OUR FAVOURITE BOOKS ABOUT FAMILIES
Family mealtimes are one of those essential family experiences that we always seems to fail with. My husband works late and is never home in time for a family meal around the table. Sunday lunch has become complicated by church rotas and Saturdays by life generally. Instead, I always read to the children while they are eating their dinner (unless Blue Peter is on…); by bedtime things tend to be rushed and everyone is tired and I’m trying to cook for my husband and myself so a dinner-time story works well for us, instead. And my younger daughter’s favourite genre is the family saga, so I suppose we are still (sort of?) having a family dinner… Anyway, here are some of our favourite books about families:
- The Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. Although these stories are partly about the close and enduring friendship between Betsy and Tacy, two little girls growing up in Minnesota at the turn of the twentieth century, they are primarily books about family. Betsy’s experiences as she grows up and goes to school and then high school and moves into the wide world are so positive because she is grounded in a loving family. Betsy shares her highs and lows with her parents and sisters and as the books progress we follow the family as they have a new baby, move house, go on vacation and live life together.
- The Casson Family books by Hilary McKay. Beginning with Saffy’s Angel this series of books tells the story of an unconventional but happy family as they deal with the idiosyncrasies of their family, make friends, cope with bullying and difficult teachers and fall in love. The eponymous Saffy learns that she was adopted by her aunt and uncle after her mother’s death and goes on a journey to understand how she fits into the family. These books are touching and very funny!
- The Serial Garden: The Complete Armitage Family Stories by Joan Aitken. Written over many years, these short stories fit together to form a chunky volume about the slightly magic Armitage family to whom unusual things often happen on Mondays. They live in a semi-enchanted village where they might have a witch for a neighbour or teacher or a unicorn for a pet. As the stories progress the setting becomes more modern and the two children, Mark and Harriet, become teenagers. Some of the stories are silly and carefree while a few touch on more serious topics.
- What Katy Did and What Katy Did At School by Susan Coolidge. There are others in the Carr Family series but these are the most suitable for younger children. Although Katy is the heroine of these books her many siblings are a vital part of her life and the texture of the stories. We see how the family dynamic of Katy as rather heartless leader of the group has to shift to accommodate her fall and severe injury which results in her being bedridden for several years. As she comes to term with her disabilities she comes to newly appreciate her brothers, sisters, father and aunt while they in turn grow and blossom into confident individuals. When Katy recovers, she and her sister, Clover, are sent to boarding school but her family reach out to the exiled girls through letters and a wonderful Christmas box.
- The Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Starting with Little House in the Big Woods these stories follow a pioneer family as they leave the Little House and move West across the nineteenth century United States. Ma and Pa work hard to provide Laura and her sisters with a comfortable, safe home in a time of upheaval and, sometimes, real danger. The stories have the big woods and wide prairies as a backdrop but are full of vignettes of domestic life: making maple candy, celebrating Christmas, going to the store, falling asleep listening to pa’s fiddle.
- The Borrowers by Mary Norton. These books are about a family of tiny people who must cope with their size and subsequent vulnerability in a world where social change has removed the protective bubble in which they existed until now. Ultimately this is a family saga in which the family happens to be measurable in inches. The relationship between Pod, Homily and their daughter, Arietty, underpins each story and is the abiding constant that holds them together in the face of homelessness and danger.
- The Iggy and Me books by Jenny Valentine. These funny books are in some ways a reworking of Dorothy Edwards’ My Naughty Little Sister books for the twenty-first century. One day, Flo’s little sister decides she isn’t called Sam any more: she is Iggy. Iggy gets up to all sorts of mischief and adventures but, again, the domestic setting roots the stories in the security of family.
- The Milly-Molly-Mandy stories by Joyce Lankester Brisley. These are wonderful examples of safe, reassuring stories of domestic life. Milly-Molly-Mandy is an only child but lives with her parents, grandparents and uncle and aunt. Her day-day-to-day life is shored up by their love and support. When Milly-Molly-Mandy goes to a party, each member of her family help in some little way to get her ready for the special occasion. Everyone adds their own touch to her new surprise bedroom in the attic. Milly-Molly-Mandy’s adventures are all close to home – having friends to tea, blackberry picking, carol-singing, going to a wedding, getting a pen pal – and that’s the joy of them.
- The Melendy Quartet by Elizabeth Enright. These stories about four siblings begin (The Saturdays) with a pact to pool their pocket money and give it all to each sibling in turn to afford every child a truly memorable Saturday.
- The Penderwicks books by Jeanne Birdsall. Already ‘modern classics’, these are absolute favourites with all of us! The Penderwicks might have been a family blighted by the loss of their mother but instead their love for each other and the security provided by their father has established a close, confident and happy family. Apparently it is to be a five-book-series and in our house we are on tenterhooks for the publication of the fifth and final installment.
- The Pea’s Book of… books by Susie Day. Starting with Pea’s Book of Best Friends these books tell the story of the Llewellyn family. Pea’s Mum finds overnight success as a famous author and she and her sisters move to a new life, and new friends, in London. The books follow Pea, Tinkerbell and Clover as they settle into a new home, make friends, plan for the future and enjoy family life. I am very excited to see (especially as my daughter has a birthday coming up!) that a fourth book in the series has been out for a while but flew beneath our radar…
- The Treasure Seekers and The Wouldbegoods by E. Nesbit. The classic stories of the Bastable children and their attempts to have fun and be good at the same time remain an enjoyable read. In the first books the children work together to try to restore their family’s lost fortune while in the second they form a society to try their best to be ‘good’. The scrapes they get into are something to marvel at for children of today who are never allowed out on their own and are rarely left to entertain themselves. Also, the children are sometimes very naughty…
- Little Women, Good Wives, Little Men and Jo’s Boys by Louisa May Alcott. We haven’t read all of these together but my elder daughter adores Little Women. We did start Good Wives but when someone told her what happens to Beth she was somewhat put off and, for now, prefers to enjoy the March family together. Little Women is full of real love and support, both within the family and as the family reaches out to friends and neighbours, but it doesn’t shy away from the squabbles, resentment and hardships that are part of most family life.
I have focused on family stories series here but, of course, there are many other books about families to enjoy. Other family-centred books we love are: The Bell Family, Ballet Shoes and A Vicarage Family by Noel Streatfeild; The Family from One End Street by Eve Garnett; and The Railway Children by E. Nesbit. My daughter also loves the All-of-A-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor about a Jewish family living in New York at the start of the twentieth-century but she hasn’t has a chance to read the rest of the series yet and a book I want to get for her over the summer is The Family with Two Front Doors by Anna Ciddor which is based on the author’s own Jewish family in 1920 Poland. Another series my daughter has started and is keen to read more of is The Mennyms by Sylvia Waugh about a family of life-sized dolls living together in an ordinary house; a slightly different, yet fascinating, take on family life. And of course, both Enid Blyton and Jacqueline Wilson write extensively about families: try Blyton’s The Family series and the Children of Cherry-Tree Farm series and also Wilson’s The Illustrated Mum, Diamond Girls , Little Darlings, Clean Break, and Lily Alone.