Brilliant Books for Boys – Adventure

Having written previously about moving on from picture books and about the Fantasy books that my kids have enjoyed, I thought I’d also share some reviews of Adventure stories that have also gone down well with my eldest.

This list is shorter than my blog on Fantasy books, despite it being my favourite genre as a child.  Unfortunately, we stopped reading them when my youngest refused them on principle – perhaps a bid to assert his individuality.

Famous Five, Enid Blyton

Although Enid Blyton has been criticised in recent times for being out of sync with modern times, they’re still great stories – kids today can take Anne’s attempts at being ‘mother’ with a pinch of salt and laugh at the incessant references to pemmican and seed cake.  Yes, it is rooted in a time when people may have actually said ‘jolly hocky sticks’, but it’s got a good balance of intrigue without scary content and therefore a good bet for younger kids.

They were the first books I read to my eldest, after reading the Magic Folk Collection to him to see whether he’d enjoy books without pictures.  I loved these books as a child and it was great to read them again – they didn’t disappoint.  The plots are great as they have intrigue, suspense, cliff-hangers, goodies vs baddies… the lot… yet are really easy for young children to follow.  We read the first five books together and I bought the second five as a job-lot to continue, but then I started reading to both my kids together and switched to other books instead.

Whilst we may well come back to them together, the chances are that my eldest will end up reading them to himself.  Failing that, they’d be perfect holiday reading for me!

Treasure Island, Robert Louis Stevenson

This is amazing, despite the old-fashioned language (I had to have my wits about me when reading it aloud in order to bring it to life).  However, it’s stood the test of time (having been published in 1882) because the story is so good.  In fact, if the language puts your kids off, there are various re-tellings of the story out there too (e.g. the Usbourne version).

Having said that, here’s the health warning… two years after reading it to my eldest, he still refuses to watch the Disney film because he’s so scared of the menacing character, ‘Blind Pew’.  Robert Louis Stevenson’s description of the knock-knock-knocking of his stick along the road is very spooky indeed…

Swallows and Amazons, Arthur Ransome

I loved this book as a child, although have no recollection about how old I was when I read it.  So I was surprised when I read it to my eldest and found quite a bit of technical sailing terminology (e.g. ‘tacking’ to describe a child running in zig-zags up a field).  There’s no way my son would have understood what was going on if I hadn’t explained it.  However, after the opening, it settles down into what is a brilliant ‘Famous Five’-style adventure story, complete with baddie, seed cakes and laissez faire parenting.  The 2016 film is lovely too (although the story has been changed slightly), it captured the romance of the bygone era perfectly and is possibly my eldest’s favourite film of all time.

I bought Swallowdale (the sequel) and intended on working our way through the series together, but looks as though this is another that my eldest will end up reading to himself!

Shorter stories…

The Usbourne adventure stories have re-told classic stories in shorter chapter books with great pictures.  Books include: Gulliver’s Travels, Robin Hood, Three Musketeers, Robinson Crusoe and Around the World in Eighty Days.  Their Illustrated Story Collections are also great, on Greek Myths, Tales of the Arabian Nights and King Arthur to name a few…

Real life adventure stories… 

The Ladybird Adventures from History books have great real life stories about Scott of the Antarctic, Vikings and Romans.  Having seen a TV programme about The Mutiny on the Bounty, I found this book, as thought Captain Bligh’s epic tale of survival would be right up my son’s street.

For reluctant readers…

After realising my son was put off by any books that have a small font and look too long – as well as remembering how my brother and I used to enjoy the Beano and Asterix, I tried both Asterix and Tin Tin cartoon books and he loved them.  They’ve got great pictures with just a few lines of text on each box to tell the story. My son particularly liked Tin Tin “…because he has a gun”. Hmmm…. feels a bit dangerous to him, but pretty tame really!

Another great series of easy-read, chapter books with pictures and large font is Thorfinn the Nicest Viking.  He’s not exactly inherited his father (Harald the Skull-Splitter)’s traits… instead he’s the kindest, most polite (worst!) Viking ever. However, like David and Goliath, he comes out on top, despite the best efforts of others who want to undermine him.

Recommendations I’ve had from elsewhere…

Alex Rider Series, Antony Horowitz

Although this series is highly recommended in the press and despite my son initially loving it, ultimately the plot was too complicated for him to follow when trying to read it himself. So, I think he’s going to leave it for a couple of years.  It may be more suitable for older kids (the main character is is 13-14yrs, so I could imagine it’d attract readers within range of that sort of age…).

The story is about a teenage spy, a bit like James Bond.  Although there’s been a film made of the first book, Stormbreaker, there’s now a plan to make them into a TV series.


Other recommendations

Bear Gryll’s top 10 Adventure Stories

Good Reads – List of Boys Adventure Books

Oxford Owl Adventure Story recommendations for kids aged 6-12 years



Moving on from picture books? – what to read next to your kids

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!

Related Links:

’50 books every child should read by 16′ – Survey from The Telegraph

100 Best Children’s Books of all time – The Telegraph

11 Greatest Children’s Books – The BBC

seus 2 quote

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?