Books for Keeps editor Ferelith Hordon shares her personal favourites.
Children in the UK have to learn to read as soon as they start Reception. Yet we hear that many children (and adults) rarely read at all for pleasure. But being able to read is only a part of it: enjoyment is crucial, as studies from the National Literacy Trust have shown. So what we really need to do is instil a love and excitement of stories in our children, and keep that alive throughout their childhood
One of the best ways to do that is that old-fashioned tradition of reading aloud, when adult and child spend time enjoying a story. This is not the time to get a child to practise reading, but a special moment spent together. Indeed, the most special moments I remember with my aloof though loving father was when he read Kipling – a writer he adored – to me.
Traditionally, reading aloud happens at bedtime, but it doesn’t have to: train journeys, before or after meals, waiting to see the dentist . . . they all provide opportunities to read to children – not forgetting the classroom, of course.
There is also a perception that once children are able to read for themselves there’s no reason to continue reading to them. Why? I shared books with my sons into their twenties! Neither of my boys were keen readers when they were young, but they always insisted that I read to them at bedtime. I believe this kept alive the idea that reading could be an enjoyable activity, and they both became keen readers in their teens. By reading to your children, you can also introduce them to more complex books, which they might really enjoy, but find difficult to read themselves.
Here are some things to bear in mind when selecting books to read aloud to your school-aged child, and suggestions of books that I found worked particularly well with my two boys.
The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin
Beatrix Potter, Frederick Warne, 978-0723247715, £5.99 hbk
It’s important that you find books that you, as a parent, enjoy, as well as the child; reading aloud should never be a chore. I think it’s vital that authors respect the reader. Beatrix Potter never underestimated her young audience. Most people will be familiar with Peter Rabbit, but for me The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin is the best to read aloud to young children. The original small format is also particularly enticing to little hands and therefore conducive to creating a really intimate experience. The riddles are very appealing, too.
Just So Stories
Rudyard Kipling, Walker Books, 978-1406301427, £9.99pbk
For children of about five plus, short stories are ideal. Kipling was a master of this format and the Just So Stories are supreme. Here is imagination, language (‘the great, grey, greasy Limpopo’) and a sense of the ridiculous, all packaged in a way that will appeal across generations.
Little Old Mrs Pepperpot and Other Stories
Alf Proysen, Hutchinson, 978-0857540058, £6.99hbk
My children always loved stories about real life incidents. Dorothy Edwards’s My Naughty Little Sister, Francesca Simons’ Horrid Henry and Richmal Crompton’s William all worked well. However, my favourite has to be Little Old Mrs Pepperpot by Alf Proysen. The everyday background is reassuring but then there is the anticipation – when will the old lady shrink? In all these books, each chapter is a story, and just the right length to read in one go if necessary.
The Robber Hotzenplotz
Otfried Preussler, illustrated F J Tripp, trans Anthea Bell, Thienemann Verlag, 978-3522176101, £5.99 pbk
Novels can be a bit more of a challenge as children have to be able to follow a narrative over a period of time. Worth tracking down is The Robber Hotzenplotz by Ottried Preussler. Hotzenplotz is the terror of the village, with a dastardly plan to steal Grandmother’s coffee mill, a plan that can only be foiled by Kasperl and Seppel. Many of Preussler’s other titles (including The Little Ghost) also seem designed to be read aloud – they’re lively, funny, and provide plenty of opportunity for the reader to put on different voices.
The Hundred and One Dalmations
Dodie Smith, Egmont, 978-1405224802, £6.99 pbk
Today many children see the film before learning that there is a book behind it. The Hundred and One Dalmations is a brilliant book to read aloud and share. Reading it provides a very different experience to that of seeing the film, as it creates space for the imagination to work and its length gives an opportunity for the cliff hanger – the wait to find out what happens next.
S.F.Said, illus Dave McKean, Corgi Children’s Books, 978-0552572293, £6.99 pbk
‘Don’t stop. Read some more,’ is a real accolade. It’s a shame that many older children think they’ve outgrown sharing books, but I think the way round this is to pick stories that are very gripping. Outstanding in this respect is S.F. Said’s Varjak Paw. I believe the adventures of Varjak, the Mesopotamian Blue cat who faces the terrible Sally Bones, will have everyone hooked, and is story telling at its best. There is the added drama of the illustrations by David McKean.
Philip Ridley, Puffin, 978-0140368932, £8.99 pbk
As I’ve said, books that give the reader the opportunity to put on different voices can further the opportunities for enjoyment and memorable sharing. Philip Ridley is an author whose writing is perfect for this. A favourite of ours was Scribbleboy but perhaps an easier introduction, though just as anarchic, is Dakota of the White Flats. This is a book that, I found, could hold the attention of a class of KS3 children – praise indeed!
Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad
Rosemary Sutcliffe, illus Alan Lee, Frances Lincoln Children’s Books, 978-0711215221, £9.99 pbk
A great source of stories that work well read aloud, whether one-to-one or to whole groups, are myths, legends and folktales. There are many outstanding collections: Greek (Tales of the Greek Heroes by Roger Lancelyn Green); Norse (Viking! Myths of Gods and Monsters by Kevin Crossley-Holland); Indian (Seasons of Splendour by Madhur Jaffrey), to mention a few. However, Black Ships Before Troy: The Story of the Iliad, a retelling by Rosemary Sutcliff, is both adult and accessible, and captures the mood of this wonderful but challenging story for everyone.
Neil Gaiman, illus Chris Riddell, Bloomsbury, 978-0747594802, £6.99 pbk
Neil Gaiman is another author whose books are equally appealing to both adults and children. The Graveyard Book is a modern classic and one that is, like the Kipling stories that have inspired it, perfect for sharing. Younger listeners will just enjoy Bod’s adventures and be captivated by the imagination, while adults will recognise themes that add depth and resonance, making it a particularly satisfying experience.
The Complete Stories
Isaac Asimov, Collins, 978-0006476474, £8.99 pbk
I found that detective stories, aimed at adults, are perfect for reading aloud to teenagers, especially those written as short stories. Sherlock Holmes, Poirot and Miss Marple are great characters. However, my choice would be Asimov’s Casebook of the Black Widowers. Originally written for magazines, these are pleasingly concise stories and the puzzles are very intriguing. My children asked for these to be read to them again and again.
These ten of the best share a direct narrative (with not too much reflective description), dialogue, dramatic or funny incidents, and characters who intrigue or jump off the page. And most important of all, they are stories that you will enjoy as much as your audience. Magic!
Ferelith Hordon is a former children’s librarian and Chair of the Youth Libraries Group, and editor of Books for Keeps.