The thing to remember about reading is that it has the potential to change the reader. Reading narratives builds empathy and increases the readers’ capacity for nuanced thinking. Stories transport us and give us practice looking at things from different points of view. They prompt us to think more deeply and ask questions we would not have asked otherwise. Truly engaging fiction can change the way someone thinks, and some of the authors who do the best job of writing stories that push those boundaries write for children. 

My most recent reminder of this came while reading out loud with my 11-year-old. We read our way through novels at bedtime, a chapter or so at a time, and last month we read (and loved) The Ogress and the Orphans by Kelly Barnhill. This book was funny and pragmatic, beautiful and heartbreaking, and launched many a discussion. As we read, we kept needing to pause and talk about the challenges the characters were facing, how they mirrored experiences a person could have in our world, and how we might choose to respond to similar challenges. In short, we were talking about ethics at bedtime. That sounds dry as dust, but because we cared so much about the characters, we related to the questions they were facing. 

The Ogress and the Orphans tackles questions of what it truly means to be members of a community and what happens to communities when neighbors stop noticing what they have in common and decide that their differences should keep them apart. It shows how some people gain power over others by creating false “us versus them” narratives. It illustrates how sometimes people are drawn to powerful people to the point of ignoring things those people do that they would find repugnant in anyone else. It shows how these things can eat away at the foundations of communities. 

It also shows how people and communities can recover from the damage done by misuse of power. In the town of Stone-in-the-Glen, it turns out that if neighbors remember how to act like real neighbors, taking the time to care about each other, to listen to and learn from each other, and to work together, they can create the community they want for themselves.  

Children’s fiction can surprise the unwary reader. If you haven’t read any lately, you might not remember how deep kids’ books can get, and how unafraid they are of digging into some really complex ideas. But children’s authors know that young people can engage with big questions and often are eager to talk about them. Young people are learning how to be in the world. Encountering challenging ideas in fiction helps them work through how they might react if faced with something tough in real life. 

Once, while reading Ogress, I paused my reading and said to my son, “I hope that if you ever see anyone being bullied or hear a joke that you think isn’t right, you will speak up. Even saying, ‘I don’t think that is funny’ can make a big difference to someone who is feeling targeted.” Another time, he was so frustrated that a group of adults in the book were not listening to the people who knew what had really happened that he said he wanted to take a break and stop reading for the night. And when I asked him what he learned from the book after we were finished, he said “There’s no one who is bad just because. There’s something that makes them sad or mad and that makes them do bad things.” This work of fantasy fiction, written for kids, made us stop and think and feel, and broadened our perspective about our own world. 

The author of A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle, wrote these kinds of books, too. She once said, “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I think she meant that children are open to new and challenging ideas in a way that adults are not. She also said, “A book, too, can be a star, explosive material, capable of stirring up fresh life endlessly, a living fire to lighten the darkness, leading out into the expanding universe.” 

Madeline L’Engle and Kelly Barnhill (and so many others) are part of a long tradition of writing books for children that stir up fresh ideas, that help them find their way to better versions of themselves as they grow up and find their way out into the world. 

I encourage parents (or others with young readers in their lives) to pay attention to what your child is reading. Ask them about their books, and if you can, read the books with them. That’s where the real opportunity is. If you read the books along with your child, you’ll encounter those questions together. That creates a natural starting place for conversations that might be hard to get around to, otherwise. It is a chance to share your values, to teach your child what you think is important and what you hope they would do if faced with a difficult situation. Fiction has a long history as a teaching tool, after all. Think of allegories, fables, and parables. What’s more, encouraging those discussions (and really listening to their perspectives) gives your child a chance to begin forming their own ideas of the kind of person they want to be. And you’ll end up knowing your child better, especially as they start to spread their wings and become more independent of home and family. I’m looking forward to continuing to read with my kiddo for as long as he lets me. I like getting into conversations about chewy topics with him. I think it is good for us both.  

I asked my library colleagues for some titles of children’s books that they thought would be particularly good conversation starters, while still being enjoyable to read together with a kid, and this is the list we came up with. If you’re looking for ideas of what to read with your older child, why not look through these titles? There’s a little bit of everything here, and plenty of opportunities for conversation.