Brilliant Books for Boys – Fantasy

“If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales.  If you you want to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales” (Einstein)

…although the jury is out about whether he actually said this, apparently he believed it’s creativity that makes a great scientist (others have since jumped on the bandwagon to both agree and disagree).  But, I’ll come clean – I only came across this quote now.  It isn’t why I read fantasy books to my kids – they just happen to be the ones my youngest likes best.

So, following my previous blog with ideas for how to move on from reading picture books to your kids, I thought I’d share some books that my guys (5yrs and 8yrs) have enjoyed. If you’re reading this and have any recommendations for great books that aren’t listed here, then please let me know.  I will post a list of any books recommended to me to share the good-finds with all 😉.

As my youngest doesn’t want to read any of the (adventure) books my eldest used to like, I’m lucky that my mother-in-law’s house is a treasure trove of interesting books and that she unearths new gems every time we go.  Since her previous recommendations have been brilliant, we gladly borrow anything she suggests. The books have lovely stories, usually along the lines of ‘good versus evil’, where our usual way of seeing the world is turned on its head. The downside is that some of the books were written over 100yrs ago and whilst they’ve stood the test of time because of the strength of their stories, the antiquated English can sometimes need a bit of deciphering.

As there’s so much good stuff out there, I’ve just focused on fantasy here. I’ll cover adventure, fact and ones that kids may enjoy reading to themselves another time so that it doesn’t get too unwieldy.

Fantasy Books:

Five Children & It, E. Nesbit

I can’t remember whether we first read this, watched the BBC production, or had it as an audio book.  Our guys have enjoyed it in all three forms, after it was first recommended by grandparents.

It has a simple structure, so is easy for young kids to follow, who might find longer, more complicated plots confusing.  The children find a Samiad (sand fairy) in the gravel pit behind their new home and it grants them wishes, although the moral of the story quickly becomes apparent: be careful what you wish for!

We’ve not yet read the sequels (The Phoenix and the Carpet,  The Story of the Amulet), but are looking forward to doing so at some point.

Alice and Wonderland / Alice through the Looking Glass, Lewis Caroll

We had them on an audio book from our local library which my eldest listened to on long car journeys (hence why my review is short!). Don’t be put off by a girl in the title, my son was entranced by it.  It’s on my list of Christmas presents for my youngest as we don’t own a copy, but I think it’ll be right up his street.  That is if he wasn’t totally put off by our brief attempt to watch the recent Johnny Depp film version (beautiful to look at, but totally incomprehensible to my guys)!

The Magic Woodland Triology, Beverley Nichols

(1) ‘The Tree That Sat Down’ (2) ‘The Stream That Stood Still’ (3) ‘The Mountain of Magic’

These are some of the most enchanting books I’ve ever read (the second book, ‘The Stream that Stood Still’ is my favourite).  I think they are only available now as second-hand copies through Amazon.

The trilogy is a ‘good vs. evil’ story, where things aren’t always as they seem – the witch is superficially beautiful and greed brings out the bad in people. The books describe the adventures of Mrs Judy and her Granddaughter who own The Shop under the Willow Tree.  All is well in the enchanted wood in which they live happily with the woodland creatures, until Sam opens The Shop in the Ford with his Grandfather and enlists the services of a witch (Miss Smith) to sabotage their business.  The reader then follows the fortunes of Mrs Judy’s family as they battle to save themselves (and the kingdom) from the evil intentions of Sam and Miss Smith. I know it sounds a bit cutesy, but I can’t recommend these enough – they’ll suck you and your kids right in.

Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce

I was suspicious of the quote on the front by Philip Pullman proclaiming that this book is ‘Perfect’.  However, the fact that it’s also won prizes drew me in.  It was slow-going in the beginning and the long descriptions of the garden (rhododendron bushes) won’t mean a lot to young kids and wouldn’t bother reading it until your kids are used to longer books. Once they are, I strongly recommend persevering though the first couple of chapters because once the main action starts, it’s brilliant.

After it picks up pace, it tells the tale of how fun can happen in the most unlikely of places when Tom goes to stay with his childless aunt and uncle, whilst his brother recovers from Chicken Pox. There’s some great ideas, mystery, spine-tingles and cliff hangers (resulting in my kids taking hum rage when I refused to read ‘just one more chapter’).

If you can get through the slow start, this would suit both boys and girls, as despite what’s suggested by the title, Hattie is the star attraction.

The Enchanted Castle, E. Nesbit

Keeping with the theme of magical gardens, I read this to my eldest when he was younger and despite the antiquated language, the ideas were fantastic.  There’s an enchanted garden, a magic ring and a lesson about being careful what you wish for.  Despite taking a little time to fathom out what’s happening, once the story is up-and-running it keeps you hooked.  Mind you, it probably didn’t help me that I was trying to make sense of it from a real-world perspective (you need to kick reality to the curb).  The story describes a series of events that happen every time someone wishes something, (anything!), whilst wearing the magic ring (written five years after ‘Five Children and It’, it echoes some of the same ideas, although it’s even crazier).

The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster

This book follows a bored child (Milo) on his quest to save a magical kingdom by completing a quest. During which time, he’s forced to: think differently, question everything and see mistakes as building blocks to success. Philosophy-meets-psychology wrapped-up in a very crazy caper, told through clever use of the English language.

Having written the paragraph above, I may as well have typed ‘BUY THIS NOW’, however, I also should admit that I’ve oscillated about whether it’s a book for kids or young adults (or English teachers!). The book is overflowing with clever witticisms: puns, homophones, metaphors, clichés, adages, idioms, proverbs and any other literary device you can think of, all topped off with a scattering of mathematical jokes for good measure. I can only think the author had a lot of fun chuckling away to himself as he let his mind run away with itself in the process of writing this.

Having written the paragraph above, I may as well have typed ‘DON’T BUY THIS BOOK’ to read to your kids. Yet it’s not as pretentious or clumsy as it sounds – the quirks are woven into the story so well that the tale doesn’t suffer. It was me, not my kids who was tempted to give up reading this (the chapters are long and if I missed reading to them one night, I’d then struggle to remember what was going on when I next picked up the book), my kids however were transfixed, so I kept going because they enjoyed it so much.

You do have to have a fair bit of energy to read it though – I found I struggled to make it make sense, or make sense of it when I was tired.  For instance, I had to explain lesser-used terms like what it means to be caught in the Doldrums, Short Shrift and how a lady who was a ‘which’ was mistaken for a ‘witch’.  Explaining that to a five-year-old at bedtime with no pencil nearby was interesting to say the least….

My mother-in-law showed my guys the animated film when they were half-way through the book and I think that really helped to bring it to life for them (my five-year-old ended up explaining the remainder of the book to me, when I got confused). The concept of ‘words and numbers at war with each other’ (Dictionopolis vs Digitopolis) and the need to rescue the princesses of Rhyme and Reason to restore peace in the Kingdom of Wisdom has seemed to stick enough for my youngest to apparently wax lyrical about it to his friend.

I don’t know how much of the underlying messages click with my kids, but there were plenty of times when I couldn’t help smiling to myself. Only last night this passage came up in the closing stages of the book, where Milo is giving himself a hard time – it struck me as a lovely thing for kids to hear before they go to sleep…

Extract (p.232-233):

“It has been a long trip”, said Milo climbing on to the couch where the princesses sat; “but we would have been here so much sooner if I hadn’t made so many mistakes.  I’m afraid it’s all my fault.”

“You must never feel badly about making mistakes,” explained Reason quietly, “as long as you take the trouble to learn from them.  For you often learn more by being wrong for the right reasons than you do by being right for the wrong reasons.”

“But there’s so much to learn,” he said, with a thoughtful frown.

“Yes, that’s true,” admitted Rhyme; “but it’s not just learning things that’s important.  It’s learning what to do with what you learn and learning why you learn things that matters.”

“That’s just what I mean,” explained Milo, as Tock and the exhausted bug drifted quietly off to sleep.  “Many of the things I’m supposed to know seem so useless that I can’t see the purpose in learning them at all.”

“You may not see it now,” said the Princess of Pure Reason, looking knowingly at Milo’s puzzled face, “but whatever we learn has a purpose and whatever we do affects everything and everyone else, even in the tiniest way…. …. Whenever you learn something new, the whole world becomes that much richer… … many of the things you want to know are just out of sight, or a little beyond your reach.  But one day you’ll reach them all, for what you learn today, for no reason at all, will help you discover all the wonderful secrets of tomorrow.”

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What’s your ‘Life in Books’?

Inspired by the recent TV programme “My Life in Books” on BBC2, I’ve been thinking about what mine would be – a bookish version of Desert Island Discs.  I eventually whittled my favourites (summarised below in the order I discovered them) down to five.

Back in the day, I used to ask my friends and family what their favourite book, film and song was.  Whilst the initial motivation was to get some recommendations, it ended up being quite surprising and revealing at times.  Mind you, if that’s the case, I’m not sure what this lot says about me.

Just for the record, Catcher in the Rye would get my top spot – with the caveat that I’ve only read it once in my early teens.  I’m not sure if I’d want to read it again, as it’d probably never live up to my memory.

Come Follow Me – poems for the young, anthology published by Evans Brothers (1966)

I was probably about 7 years old when I got this.  It’s a children’s poetry book and contains a poem about a dog called Jacob (the name of my family dog at the time).  I used to learn poems from this book to entertain myself.  It sounds antiquated now, but that was in the days when there weren’t even four regular channels on the TV – crazy I know.  I’ve given it to my eldest and so it now sits on his shelf gathering dust.

Ballet Shoes, Noel Streatfeild (1936)

I loved ballet and this told the story of sisters going to dance school, which was a dream of mine at the time.  It’s a similar era to The Famous Five and Swallow and Amazons, so it may no longer be on the radar for today’s girls, but I’d read to a daughter if I had one (unfortunately, it wouldn’t cut the mustard with my boys).

I must have been about 9 or 10 when I also enjoyed A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976).  It was one of those books which whisks you off on summer holidays with a bit of mystery and magic thrown in.  Another amazing book was The Endless Steppe, by Esther Hautzig (1968), her autobiographical account of the time she spent as a child in a World War II Siberian gypsum mine.  It’s along a similar vein to The Diary of Anne Frank, but with a less harrowing ending.  It’s beautifully written and I can still vividly remember the part where her mother washed and reused some old red wool to knit her a jumper.

The Famous Five, Enid Blyton (1942<)

I loved The Famous Five adventures and it’s been amazing to rediscover them with my son.  It’s the sign of greatness that they’ve stood the test of time and continue to captivate both adults and kids.  I also loved Swallows & Amazons (Ransome, 1930), however when I re-read it to my own son, I was surprised how heavy-going it is at the beginning and how technical it is about sailing.  I was old enough to read it to myself when I initially read it, so maybe I found it easier to follow.  In any case, I was a tomboy, so these were right up my street.

Catcher in the Rye, JD Salinger (1951)

Probably my favourite book of all time because, quite predictably, I read it in my early teens and it hit the ‘coming of age’ spot for me.  I’ve not revisited it as an adult, so I’m not sure whether I’d still enjoy it. At the time though I loved it so much that it prompted me to seek out the rest of JD Salinger’s lesser-known books.  One of my kids even has a middle name in tribute to one of his characters (my other son shares his name with a character from A Room with a View (Forster, 1908)).

Scar Tissue, Michael Ignatieff (1993)

I remember being captivated by this book, I found it amazing, but isn’t one that I’d want to read again.  It’s pretty heavy – about someone who watches his mother decline into Alzheimer’s and the effect on her memory and character.  I came across it when it was shortlisted for an award and thought it was beautifully written, fascinating and credit it with inspiring me to study psychology.

Regeneration, Pat Barker (1991)

This was a fantastic trilogy about the first world war, which is up there along with All Quiet on the Western Front (Remarque, 1929) for me. It’s fiction, but incorporates the stories of actual people (the psychologist Rivers who treated returning soldiers such as Siegfried Sassoon with shell shock).  Again, it came to my attention for being on an award shortlist and was an early influence in my interest in psychology. I see now that this book has been slated, perhaps by people who knew more about everything than I did at the time, but as a teenager, it did the job for me.

Affluenza, Oliver James (2007)

I bought this for my sister-in-law to commemorate her taking her first Holy Communion in her 20s.  I got it as an alternative gift to the usual religious fare.  It’d just come out and seemed to hit the nail on the head in a non-secular way.  Oliver James is a fantastic modern-day psychologist and one read of this book gives you instant immunity to the next sports car you see whizzing past.  Quite handy when I was living in a part of London where every other car was something that wouldn’t be out of place in Top Gear.  He’s also written amazing books on family life (They F*** You up and How not to F*** them up).

Touching the Void, Joe Simpson (1988)

This had me gripped from the beginning.  It’s memorable, not only because of the incredible true story of survival against the odds, but because I discovered it by accident on my first holiday with my now husband.  We’d gone to Chamonix for a two-week skiing holiday, only for there to be too much snow – all the ski-lifts were shut due to the avalanche risk.  Since it’s a mecca for climbers as well as skiers, I found this account of a climbing expedition that went wrong in the bookshop – I bought it because it was the only book written in English.  I enjoyed the book so much that my now husband started reading it when I put it down which led us to read it on rotation.  The other thing about that holiday was the Black Eyed Peas song “Shut Up” played on repeat on the radio (quite grating, but the sheer repetitiveness of it turned into a running joke).  Even more unbelievable, the film then coincidentally came out a week later at the local tiny cinema (because that’s where the ill-fated pair met) and we were there to see it.  ‘Every cloud…’ and all that.  Whilst on paper the holiday was a bit disastrous, I remember it fondly.

Notting Hell, Rachel Johnson (2006)

I read this book after I’d just had my first son, having lived in London for ten years, so all the money, pomp and preposterousness of life in the capital was very relatable.  A couple of years before we’d rented an upper-floor flat of a white stucco building which backed onto a large communal garden in Little Venice.  It was like living on a film set (indeed, a little street nearby was frequently commandeered as such – all very Richard Curtis).  After a stint in grey Islington, it felt like a little patch of paradise.  It was also amazing for people watching.  Our square was reminiscent to the setting for Notting Hell in which the author luxuriates in poking fun at the wealthy, privileged and self-obsessed, revealing their lives to be less perfect than their interior design may lead you to believe.  Of course, it’s all hammed-up for comedy, but that’s part of the fun.

The BFG, Roald Dahl (1989)

I only properly discovered Roald Dahl last year through the BFG, but not through the recent film as you might imagine.  Ironically, we avoided watching the film as it looked a bit scary (ridiculous I know, but I’d only read The Twits (1980) which is quite dark and the trailer for the BFG seemed quite dark too). It was only later that I plonked the book in my trolley when it was on offer at the supermarket.  It was even later still that got it off our shelf when I was trying to find a book that would be acceptable to both my kids.  My youngest still liked picture books, but he’d just decided to share a room with his older brother, so it was an opportunity to consolidate their bedtime story times.  Our copy of the BFG has some of Quentin Blake’s pictures and was also something new for all of us, so I thought I’d give it a shot.  It was lovely to all discover it together – collecting dreams in jars and blowing them into children’s rooms with a trumpet was my favourite idea.  My youngest was sucked-in by the silliness of the whizz-pops and snozcumbers and so we’ve been wading through the rest of Roald Dahl’s books ever since.

My final Five

I’m conscious that I’ve been way more indulgent than the rules of the TV show, so if I had to choose only five, they would be the following.  Probably for the associated memories as much as the books themselves:

  1. Famous Five
  2. Catcher in the Rye
  3. Regeneration
  4. Touching the Void
  5. BFG

What would be yours?