We’re halfway through the Week of Wishlists, and I hope you’ve felt inspired to give the gift of imagination and timeless story to a child in your life. Today we’ll peek into some chapter books, which are versatile for both independent readers and reading aloud to children of different ages.

I’ve read a number of chapter books with my children this year, both classic and new. Some I liked, some I didn’t, but only one rose above all the others to warrant a place on this list.

Rascal

This is so much more than a story about about a boy and his furry companion. It’s a picture of the moment, crystallized in time, when the joyous abandon of youth hardens into that first selfless decision of adulthood.

Young Sterling doesn’t quite enjoy a carefree childhood: he tenderly remembers his beloved late mother, and yearns for her nurturing even as he worries for his older brother serving in the Great War. Yet his absentminded father allows him the sort of freedom that conjures nostalgic images of a happy childhood: fishing in the river, bicycling around a tiny midwestern town, building a canoe in the sitting room, keeping a horde of wild animals as pets. Sterling makes good use of every moment, seizing at life’s simple pleasures (and quite a few shenanigans) with his endearing baby raccoon, Rascal.

But neither boys nor coons stay little forever, and in that spring after the War ends Sterling knows that the time has come to let Rascal go – and his childhood too.

This book is tremendously well-written, and perhaps it tugs at the heartstrings because it is true. Sterling North did indeed have a pet raccoon named Rascal, and one of the highlights of my year was visiting the home where they lived together. It was a magical experience; with the sunlight streaming in through the kitchen window and the big burr oaks outside, one could easily imagine that Sterling had only just slipped out the back door, with Rascal on his shoulder.

As far as memorable chapter books go, I should probably give an honorable mention to Doctor Doolittle and Swiss Family Robinson, both marvelous adventures that pay tribute to nature and ingenuity in a fantastic and fun-loving way. However, both of these older books share a model of Europeans venturing abroad and making “discoveries” while holding the native “savages” in contempt. We need to start moving on from such books, and find stories with just as much skill and a more just approach.

You can find my complete review of Rascal here, and ten of my favorite chapter books for children of varying ages here. Thank you for journeying through this week with me!

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