When we read a good book to our children, we delegate: we enlist the help of gifted authors to demonstrate for them (and for us, too) what life is like in other places, other times, other bodies. This is what it looks like, a good book says, to ask for forgiveness even when the asking is hard, to love the unloved, to find joy in the common graces of life.
A good book takes us outside our own experience, outside a particular moment where Papa reads aloud to the rest of us, who were drawing a moment before but now sit—sniffling, pens suspended—as we listen to Prince Rilian’s farewell to his father. This is grief. This is joy.
This is, in a sense, one aspect of what the Bible does for us: it shows us what it looks like to fight against God, to persevere when we don’t want to, to look forward to the life yet to come. We study the movements of the Lord’s hand through each story and find comfort in the fact that his hand moves in our stories, too. We watch other lives lived out in its pages and recognize ourselves in them; that recognition then shapes the way we respond to trouble when it comes. This is where rebellion leads; this is redemption.
And so we fill the corners of our hearts with Scripture and the corners of our home with good books. We surround our daughters with characters that they can connect with, characters who are foolish and funny, warm and wise, prone to mischief or perhaps a little too perfect. We introduce them to Anne, Jo, Heidi, Lucy, and Laura, of course. And then we move on to Bobbie, Phyllis and Irene, Emily and Rose—heroines of the lesser-known works of great authors or of the books picked up on a whim that are, perhaps, unassuming on the outside but radiant within.
Here, for your pleasure, is a list of our favorites. These stories don’t appeal exclusively to girls, by the way. Quite a few of them feature male characters that share the spotlight with the female lead or simply steal it outright, but they’re boys (and men) of good quality that I want my girls to know and love. I suspect that those of you with sons might find that your boys scoot their Legos a little closer to the couch whenever you pull these books out to read with your daughter. (I’ve marked those books with an asterisk.)
*THE RAILWAY CHILDREN, by E. Nesbit
When their father is unexpectedly (and mysteriously) called away from home, three children move to the English countryside with their mother. Adventures large and small ensue, all told in the charming style of E. Nesbit. This book is one of my very favorites. (Read the full review.)
*THE PRINCESS AND THE GOBLIN, by George MacDonald
An old fairy tale of the best sort, written by an author who came to my attention because C.S. Lewis gave him a hearty endorsement. This is, I think, the best of his books for children, and features the princess Irene and her unlikely friend, Curdie. There is also a magical great-great-great-great-grandmother and a whole passel of ornery goblins. (Read the full review.)
WHAT KATY DID, by Susan Coolidge
Circumstances change abruptly, both in life and in plot lines. What Katy Did demonstrates both aspects of this, and through the story of Katy Carr, shows how the road of suffering often leads to the most glorious destinations. (Read the full review.)
THE TINKER’S DAUGHTER, by Wendy Lawton
Here is a marriage of history and fiction. Wendy Lawton tells the story of Mary Bunyan, the sightless daughter of John Bunyan, as she navigates life during her father’s imprisonment. This is a beautifully told story and shows the progress of Mary’s fledgling faith alongside the robust, proven faith of her father. (Read the full review.)
*THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD, by Roger Lancelyn Green
There is a good deal of “bashing of crowns” and “striking one another with blows” in this book, it’s true. But this unlikely candidate merits a spot on this list for three reasons: 1) Maid Marian is no nameless damsel in distress here but a woman bold, courageous, and virtuous. 2) The men in this book know how to treat the ladies. 3) My daughters loved it. (Read the full review.)
EMILY OF NEW MOON, by L.M. Montgomery
You already know about Anne. Emily of New Moon is the slightly darker tale—a deep violet to Anne’s brassy red, twilight to Anne’s fresh morning—of Emily Starr, poetess, orphan, and bewitching lead lady. My affection for this book is deep, my friends. So deep. (Read the full review.)
*TREASURES OF THE SNOW, by Patricia St. John
Have you heard of this book? I hadn’t either until a friend recommended it at a wedding reception dinner. But Treasures of the Snow is a beauty worth seeking out: in it, you’ll find the gospel faithfully represented in a fictional setting, as a feud rises up between two families that needs the wisdom of a grandmother and the power of the gospel to resolve. (Read the full review.)
THE KING’S EQUAL, by Katherine Paterson
The author of Bridge to Terebithia tells an old-fashioned tale of an arrogant prince who cannot assume the kingship until he finds a wife who is “his equal.” (He thinks himself so wonderful that this must be all but impossible.) The King’s Equal is available as either a very short chapter book or a rather long picture book. In either format, it’s a joy to read. (Read the full review.)
A LITTLE PRINCESS, by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Okay, so you probably have heard of this one. It isn’t as famous than its celebrated cousin, The Secret Garden, but if I’m perfectly honest, I liked it better. Sara Crewe—wealthy and petted, but gentle and kind—suffers a fall of fortunes and determines to be a true princess throughout her trial. Unlikely friendships, unexpected blessings, and a satisfying conclusion spring from this decision. (Read the full review.)
*EIGHT COUSINS, Louisa May Alcott
Sheltered and newly orphaned Rose meets her uncle and eight boy cousins for the first time, finds them bewilderingly active but ultimately endearing and goes on to forge the best sort of friendship with them. This book is funny, charming, and beautiful all at once, and sparkles with the same delight in story and language that fuels Alcott’s Little Women. (Read the full review.)
Have I missed any? What are your favorite little-known chapter books for girls?