Let me say this right upfront: I am not a Tolkienophile. I read the Lord of the Rings three times: once as a tween, again as a teenager, and once more as a young adult, and every time I found it for the most part yawn-inducing. Bloated fantasy fiction is not my thing. If I had been J.R.R. Tolkien’s editor, I would have told him to cut it down by at least a third.
Nevertheless, The Hobbit holds a special place in my heart and on my reading list. It is one of two books I believe should be read aloud to every kid (the other one is The Phantom Tollbooth, and if you haven’t read that or had it read to you, I’ll let Michael Chabon tell you why you should). My brother read The Hobbit to me as a young child, and it’s a memory I associate with so many good things in life—comfort, safety, and descriptions of delicious-sounding food. Mostly though, I remember it (and The Phantom Tollbooth) as the first books that didn’t make me feel condescended to. As a child, I was always mildly suspicious that people were talking down to me. I hated that in adults, but I hated it even more in books. It felt like the ultimate betrayal—for books, in which one is supposed to find an escape from reality, to contain the same thinly-veiled condescension that exists in the real world was unthinkable. I loved Roald Dahl for this reason; I also loved The Hobbit. Despite its winks and humorous asides, it never took its characters or its audience less than completely seriously. This is shown nowhere so much as the scope of the novel, and the world Tolkien created for it. Say what you want about Tolkien, but his ability to create a fictional world so vivid that it allows one to forget the world in which they’re actually living is unparalleled. It is this, more than anything else, that makes The Hobbit such a delightful read.
Surely, you’ve heard the plot or at least managed to glean a few details from the relentless trailers for the adaptation playing before every single movie (including, probably, The Hobbit itself). In case you haven’t, the plot centers around the titular hobbit himself, Bilbo Baggins. Bilbo is a homebody classic to his species, except for a bit of inconvenient, adventure-hungry Took blood. It is this little-explored side of him that prompts him to accept, if somewhat reluctantly, an invocation to a quest, put forth to him by the friendly wizard Gandalf the Grey. Bilbo goes on an adventure with a tribe of dwarfs to retake the treasure of their former home, the Lonely Mountain, from the dragon, Smaug (a more perfect name for a dragon villain there has never been). From there, the plot bounces along through myriad scrapes and close calls, including the most memorable scene of the book, Bilbo’s introduction to Gollum and his most prized possession, the titular ring of Tolkien’s later trilogy. Even as a child, without having read The Lord of the Rings trilogy, I had an accurate sense that the ring’s importance superseded the story in front of me; it was details like that, left out for the reader but not fully explained, that made me feel like I was reading a grown-up book, a book that took me as seriously as I took it.
For this reason, The Hobbit is the book you should get for your precocious niece or nephew—especially if it is their first introduction to chapter books. I would give it to my own precocious nephew if it weren’t for the fact that his parents, both huge Tolkien nerds, have probably already read it to him several times by now. My nephew Timothy is precocious mostly because my sister treats him as if he is; he learned to read at such a young age because she encouraged him to; he speaks like a tiny adult because she treats him with the seriousness of one. Being an introverted middle child, she is very conscious about making her own children feel paid attention to, and treating their thoughts as important ones. Perhaps because of this, Timothy has grown up to be a very serious thinker, and a serious reader. He started reading chapter books at the age of 5, a development which thrilled me, because I had been waiting impatiently for my nephews and nieces to reach the age where we could share books.
Timothy is the perfect candidate for The Hobbit. He loves adventure—Star Wars is his favorite movie—but loves asking questions. He loves it even more if he asks a question that can’t immediately be answered, because it means he can look for it himself. This makes The Hobbit a perfect read for him; self-contained enough to make a satisfying read, but leaving a breadcrumb trail of hints and questions to tantalize the minds of the young and curious. Someday, no doubt, he’ll be old enough to read The Lord of the Rings, which, bloated though it is, will lead him into a world where curiosity and imagination are paramount, and where one can completely lose themselves for as long as they want. He’ll take that message with him when he grows up, so that if he’s having a rough year, or if it’s getting close to Christmas and he’s feeling old and unspirited, he can pick up The Hobbit and read it again, remember all the things he felt when he first read it. Maybe he’ll buy it for his own niece or nephew, or his own kid, and the joy he gets from seeing them introduced to this world will make him feel young again.