fingers. We also talk with them sticking out of our lips like fangs and build small string bean houses. The person responsible for this peculiar table behavior is Aunt Sally of Polly Horvath’s The Trolls, who slyly tricks her nieces and nephew into eating vegetables by making them seem completely irresistible. Aunt Sally, a sort of Canadian northwoods Mary Poppins, has more than vegetable tricks up her sleeve, and her time spent with Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee while their parents are away is nothing short of transformative.

Aunt Sally is the best kind of storyteller; her tall tales about growing up on Vancouver Island with the children’s father are side-splittingly funny and beg (holler, even) to be read out loud, but the kernels of truth at their center leave more heartfelt matters to ponder.

We’ve shared this family favorite in two parent-child book groups, and both times the child readers focused mostly on the hilarious scenes and outrageous characters. Take, for example, “great-uncle Louis, who came for two weeks and stayed for six years,” and his epic battle with young Edward over eating fiddleheads: “And the fiber, boy!…Are you mad to avoid such fibrous vegetation…?!” The adults in the groups, while highly entertained, were captivated by the darker underside of the stories, in which Horvath probes the small cruelties within families that can leave lifelong scars — haunted, perhaps, by our own past crimes. Like Melissa, Amanda, and Pee Wee, readers have as much to learn from Aunt Sally about her eccentric family as we do about ourselves. LAUREN ADAMS


How do you mesmerize two boys who are roaring around their grandmother’s house, a middle-aged man embroiled in an urgent plumbing project, a compulsive seamstress, and an eighty-something who for decades has eschewed fiction for such titles as Your Inner Fish?

This way: “In the sea, once upon a time, O My Best Beloved, there was a Whale, and he ate fishes. He ate the starfish and the garfish, and the crab and the dab, and the plaice and the dace, and the skate and his mate, and the mackereel and the pickereel, and the really truly twirly-whirly eel…”

In my extended family a vivacious reading of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories is nigh irresistible. First, there’s the rhythm of his phrasing, sometimes jolly and light; sometimes pushy and muscular, driving you along willy-nilly. Then, there’s the interestingness of his language, sometimes formal and ornate (“Noble and generous Cetacean, have you ever tasted Man?”); sometimes down-home, cozy, or even babyish (“What is it like?…Nice but nubbly”) — changing modes so often that there’s never time not to be surprised. That’s true of the repetition, too, which sometimes invites us to chime in (“you must particularly remember the suspenders, Best Beloved”) and sometimes is just crazy (“he stumped and he jumped and he thumped and he bumped, and he pranced and he danced, and he…”). And, always, there’s that prevailing affection, “O Best Beloved.”

The stories are deliciously strange and funny; however many times you’ve heard them, they are daring, goofy, or remarkable, so outlandish are their explanations for the whale’s throat, the elephant’s trunk, the alphabet, the armadillo; so human and recognizable are the quirks and passions of their cast.

And if you’re in the political, critical quotient of the family, there are all those “isms” to consider and critique, and that unsolvable conundrum of literary genius and limited world view. DEIRDRE F. BAKER


For those looking to enhance their experiences with and in nature, a trusty field guide can’t be beat. Readers and pre-readers alike can easily choose among the tasks of reading entries, examining the typically beautiful illustrations, or consulting the maps or glossary. There’s no beginning or end to worry about, and flipping around the sections is encouraged. Field guides come in beginner and advanced versions (See Peterson guides for a great selection — I particularly like those that present the animals, vegetables, and minerals of a region in a single volume), giving families the choice of sharing a single guide or comparing notes across multiple books (cross-referencing is très scientific). New to field identification? Start with trees. They don’t move around that much, allowing everyone to carefully observe leaves, bark, and silhouette and match them up to the books’ information. Get a few successful tree identifications under your belt, and then you can confidently move on to birds, insects, plants, rocks, clouds — you name it, there’s a guide for it. DANIELLE J. FORD


William Steig’s brilliant picture book Sylvester and the Magic Pebble provides a harrowing, heartbreaking experience for readers on both sides of the parental divide. For children, the tale of young donkey Sylvester Duncan, who picks up a magic red pebble and accidentally turns himself into a rock, is a story of waiting: “He felt he would be a rock forever and he tried to get used to it.” Sylvester’s predicament is poignant and frustrating, with that pebble sitting right there and yet out of reach, and his loneliness comes through most vividly in the picture of a wolf in winter, sitting on “the rock that was Sylvester” and howling. His parents’ plight is even worse, for they are the ones frantically searching for Sylvester and finally resigning themselves to never seeing their son again: “They tried their best to be happy, to go about their usual ways. But their usual ways included Sylvester and they were always reminded of him.” Steig’s pictures of the Duncans convey utter dejection and sorrow, but then along comes the spring with its bright greens and delicate flowers around the rock on Strawberry Hill. Because Steig has allowed his characters to feel such suffering, their reunion at the end when Sylvester becomes a donkey again is as joyful as any in children’s literature. The latest edition with its renewed colors makes earlier editions look a little faded, while Steig’s word choices and cadence remain as perfect as ever. This eloquent, lyrical book speaks to anyone at any age who has ever been separated from someone they love. SUSAN DOVE LEMPKE


First off, get hold of a hardback of this one. You will not regret it. The generous margins and small trim size make Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family perfect for reading in the dim light of bedtime. Maurice Sendak’s mysterious, detailed ink illustrations grace each chapter, adding to the magical tone. Listeners as young as five will be drawn into this quiet story of the hunter and the family he creates with a mermaid and the animals on his island. Adults will find themselves entranced by Jarrell’s poetic prose and simply stated truths. First there is the lonely hunter. Then the mermaid leaves all she knows to join him, even though her people mock her. Like the youngest listener, the mermaid is trying to learn human speech and figure out what abstract concepts like “mistake” and “difference” mean. (“You have legs, I have not legs. The moon is white, the sky is black. What is that?”) Soon there is a baby bear and a baby lynx and, finally, a boy. Magic and realism is all mixed up, and the boy’s memory becomes more jumbled the longer he lives with the hunter and the mermaid. Seen through a modern prism, one might see this as a tale of adoption or of a new kind of family. No matter what was in Jarrell’s mind, though, your whole clan will be lulled to sleep by the loving tale of this very special animal family. ROBIN L. SMITH


My family’s choice: Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man: A Tale of the Sea in the Classic Tradition by Robert McCloskey. Halfway through this tale of an old salt talking his way into a whale, boat and all, to weather a wind, Burt Dow, “bending over and bumbling about in the dark” inside, bumps his head on his “make-and-break” engine. “Out of my way, you chuggety, bangafied batch of old iron!” he expostulates, eliciting delighted giggles whether it was our fifth family reading or our fiftieth. Or we might recite it without the book: it’s so memorably alliterative, so full of intriguing repetitions like the giggling gull, teetering to and fro on the tip of Burt’s tiller, and the old Tidely-Idley with its “tender bottom” and need for constant “caulking, patching, and painting” in giddy colors (“pink…the color of Ginny Poor’s pantry…green…the floor and doors in Doc Walton’s waiting-room…”). With its laconic Downeast flavor and rhythmic voice punctuated with comical thuds (“going clackety-bangety down the bay to fish for cod”), it’s a joy to read aloud. And McCloskey is as playful with color as with words. Modulating the boat’s brash pink and green, along with Burt’s oilskin yellow, he captures the changing light of sea and sky from dawn to dusk so well you can smell the luminous coastal air, feel the waves’ swell. Grownups chortle at Burt splashing what looks like a Jackson Pollock on the whale’s innards to make it disgorge him; kids laugh because all that grease and paint plus the engine fumes and the gull’s feather sure would upset a tummy. As much fun as Kipling’s riff on Jonah’s adventure, with art as gorgeous as a perfect Maine day and a story that still makes me chuckle after all these years, Burt Dow is a story for the ages — and for all ages, too. JOANNA RUDGE LONG


The Westing Game by Ellen RaskinSince we all have a family, and we all need a family, it stands to reason that stories about families make for some of the best books for all ages. The trick, I think, is to find a family you love so much you wish it were your own, whether it’s the Watsons (The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 by Christopher Paul Curtis), the Weasleys (J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone), or the Wexlers (The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin). Better yet, cobble together your own literary family. Who wouldn’t want to adopt the larger-than-life Grandma Dowdel (A Long Way from Chicago by Richard Peck), the rascally cousin Harris (Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen), or a gregarious pet like Gloria (Peggy Rathmann’s Officer Buckle and Gloria)? Whether you read these stories aloud to the delight of a captive audience or pass them around and passionately discuss them, you’re likely to find that not only do they appeal to all ages but they can bring the generations closer together. JONATHAN HUNT

Good Books for All Ages

National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England (Knopf) by Peter Alden and Brian Cassie

The Friendly Book (Simon) by Margaret Wise Brown; illus. by Garth Williams

The Watsons Go to Birmingham — 1963 (Delacorte) by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Mouse and His Child (Levine/Scholastic) by Russell Hoban; illus. by David Small

The Trolls (Farrar) by Polly Horvath

The Animal Family (di Capua/HarperCollins) by Randall Jarrell; illus. by Maurice Sendak

A Collection of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories (Candlewick) by Rudyard Kipling

Dying to Meet You (Harcourt) by Kate Klise; illus. by M. Sarah Klise

Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man (Viking) by Robert McCloskey

The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be (Little, Brown) by Farley Mowat; illus. by Paul Galdone

Harris and Me (Harcourt) by Gary Paulsen

A Long Way from Chicago (Dial) by Richard Peck

First Guide to Trees [Peterson Field Guides] (Houghton) by George A. Petrides; illus. by Olivia Petrides and Janet Wehr

The Westing Game (Dutton) by Ellen Raskin

Officer Buckle and Gloria (Putnam) by Peggy Rathmann

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Levine/Scholastic) by J. K. Rowling; illus. by Mary GrandPré

Sylvester and the Magic Pebble (Simon) by William Steig

From the September/October 2010 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
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