Reading stories to children before bedtime is a hallowed tradition that encourages a love of reading and improved literacy. But just because you’re reading to kids doesn’t mean you have to read kids’ books. Reading adult novels to a child sounds like bad news (you don’t want to create a Bart Simpson “can’t sleep, clown will eat me” moment), but reading more advanced novels aloud can have real benefits: better reading comprehension, a larger vocabulary, and an expanded worldview. Here are six novels that aren’t “kids’ books” that you can totally read to your kids before bedtime.
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
Orwell’s classic deals with a lot of heavy, adult issues—but it does so in the guise of a children’s book about animals, making it the ideal gateway drug to turn your kids on to critical thinking. Yes, there’s some dark stuff in here, but it’s hidden by fairy tale-esque style and imagery. And most fairy tales are pretty dark, too, if you think about it.
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee
Lee’s classic novel also trades in dark themes, but the awesome, incredibly authentic voice of young Scout Finch makes it a novel kids will enjoy for the minor adventures she gets into throughout the larger story. It’s also an ideal book to begin teaching kids about struggles our society is still dealing with, without resorting to a boring lecture or history lesson.
The Hobbit, by J.R.R. Tolkien
Tolkien’s first novel set in Middle Earth was intended to be a children’s book, but revisions over the years to bring it more in line with his darker The Lord of the Rings have made it more sophisticated without robbing it of its sense of “adventure!” with an exclamation mark, making it a wonderful story for kids. Hobbits, dwarves, elves, and an evil dragon? They’ll love it, and the moral quandaries at the heart of the story will teach fundamental lessons even as it thrills them.
Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
Some adults might worry Alcott’s beloved novel is a bit outdated in terms of gender roles and social rules—and it is—but the charming language is fun to read and to listen to, and there is literally no human being yet born who will not become emotionally entangled in the affairs of the March sisters within just a few pages. The story contains just the right medicinal amount of sadness and struggle, but is ultimately heartwarming—and will stick with kids throughout their lifetimes.
Tom Brown’s School Days, by Thomas Hughes
Another dated story that tells the story of Tom Brown at school, but its universal themes of childhood and the intimidating, exciting moment when you take those first steps towards independence and adulthood still resonate, as do the episodes of impish pranks and adventures (including the occasional dorm room explosion). Most importantly, the book will inspire a curiosity about others that will serve kids well when they head off on their own adventures.
Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift
If you want to instill a love of language in your kids, read them anything by Jonathan Swift. Gulliver’s Travels dresses his incredible verbiage with a romp of a plot that follows Gulliver to the sort of magical lands that literally no child could resist. Sure, kids won’t get the things Swift was satirizing, but they’ll love the Lilliputians and the many other adventures Gulliver experiences, expanding their vocabularies and imaginations along the way.