Elaine Moss continues her five-part series
A visitor from overseas came to see me yesterday and described how, in his country, children in school will be exposed, year by year, only to those stories and poems that are deemed by some remote bureaucrat to be ‘suitable for their standard’. I know, you know (and he knew) that real readers do not grow vertically; they develop by reaching up and down and sideways. Yet so often teachers ask for (and wily publishers willingly provide) charts and ladders.
The Lifeline Library, of which this is the third instalment, is based on the concept that reading experience for children should be an ever widening circle. In the first article I covered Picture Books for all; in the second, books that were good for Learning to Read (at all ages) and for Listening to. Teachers who own the twenty paperbacks so far suggested are on their way to being equipped to meet positively the wide range of book challenges that every primary school throws out.
With ‘First Fling and Classics of Childhood’ we reach the third ring of experience inside which the other two sit snugly, and offer support. There must be a feeling of exhilaration when a child reads his or her first whole book alone. So it is important to be able to offer an attractive readable story, if necessary from your own bookshelf. So here are four handy suggestions for ‘first fingers’ (who, at the same stage, need to be enjoying the Classics of Childhood of which I have selected, in accordance with the ‘ten only’ rule I made for myself, a mere six).
Sheila Lavelle, Hamish Hamilton Gazelle, 0 241 89647 9, £ 1.80; Beaver, 0 600 20072 8, 75p
This is a thrilling lesson in the importance of reading right to the end of a book. For in it Ursula, who loves bears and wants to go to the circus, reads a book of spells one of which tells her ‘how a little girl can turn into a bear’ and the next (which she doesn’t bother with at the time) ‘how to change back into a little girl again’. Ursula gets to the circus all right – though not in quite the way she had intended!
Wildcat Wendy and the Peekaboo Kid
Nancy Chambers, Hamish Hamilton Gazelle, 0 241 10121 2, £1.95: Fontana Lions, 0 00 671928 7, 85p
A Wild West adventure story with a girl in the saddle! Wildcat Wendy (‘No one calls me little Miss Wendy more than once’) is a match for the dreaded Headlock Henry and his gang – with the aid of her horse Victor and the Peekaboo Kid. Easy-to-read story, which includes a singable song, and plenty of good pictures.
Jenny and the Cat Club
Esther Averill, Fontana Lions, 0 00 671 175 8. 60p
This is a delicious book, a wonderful blend of stories about a shy but talented kitten, and of witty thumbnail sketches of the more daring members of the Cat Club which Jenny longs to join. Will she ever become a member of the glamorous gang?
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
Roald Dahl, Allen and Unwin, 0 04 823077 4, £3.95: Puffin, 0 14 03.0599 8, 95p
A much longer book than those above, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is nevertheless eagerly devoured almost as soon as a long book can be tackled. It is, as almost everybody now knows, the story of the poorest possible boy with the kindest possible heart who has the greatest possible luck – and shares it. A magical formula that works like a charm. Dahl is a stylish yet simple writer and a great storyteller – a combination of talents that makes him invaluable at the Blyton-weaning stage.
Classics of Childhood
About my six ‘Classics of Childhood’ I will only say that taking them down from my shelves and re-reading them – and many others I didn’t in the end include – has been a golden experience; the kind of experience that, I would hope, most teachers also enjoy, from time to time, with their favourites. Sharing these with children is even better.
E B White, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 90098 0, £4.95: Puffin, 0 14 03.0185 2, 95p
This farmyard story of Charlotte the spider whose web-weaving (SOME PIG) drew attention to the special qualities of Wilbur pig, runt of the litter, thus saving him from Farmer Arable’s axe, is a whole world seen through the wrong end of a telescope; and Charlotte’s death, once her farmyard friends have secured the survival of her children, is one of the most memorable moments in any children’s book.
The Stone Book
Alan Garner, Collins, 0 00 184777 5, £4.50: Fontana Lions, 0 00 671600 8, 75p
With language pared down to give it the edge of a cutting tool, Garner tells the story of Mary, daughter of a stonemason, who longs for a book – but learns, with her father, how to read the story of the earth instead. Visual images of Mary’s vertiginous climb (up the church spire where father is waiting for his midday ‘baggin’) and a dark journey (into an underground cave from which her ancestors had always cut stone) live for ever in the mind’s eye.
J M Barrie, Hodder & Stoughton, 0 340 21390 6, £2.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.0298 0, £1.10
Not every child gets the opportunity to see Peter Pan in its original, stage, version; so it is extremely fortunate that someone persuaded Barrie to write it as a novel, too. That means that everyone can share in the adventures of the Darling family – as they fly ‘second to the right and straight on till morning’ to the Neverland and are captured by the diabolical Captain Hook (and his pirates) whom they finally feed to the crocodile. The opening chapter – in the Darlings nursery – reads strangely now – but from the window-sill on it’s magic all the way.
Alice‘s Adventures in Wonderland
Lewis Carroll, Macmillan, 0 333 06665 0, £3.95: Puffin, 0 14 03.0169 0, 95p
I won’t even cheat by adding Through the Looking Glass to my ten because Wonderland lovers will anyway proceed to it. Justifiably the most famous of English children’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its host of dream-bright characters, its surrealist adventures, its donnish humour, its rhymes and riddles is pure joy for everyone, always.
The Wind in the Willows
Kenneth Grahame, Methuen, 0 416 39360 8, £4.50: Magnet, 0 416 64570 4, 95p
Oh how glorious to open The Wind in the Willows for the umpteenth time and be drawn straightaway into the life of the small animals on the River Bank — first Mole, with Spring fever, then Rat (sculling smartly across the river) and Toad himself, that hospitable, ebullient, rich, absurd yet childish and lovable show-off whose exploits are only a part of the overflowing pleasures of this most English of tales.
J R R Tolkien, Allen and Unwin, 0 04 823147 9, £4.50: Unwin paperback, 0 04 823188 6, £1.50
At the risk of bringing forth the scorn of Tolkien worshippers I must declare my belief that The Hobbit is the peak of Tolkien’s achievements in creative writing. Compact, clear, glowing with warmth and humour, exciting, adventure-full and compulsive, it is everything everyone ‘who cares for journeys there and back out of the Western world’ could ask for. That the prosaic. home-loving, comfort-seeking Hobbit. Bilbo Baggins, should find himself on a life and death adventure at the behest of Gandalf the Wizard and in the company of elves, dwarves and Smaug the Dragon is English irony at its understated best.
Still to come in the Lifeline Library:
5. Poetry and Traditional Tales
Parts 1 and 2 appeared in Books for Keeps Nos.13 and 14, both of which are available from the SBA, price 85p each including postage.