10 Good Books Featuring Big Families
Let’s talk about books! These are some of my “big family” favorites:
1. Mr. and Mrs. Pig books written and illustrated by Mary Rayner
Hilarious and true-to-life adventures of a family with 10 piglets, who clearly love and cherish each other, but also spend a certain amount of time driving each other crazy. I cherish the scene where Mrs. Pig realizes she is too darn fat to change the sheets on her children’s multi-tiered bunk beds; and my kids love Mrs. Pig’s Bulk Buy, in which she uses tough love to cure an infatuation with ketchup. Illustrations are priceless.
2. The Father Who Had Ten Children written and illustrated by Bénédicte Guettier
Offbeat picture book about the groggy-looking dad of 10 round-headed, googly-eyed little kids. He cheerfully cooks and cares for them every day as they clamber around on his head—but at night, he works on a private project: a little blue boat. One day he leaves the kids with their grandmother and sets sail by himself, ‘for 10 days, or maybe even 10 months!’ His peace and freedom are sheer bliss ... until he realizes that something is missing. Cute and satisfying.
3. Heckedy Peg written by Audrey Wood, illustrated by Don Wood
A mother returns from the market to find that her seven naughty children disobeyed her, and a horrible and hungry witch has changed them into food. The mother can only save them because she knows them and their desires so well. Luminous, masterful illustrations, and a highly original and affecting story.
4. It Could Always Be Worse written and illustrated by Margot Zemach
A poor man lives with his sprawling extended family in a small and humble house, where there noise and chaos are unbearable. At wit’s end, he runs to his rabbi for advice—and the rabbi tells him the last thing he wants to hear. But in the end, all is well. A yiddish folktale with unforgettable illustrations, retold with relish. My parents took the title of this picture book as our family motto.
Elementary School and up:
5. All-of-a-kind Family series by Sydney Taylor
Deservedly beloved series about a Jewish family (five sisters and, eventually, one brother) growing up on the Upper East Side of New York in the 1930’s and 40’s. While these stories are excellent historical enrichment, the children’s personalities and interior struggles are true and timeless. Henny the troublemaker realizes she’s gone too far trying to look poor enough to win a beautiful charity doll; diligent Sarah weeps over a lost history prize; and the little ones, determine to prove how capable they are, set fire to their aunt’s curtains while making surprise pancakes. These warm and gentle stories deal with everyday joys and trials of family life without ever being saccharine or preachy.
[A couple of corrections—thanks to my vigilant readers! The book is, of course, set not in the 30’s and 40’s, but before and during World War I. Whether it’s set in the Upper or Lower East Side, I’m actually not sure—the family is by no means rich, but there was a scene when they visited some impoverished people living in tenements, and the girls are shocked to see how these people live. So, maybe someone who is more knowledgeable about NYC history can set me straight here!]
6. Okay, not a book but a movie: Nanny McPhee
Haven’t read the Nurse Matilda books but thoroughly enjoyed the movie about a widowed father with seven basically good but extremely wild children. When he plans to remarry, they rebel, not realizing that their bitter old aunt is threatening to cut off her financial support; so a magical nanny steps in to repair this wounded family. I loved the scene where the father realizes with horror that his children think they are a burden to him, when really they are all that make his life worthwhile. Some people found this movie too crass, but we enjoyed the original slapstick, the creative story line, the fine acting, and the convincing love story.
7. Half Magic written by E. Nesbit, illustrated by N. M. Bodecker
Not a big family by some standards, but the four children in Edward Eager’s Half Magic relate to each other in such realistic ways, I have to mention this excellent book. One boring summer, the kids find a charm which grants wishes ... but there’s a very tricky catch. A fascinating, very funny and sweet book with charming line drawings, by far the best of Edward Eager’s seven books about kids and magic.
Young Adult to Adult:
8. Cheaper By the Dozen by Frank B. Gilbreth and Ernestine Gilbreth Carey
Didn’t bother with the Steve Martin movies, and all I remember from the 1950 movie was when the local rep from Planned Parenthood realized she was in the wrong, wrong house. The book was odd and funny, though—co-written by two of 12 children raised with love and rigor (with some touching exceptions) by efficiency experts. This early passage, about what happened when the father brought home some sheep, almost killed me: “‘If I ever bring anything else alive into this household,’ Dad said, ‘I hope the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals hales me into court and makes me pay my debt to society. I never felt so ashamed of anything in my life as I do about those sheep ...’”
9. The Story of the Trapp Family Singers by Maria Augusta Trapp
An interesting read—startlingly less cheerful and tidy than the movie (which the real Maria von Trapp is reported to have loathed, although it grew on her over the years). The movie ends with the family hiking to freedom over the Alps, but the book continues as the family struggles in abject poverty for many years before they become successful. At one point, Georg says, “Children, we have a choice now: Do we want to keep the material goods we still have ... our friends, and all the things we are fond of?—then we shall have to give up the spiritual goods: our faith and honor. We can’t have both any more.”
10. The Weasley family in the Harry Potter series
Say what you want about the Harry Potter books, it got large-family life just right with the Weasleys. Yes, things are harder because they have seven kids. They’re always broke, things are noisy and chaotic, some of the kids fight or go astray, and the parents sometimes cope in less-than-admirable ways—but the decent characters envy this obviously loving family, and it’s always the bad guys who mock them for having seven kids. Mrs. Weasley, with her endless homemade sweaters, her bustling hospitality, and her furious strength, is A-OK by me.
So, what’s your favorite book featuring a big family?