In my final post on principles of antifragility for motherhood, I said that learning to bear small losses prepares us for bearing big losses and that one place this can be practiced is through reading. Most of us don’t live devastating lives, I said. But literature allows us to enter in to the devastation of others. While this isn’t its primary purpose, it’s true that literature can help build so much of what we talked about regarding robustness, resiliency, and more.
Most of these books are books I’ve read aloud to our family over the years, many of them more than once.
I wanted to make a list that felt complete to me in some way. I’ve since decided that instead of waiting until I got that finished sort of feeling, I’d go ahead and release the list, adding other books as I remember their names and where they fit in the categories.
Note: there are some spoilers in the descriptions — I tried to say only as much as was necessary. Note also: most of these are old books (I do not apologize for this).
Also: Some folks requested I add in recommended ages. That is tricky business because ultimately only Mom knows what will work for her children. When I list ages below, it’s when I think it can be read aloud. I found that I waited on things for my oldest, but ultimately my youngest got a lot of books waaaaay younger because I was reading things that worked for the whole family. You know what? It didn’t hurt him to hear these books younger, but some of them he couldn’t remember so I read them again when he was older.
Books that Model Loss
It’s not so much modeling loss as modeling handling loss well. Books in this category need to make you feel the loss to be effective.
Little Britches: Father and I Were Ranchers by Ralph Moody
I adore this whole series, but if you only read two, I recommend this one and the next one, Man of the Family (which I explain in the next category). The two work together to model both loss and flexible thinking so I put one in each category.
I don’t want to spoil the loss part for you, so I’ll just say that there is one chapter in this book that I weep through every single time.
The Children of the New Forest by Captain Marryat
Like many good books, this would fit in more than one of these categories, but I can’t get away from the idea that the children in this book face so much loss. They are orphaned, lose their property, and the list goes on. The historical context for the story-line is the reign of Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans, from whom the children, descended from a Cavalier, must hide.
Excellent book and good example of learning to live again after loss.
The Book Thief by Markus Zusak
As you can imagine, a book set in Germany in Hitler’s time and narrated by Death himself contains a lot of loss. For some teens, the book will be too heavy. But for those who can, it’s a story of loss and finding life after loss, and of conquering in big and small ways when faced with tyranny of the worst kind.
The story is beautifully told and not to be missed. If not for your older teens, then perhaps for you.
ages 16+ (use discretion)
Other books set in this era tend to also be antifragile in some way. Good titles include nonfiction works like The Hiding Place by Corrie Ten Boom and God’s Smuggler by Brother Andrew (the latter goes beyond this time period but maintains the same feel). For younger children, try Twenty and Ten by Claire Huchet Bishop.
Bruchko by Bruce Olson
If you were determined to spread the Gospel to a primitive tribe, and your work resulted in disease, kidnap, torture, and more … would you quit? Would you pack up and go home, leaving the work for some future unwitting soul to complete? This is exactly what happened to Bruce Olson, but instead of going home, he stayed and continued his mission in spite of all obstacles.
Squanto by Feenie Ziner
My copy of this book is actually called Dark Pilgrim — this book is out of print, extremely hard to find, and often overpriced. Because of this, you’ll want to keep an eye out for it. When you do, watch for both title options.
When Squanto is tricked and kidnapped and brought to England as a slave, he has lost everything: his home, family, and freedom. It is only when he regains his freedom and returns to American that we realize the utter depths of his loss, for while he was away, a plague wiped out his people. There is no home to return to.
How does a man recover from such things? This book shows how he can do such a thing well and to the glory of God.
Books that Model Flexible Thinking
Man of the Family by Ralph Moody
Ralph Moody’s mama was something else, and he was, too, even if he was a little guy. This book displays a glorious entrepreneurial mind. If you want to model for your children someone who can change with changing markets and figure out how to make ends meet when there is no safety net, this is your book.
Both Ralph and his mama display an amazing level of creativity and ingenuity as they help provide for the family.
The Wright Brothers by David McCullough
While this book was written for adults, my children all loved it when I read it aloud this year. (It’s definitely for older kids — my children were 11-17 at the time.)
The Wright brothers are another example of agile thinking, problem solving, and not giving up in the face of failure. They also model keeping your independence so you don’t end up controlled by someone else who holds the purse strings.
Most well-written books about inventors will reveal agile thinking.
The Swiss Family Robinson by Johann David Wyss
It’s true that, as an adult, you have to suspend some disbelief when you read this book. It’s unlikely that an island in this area would contain the variety of animals Wyss includes. But with that said, this book is so much fun to read and brimming with examples of creative thinking and problem solving in the face of severe challenges and disadvantage.
The Box-Car Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner
I think “pluckiness” is the right word for the quality this group of four siblings possess — and they have it in spades. This books is along the same lines of Swiss Family Robinson, and while they aren’t on a deserted island in the middle of nowhere, they are finding a way to survive on their own while making a home for themselves … in an abandoned boxcar.
Note: many children love the books in this series, but in my opinion, only the first book fits well in this category.
The Story of Rolf and the Viking Bow by Allen French
My oldest loved Allen French growing up, but I never read any of his books until recently when I picked one up to use as a read aloud. The story starts with Rolf as teen boy. His father isn’t very strategic, and he’s not much better. Persecution from a neighboring enemy ends in his father being first outlawed and then murdered, Rolf also outlawed and then ending up in slavery — it’s a mess. But as he goes along, he learns. He becomes more strategic. He becomes a survivor and, eventually, a conqueror.
A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court by Mark Twain
This book is an odd duck, at times offensive, and also laugh-out-loud funny. (If you find his chronological snobbery unbearable, I think that he’s supposed to be somewhat unlikeable at the beginning.) Truly, fewer things require more agile thinking than a man from the Industrial Age dropped into the time of King Arthur. We thoroughly enjoyed this as a family read aloud when our youngest was eleven — we laughed along with the main character while he managed to build a thriving modern economy in jolly old England.
The Long Winter by Laura Ingalls Wilder
All of the Little House books reveal a stunning level of ingenuity (which was a necessary requirement for a pioneer), but The Long Winter does one of the best jobs because this was a time when they were up against insurmountable odds. Heroism couples up with out-of-the-box thinking throughout the book. It takes creativity to thrive, yes, but it also takes creativity to survive sometimes, and the Ingalls had that in spades.
The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer
Book added April 7, 2021.
This book is the first memoir I think I’ve ever read aloud to my family, and it was amazing. It’s the perfect book for this list because technically it could fit in two other categories. Books that Model Loss? Death, famine, poverty, and disappointment haunt its pages. Books that Remind Parents Not to Intervene? William Kamkwamba’s father is very good about making William’s mother and sisters give him plenty of time to work on his invention — and that is all that he gives him (uninterrupted time).
But the category The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind fits best is Books that Model Flexible Thinking. William builds his windmill using ideas from library books and scraps from the junk yard. He is a school drop out because the famine ate up his family’s money and there was nothing left to pay for school. When William cannot find a circuit breaker, he invents one. He does all sorts of ingenius things, like melting PVC pipes from old plumbing systems to make the blades for his windmill. He is an excellent example of never giving up, and of tackling a problem from every angle.
ages 13+ (preread due to some mature content)
Sackett’s Land by Louis L’Amour
Book added November 25, 2022.
Louis L’Amour is the perfect author for this list. Many, if not most, of his books would fit in at least one of my subcategories. Sackett’s Land, though, is fitting for the Flexible Thinking subcategory plus it’s always nice to use the first book from a series. In this case, there are many Sackett books, all fabulous.
Barnabas Sackett is a dweller in the fens of England in the days of Queen Elizabeth who wants to make something of himself. He finds ways to do this both in England as well as abroad in the New World. As he does so, he escapes kidnapping pirates and a noble with a grudge against him, and he does it while keeping his good character intact.
L’Amour does not use gratuitous sexual content, language, or violence. However, the stories are written for adults. I started my children on this author in junior high not due to content but because I didn’t think they would appreciate the books as much as younger ages.
Books that Model Everyday Heroism
There are plenty of inspiring hero tales, and those are very valuable. But the books I’ve put below are ones that show children how they can, as Taleb put it, “bear the disadvantage for the sake of others.” No one does this better than Louisa May Alcott.
Jack and Jill by Louis May Alcott
When Jack and Jill go flying off their sled, they learn to repent of taking reckless risks. Jack breaks his leg, Jill breaks her back, and they both end up on a long road to recovery.
The beautiful thing about this book is not just the lessons on perseverance, but the countless examples of tiny sacrifices made for one another in the spirit of love and kindness. They are small, everyday acts of heroism so perfect for children to hear of because it is then they realize that heroism does not require war or emergency — they are capable of sacrificing themselves for the sake of others all the time, if only they have the eyes to see it.
Most of Alcott’s books provide examples of this type of heroism, but Jack and Jill does an especially good job. For older girls, my daughter recommends Alcott’s book The Inheritance as another example in this category.
Stories from the Old Squire’s Farm by C.A. Stephens
This book could probably fit in any of these categories. The context for the book is devastating: the old squire and his wife lost all of their sons in the Civil War, therefore their grandchildren “come home” to the family farmstead in Maine … because someone needs to raise them.
In these books, there are examples of heroism big and small. Sacrificing for one another and saving the day both come into play. Each chapter is its own short story, making it, and its companion, Sailing on the Ice, perfect for evening story time.
By the Shores of Silver Lake by Laura Ingalls Wilder
Mary Ingalls has been left blind and her sister Laura is assigned to “see” for her — it’s exactly this assignment that puts the book in this category. Laura has to learn to describe everything aloud that that Mary isn’t left in the dark about where they are and what it is like. Just think of how disorienting it would be to move to a new place as a blind child!
This is exactly the type of everyday heroism we want our children to have examples of that they can draw on in their everyday lives.
Books that Remind Parents to Not Intervene
This category is for reading aloud. Parents will see a hands-off, masterly inactivity type of parents modeled, and kids tend to love these titles. So: everyone wins.
Obadiah the Bold by Brinton Turkle
I wrote about this book at length back in 2012. Little ones — especially little boys — love this picture book set in an early America Quaker family. And parents get a glimpse of what it looks like to let a little one learn his lesson the hard way.
For whatever reason, Amazon is charging quite a bit for this book. It’s good, but I wouldn’t pay over twenty bucks for it! Better to find it used; then you can be happy with the inside and happy with what you paid.
Roxaboxen by Alice McLerran
An adult cannot read this tale of children’s simple play — with sticks and rocks and bits of broken glass they build themselves a whole world — without realizing how important it is for children to have imaginary play time that is completely uninterrupted by grownups.
Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
In which Children Have Adventures. What’s not to adore about this book? My favorite part is when the mother writes to father about whether the children can go on this adventure and he famously replies that they may because they will only drown if they are duffers — they’re not duffers, so they won’t drown.
The parents in this book give the children so much freedom that you’ll likely think it’s criminal. But it’s exactly the kind of freedom children love to have, and they will adore this book.
Understood Betsy by Dorothy Canfield Fisher
This is another selection where kids love the book but the parents learn the most lessons. Betsy is a little orphan who, due to life circumstances, must be passed from one set of relatives to another. The first set is over-protective, making her weak and fearful. The second gives her freedom and empowers her and Betsy quickly blossoms into a capable little girl.
The lesson for parents is clear and convicting; children love any book in which they are free to have adventures.
Jane of Lantern Hill by L.M. Montgomery
Little Jane has always believed her father to be dead. He not only turns up alive, he also invites her to summer with him at his place on Prince Edward Island. Going to visit opens a world of opportunities because her overbearing, domineering grandmother is no longer around. Jane gets to live her dream — one that some may find unusual in our world of lazy children — she gets to keep house for her father. Jane learns to cook, clean, and more. Much like Understood Betsy, we begin to see how adults interfere with child development when they keep them from doing useful work (especially useful work they have a deep desire to do).
(girls) ages 12+
List last updated April 7, 2021.
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