This will probably work best if it is a kid that belongs to you in some official capacity; you will need to begin a campaign of supervised book-giving at an early age, and it’s most easily managed if you’re able to do so while under the same roof. This should result in a pretty good person. If it doesn’t, give me a call and we can discuss where you went wrong.
Age Three — The Little Fur Family. Every child should have a little furry book. Be sure to get the version with the soft, furry cover; that’s very important. It is a perfect book and you can sleep with it right next to your head, if you are small enough, which a three-year-old ought to be.
Age Four — Can’t You Sleep, Little Bear? This book will be very helpful if your child grows up to be an anxious person or suffer from sleep paralysis or becomes the kind of person who has to watch Netflix on a laptop balanced on their stomach until they are gently and deliriously lulled into passing out rather than falling asleep. There are so many reasons not to want to fall asleep.
Age Five — Betsy-Tacy and Catwings. Catwings because it is never too early to introduce a child to the works of Ursula K. Leguin, who I did not realize wrote Catwings until yesterday. It is about shifting for yourself and avoiding owls, which are two life lessons worth learning at any age. Betsy-Tacy because they are charming and Midwestern and about best friends and will eventually instill within said child the love for tolerance, the Edwardian era, emotional restraint and Episcopalianism that is necessary for a semester abroad at Oxford. (It will also prepare them to love Maurice, E.M. Forster’s greatest novel, in exactly fifteen years.)
Age Six — The Blue Fairy Book. The other colors can come in whatever order you prefer, but The Blue Fairy Book must come first. They’re going to read Anne Sexton someday, there is nothing you can do to prevent it, but you might as well give them something solid to come back to once they tire themselves out. You might as well throw in Kipling’s Just So Stories while you’re at it, although this may instill in her a degree of affectation so monstrous that she refers to her first love interest as “The Best Beloved” for absolutely years. But that isn’t Kipling’s fault. Plenty of other things are Kipling’s fault, but you can get to those later when you think she’s ready to talk about Gunga Din critically.
Age Seven — Bulfinch’s Mythology. You should already have started them on the big, gorgeous D’aulaire’s illustrated version, but they’re ready for the real thing now. You can rage against the canon all you like on your own time, but it’s got to be Bulfinch and it’s got to be now, and you’ve got to pay just as much attention to the boring Charlemagne cycle as you do to the transformation of Daphne.
Age Eight — The Island of Dr. Moreau and The Illustrated Bible (Nestor Redondo version only, please). Moreau because you have to build a person up to Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson; you can’t just spring them on a body at fourteen and expect to leave a whole and sane person in your wake. The Illustrated Bible because I don’t care what kind of whacked-out UU church you’ve got your kid attending thrice a solstice or whatever, if they can’t recite the basic plot elements of the tale of Job or find the throbbing poignancy of Leah’s discovery in the unlit tent before they reach double digits, you’ve got yourself a worthless kid. (No, your kid is great.) But if your kid reads East of Eden without having gone through the Book of Genesis at least forty times first, their souls will never fully heal
Plus drawings are just cool.
Age Nine — The People Could Fly: American Black Folktales. I told you already. Drawings are amazing. And you need to make sure they remain at least a little convinced that human beings are capable of flight under the right circumstances until they reach puberty.
Age Eleven — The Wonderful Flight To The Mushroom Planet. There is no science fiction like 1950s-era science fiction for children. Make sure the child reads this, and he or she will be a completely appropriate degree of odd for the rest of his or her life. May be replaced with The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles if your kid’s a little bit of a wuss. Anything written about space travel shortly before space travel actually became possible will do, however. The important thing is to keep it weird. Not “tapes her ears into elvish points for the entirety of sophomore year” weird, but one or two tiers below. Think “nourishes a healthy appreciation for the works of Jules Verne,” not “regularly attends steampunk conventions.”
Age Twelve — Jeeves. Twelve is the perfect age for Jeeves. No older, no younger, no matter how precocious you believe this particular child to be. Twelve is just the right age to imprint on Wodehouse, and you always start Wodehouse with Jeeves. Psmith is for fourteen. Mr. Mulliner and Lord Emsworth can wait until college. Twelve is for Jeeves. Start with The Inimitable Jeeves. Make sure you get one with the cover featured to the right, because some of the Jeeves covers are terrible.
You will be tempted to begin with Right Ho, Jeeves! because of the Market Snodsbury prize-giving speech, but this is an error. Do not fall into it. Start with The Inimitable Jeeves, and the rest will follow. Do not buy her a Jeeves omnibus; the spine is too thick and makes it impossible to read in the shower.
Twelve is also an appropriate age to instill in her a deep inner conviction that no matter how strong her appreciation for the collected works of Wodehouse, she must never refer to him as “The Master.” If she does, all is lost. You have created an unlovable pedant.
This is also a good age to get her started on the Berdichever, if her understanding of Heschel is good. But she must love Heschel before she is ready for the Berdichever. If you cannot bring her to love Heschel, you must begin again from scratch. Start with Rumi, maybe.
Age Thirteen — Ivanhoe and The Once and Future King. Do not worry about flinging Anne of Green Gables or A Wrinkle In Time at her; by this age she will have absorbed them by osmosis. She may also at this point have absorbed in passing a smutty book. This can be easily countered by the administering of at least one entry in the X-Wing series of the Star Wars Expanded Universe canon. The Once and Future King should be easy enough, but persist in proffering Ivanhoe until they accept. Ivanhoe will counteract all the petty, countless indignities of being thirteen.
Age Fourteen — Good Omens and Tam Lin. In order to understand Good Omens, she will need to be at least passingly familiar with the works of G.K. Chesterton (if you don’t understand the dedication, you’re not ready for the rest of the book). Just Orthodoxy is fine if you don’t have time for The Man Who Was Thursday. If she has the ‘we have sinned and grown old, but our Father is younger than we‘ part memorized, she may be permitted to skip the works of C.S. Lewis entirely.
Good Omens is mandatory if one hopes to develop in the child a sense of humor. The fact that it will never — never — successfully be made into a movie will teach her a sense of whimsy and resignation not unbecoming to a young person. Tam Lin may be omitted if she displays a tendency to want to read the works of Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Age Fifteen — Shirley Jackson. It is imperative she not be allowed to read any Jane Austen at this point. Do not allow even the name of Jane Austen to be breathed in the walls of your home. Stop all the clocks, strike out any mention of her works in the newspapers and periodicals that cross your threshold. Should she discover Austen now, she will be lost to you forever. Shirley Jackson and Shirley Jackson alone can save her at this age. We Have Always Lived in the Castle is best — preferably if she can stumble upon it by herself in a used bookstore on a summer afternoon, since this will be the last year she doesn’t have to get a summer job — but The Lottery will do fine. Shirley Jackson before Dorothy Parker, remember.
Now it is too late for you to influence any of her reading choices; now you have lost her. Hope for the best and wait for her to call you in a few years. If you have laid the appropriate groundwork, the call will come sooner rather than later, and you will find her surprisingly pleasant to talk to.*
*Not a guarantee
Mallory is an Editor of The Toast.