There are a lot of lists out there for ‘top children’s books of all time’, but there’s nothing like a recommendation through the eyes of children themselves. Encouraging kids to enjoy books can have a lifetime’s impact on them, with experts saying it can increase empathy amongst children, improve their concentration and fire their imaginations. I also think they can learn vicariously about the trials and triumphs of others, as well as prompting chats about tricky subjects: lying, cheating, death, religion.
…Although it’s not always smooth sailing… I fell foul by trying to explain ‘the Holy Grail’ to my then four year old when it came up in a bedtime story about King Arthur. After hearing about it, he was too scared to go to sleep ‘in case God woke him up in the middle of the night for a chat’…
Some of the best books we’ve read were published long ago and whilst their longevity is testament to how good they are, the downsides are the old fashioned language and expressions. Although there’s been a back-lash from Edith Blyton’s stalwarts that some modern versions have been produced (and that Titty’s name was changed to Tatty in the 2016 film of Swallows and Amazons), if it’s not adding anything to the story and keeps the flow, I change words every now and then they’ll make more sense to my kids.
I first did it when I didn’t want my kids copying Winnie the Witch by saying ‘Blooming’ all the time. Last night I changed ‘wren’ to ‘bird’, as I didn’t have the energy for an explanation (I was also not exactly sure what to say about a wren: ‘a small, brown bird, a bit like a robin, but without a red tummy’?!). I learnt my lesson the hard way by spending far too long trying to explain what a rhododendron bush was (as we have them in our garden, I fooled myself into thinking it’d be easy). I ended up by saying ‘just think of a big green bush!’ (that’s all they needed to hear…).
Sometimes I google pictures of things at a later point if they keep coming up in the story (e.g. the Russian Steppes, what a peacock looks like). But I take the view that the main point is the story, not a lesson in vocabulary, so if there’s too much explaining, give the book a miss 😉.
If you’re starting to move from picture books to ones with more text, here’s some tips I’ve found useful:
- Go with the child’s interest: fact, fiction, fantasy, or a film they’ve enjoyed
- Try books you loved as a child: your enthusiasm will rub off on them
- Start with shorter books that have lots of chapters: longer books with too much description will be boring for young kids who’ll find it difficult to maintain concentration and picture the scenes in their heads. Complex plots which take a while to warm up may also switch them off. The ‘Early Reader’ style books (intended for older children to read to themselves) are a good half-way house, as they are longer than picture books, have more text and a chapter format but aren’t too complex or long, so could be read in a couple of nights
- Choose books where there are a couple of pictures every now and then. They break the story up and help kids picture what’s happening in their own minds.
- Stop every now and then to recap on the story, ask questions to check understanding and clarify what the book might be hinting at. Ask what they think the moral of the story is? or why a character did what they did? which character is their favourite? or what they would do if faced a similar dilemma that the character is facing?
- Every child is different. So obvious, but something that I always seem to fall into a trap with my own kids. My youngest (perhaps in order to assert his individuality) took against my eldest’s favourite books (Famous Five, or anything remotely described as an ‘Adventure’ book). I have to describe a book as ‘magical’ to get his attention (perhaps I should try selling Famous Five as such and see whether he enjoys them once he gets over his own prejudices…?!). The up-side of this is that we’ve branched out into other books and my eldest still wants to join in for bedtime stories and is therefore trying different books himself. Perhaps one day my youngest will discover the books he rejected…
Books you may like to try…
“The Lorax”, Dr Seuss
Although Cat in the Hat was famously created as a response to concerns about illiteracy amongst children in America in the ’50s (it uses 236 of the 250 most commonly used words in the English language), his other books are brilliant for kids. A favourite in our house is The Lorax, with surprisingly modern relevance (including deforrestation and dangers of industrialisation!), all wrapped up in a crazy caper. It’s a slightly longer story than some of his other books, with more text, but still has fantastic pictures that are lovely to look at with or without the story being read.
Other books that they’ve enjoyed are One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish; Scrambled Eggs Super; Fox in Socks; Green Eggs and Ham; Oh the places you’ll go!, Mr Brown can Moo!, can you? – all of which have crazy tales, stories and tongue-twisting rhymes.
“Charlotte’s Web”, E.B. White
Despite having a girl in the title and often cutesy imagery on the front cover, my guys enjoyed this. We have it as an audio book for long car journeys and it seemed to go down well, despite the fact that my guys aren’t massively into animals.
“Wind in the Willows”, Kenneth Grahame
An easy read, harmless waterside shenanigans, probably most suited to pre-schoolers. We also have it as an audio book.
“Just So Stories”, Rudyard Kipling
Rated highly, but found it was more suited to adult fans of children’s literature than to modern day children. The language is difficult for them to get (I didn’t realise just how old the book is, it was written in the 1902!), I read it about a year ago to my kids and whilst my eldest (nearly 7 at the time) enjoyed it, it didn’t engage my youngest, so I gave it a miss in favour of other things they’d both enjoy.
I may give it another go in future, as the idea behind the collection of short animal-themed stories is great – how did the elephant get its trunk? Why does a camel have a hump? I’m sure there’ll be revised editions which re-tell the stories in language kids of today can relate to. If you come across one of those, then it could be just the ticket, the concept is nice and they are gentle ideas which will be the prelude to sweet dreams.
“The Magic Folk Collection”, Enid Blyton
Someone in a bookshop recommended this to me as a good book to read to my eldest who was growing out of his picture books. It’s a collection of short stories and has pictures every now and then. My suspicions in the shop about the suitability for a modern-day boy were unfortunately founded. It has lovely ideas in it, like one where it explains how a toadstool got its name. Whilst my son thought it was good, I found it a little too cutesy to be honest. Just the ticket though for a little girl who’s into fairies!
“The Faraway Tree”, Enid Blyton
I was initially cautious about this, given my experience with the Magic Folk Collection, but it receives rave reviews and seems to really stick in children’s memories (my eight-year old niece went to World Book Day as Saucepan Man as had re-read the book herself, after being read to as a younger child).
When I describe it, it will sound ridiculous, but it has brilliant ideas, like how there are different rotating lands at the top of the Faraway Tree and how the exit of a land is like a wormhole – once you’re in, it’s pretty tricky to get out. Even the lands which seem good initially are not and teach the children all sorts of lessons about extremes.
I know some mums of boys will think this sort of stuff won’t wash with boys, but my guys thought it was hilarious.
Children’s books by Roald Dahl
I had loads of pre-conceptions about Dahl, having only read The Twits and Revolting Rhymes as a child. Whilst I liked The Revolting Rhymes, I thought The Twits was dark and gruesome. So when I happened upon an old copy of George’s Magic Medicine (unearthed from a Grandparent’s house) I wasn’t convinced. I remained unsure when I read the first couple of chapters about George’s grotesque and horrid grandmother and how he went about poisoning her (my son was prone to nightmares at the time). Whilst my then five-year old looked a bit taken aback by the gruesome granny, he loved hearing all the horrid (and hilarious) things that happened to her. The book also seems to be written to be read out aloud, it is onomatopoeic, crazy and ‘in your face’ – it has the right sort of ick-factor for a young boy.
It’s also the only book that I’ve read separately to both my boys and led to my youngest only wanting to have books read to him if I confirmed they were also written by Dahl. That was a reasonable plan, until we ran out of his books! I got to the point of asking our local library to reserve ‘any books by Dahl’ and ended up with a book called The Vicar of Nibbleswick which taught me a lesson in checking a book before reading it.
I don’t know if you know the story (it’s a lesser-known book, written for a dyslexia charity). It features a vicar who said his words backwards. It’s a pretty short book that can be read in one sitting, however the joke of the story (spoiler alert, or perhaps warning!) is that the vicar asks people not to ‘PARK’ on the pavement outside the church, except he says ‘KRAP’ instead. I spent the duration of the book mispronouncing it as ‘Krarp’ which meant that whilst I successfully avoided teaching them a word that would be repeated in the playground, the book make no sense whatsoever. Don’t be fooled by its size, it’s a short story for adults. …A proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing!
My kids’ favourites are: James and the Giant Peach, Danny the Champion of the World, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie & the Glass Elevator, The BFG.
“The Midnight Gang”, David Walliams
Whilst everyone says Walliams is the new Roald Dahl, I’m not convinced they’re in the same league (he’s also knocked them out at a rate which is slightly suspicious… does he have a ghost-writing team?!). Beautiful concepts like the BFG’s Dream Jar don’t really exist, but fun characters like the omnipresent Raj, the Newsagent do – and the plots are simple enough for kids to follow when reading them for themselves when they’re a bit older.
Telling my youngest that ‘Walliams is the new Dahl’ did however work to get him to listen to this. It was a nice story and my guys loved it. It’s about a children’s hospital ward, where they outwit the nurse in order to re-create each child’s dream.
Other David Walliams stories
My eldest has read the rest of these stories himself after getting a set of them and enjoyed them. He says his favourite is Gangster Granny because she “stinks of cabbage and they have cabbage chocolates, cabbage soup and cabbage blow-offs”. Now there’s an enticing review if ever I saw one!