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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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

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