fiction

Harry Potter Re-Imagined

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How much thought do you give to the illustrations accompanying a book? How about a favourite book? In the same way as a film adaptation, it can be really irksome when a favourite character or scene isn’t portrayed how it appears in your mind. So the people at Bloomsbury had a huge responsibility when they decided to rebrand the much-loved Harry Potter books and commission a new illustrator.

This evening, at the first Harry Potter Book Night at Waterstones Piccadilly, I heard Jonny Duddle explain why he had been chosen. “We were all asked to illustrate the scene where Ron, Hermione and Harry all see Hogwarts for the first time. I think I was the only artist who had Harry facing outwards – looking at the reader – otherwise you only saw the backs of their heads.”

Surprisingly, before the call from Bloomsbury, Jonny Duddle hadn’t read any of the Harry Potter books…then suddenly he had to read all seven and draw the cover designs in the space of six months. Even armed with a wand he would have been hard-pressed.

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Duddle’s favourite character in the book was Hagrid. He sketches the images, then layers them digitally. While he worked on the drawings he would listen to the audiobooks of Harry Potter, scribbling down on post-its anytime the book launched into a character description. He saved space at the top of his computer screen for the most important post-it of all – the one that said ‘SCAR’. “I was really worried I would forget to mark Harry’s forehead.”

For accuracy he used his wife, his childminder, the neighbour’s child – all to pose in certain positions so that he could get the depiction of hands, or flying capes, or wands held aloft, exactly right. For Harry’s cape in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban he bought one off ebay – “a Slytherin one though, not Gryffindor, as it was £10 cheaper.”

Jonny Duddle’s definitely funny in person, and a great character on a stage – but does his work live up to expectations? That’s up to you – to my mind, his Hagrid is exactly how I imagined on first reading – and his expecto patronus is truly majestic. Wizards’ hats off to Jonny Duddle.

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See my main blog this week on why Harry Potter is still so important.

Harry Potter Book Night

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In 2007, more than 1,000 people queued outside Waterstones Piccadilly, Europe’s largest bookshop, to get their hands on the final saga in the Harry Potter series. Tomorrow night I’ll be revisiting that bookshop to celebrate the first global Harry Potter Book Night and the release of the series with the new cover illustrations from Jonny Duddle. A marketing ploy you think? Yes, indeed, it’s time for Bloomsbury to re-release the series with a new modern look, and to create a moment, a day, to celebrate the brand. For me, there’s nothing wrong with that at all – Harry Potter (or rather JK Rowling) has redefined children’s literature. She started the ball rolling for a groundswell of readers who wanted more children’s literature and wanted it recognised in its own right as a major genre.

Since 1998 when the Potter books first burst onto the scene with their modest print run, children’s books are finally being celebrated. In 2000, The New York Times created a special children’s bestseller list alongside their adult one, as Harry Potter was squeezing out so many other titles. In 2002, Phillip Pullman won the overall Whitbread Awards for his children’s book, The Amber Spyglass, beating all adult titles. In 2014 children’s book sales were up ten per cent against a book market that was generally about 2 per cent down.

What did JK Rowling do in Harry Potter that had such an effect? The magic of Harry Potter works on many levels. It invokes the age old conflict of good versus evil. It consistently and continually poses mystery – everything is a question that JK answers pages later. Why can Harry hear snakes? What happened to Moaning Myrtle? And the third component is the voice – the ability of the author to step inside a child’s head and understand the nuances of friendship, the emotions involved, and the frustration with the adult world – to eke out the bonds behind certain relationships – loyalty, trust, and empathy.

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JK Rowling is not the only writer to do this, other writers before her wrote wonderful children’s books – so did she just hit the zeitgeist head on – was she in the right place at the right time? Barry Cunningham, the man credited with finding JK Rowling, had been asked to set up a Bloomsbury children’s book list only a couple of years before the manuscript was submitted. He had previously worked with Roald Dahl, amongst others.

Not only did the Harry Potter series rejuvenate the children’s book market, it also enticed adults into reading again. It was an easy read for grownups who had long abandoned reading for pleasure of any sort. And reading is habit-forming. Harry Potter doesn’t only reach across age ranges, it also breaches the gender divide. Although JK Rowling was encouraged to be named as JK on the cover, not Joanne Rowling, because the publishers thought that books about boys written by a woman were not going to sell, it seems it no longer matters. Harry Potter has reached girls and boys, men and women, from 8-80 yrs.

This Thursday is Harry Potter Book Night. It’s an event created by Bloomsbury to celebrate Harry Potter and introduce him to the next generation of readers. Many many schools, libraries and shops throughout the country are holding parties – it’s a great excuse to celebrate children’s books.  I’ll be tweeting from the event at Waterstones Piccadilly, and blogging again tomorrow after the event. Have a great Harry Potter Book Night for those that do.

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Friendship: Best Friends Forever

“You have been my friend. That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Charlotte’s Web by E B White.

One of the best things children’s books do is serve as a guide for how to get out of scrapes, and behave in certain situations – they can help children navigate social behaviours. These three books (all of which are part of a series – a big draw for children), depict female characters with whom young girls can identify, and familiar situations in which they may find themselves, all crafted with a touch of humour.

Emily Sparkes

Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco by Ruth Fitzgerald
The first in a brand new series, Emily Sparkes is a sparkling new addition to children’s literature. She bubbles with witty observations on her friends, her family and teachers, and muddles along in her day-to-day quest to survive school, friendships and parental issues. Emily’s life is not out of the ordinary; she goes to school every day, her parents have just had a new baby, and she worries about schoolwork, friendships and being stuck on the bus with Gross-out Gavin. She is an easily identifiable character, with a clear compass for right and wrong and perceived ills, which stands her in good stead with all those around her.
What I find really refreshing about Emily is that she seems to be a ‘middling child’. She’s not bullied, nor a bully, not the most popular nor the least, not the most academic and not the least – the sort of child whom parents feel often gets ignored. In this, Ruth Fitzgerald proves that the ‘unnoticeable’ should be noticed, as Emily’s wit sparkles in every circumstance in which she finds herself. I particularly liked her astute observations on her parents, and I appreciated the cute illustrations – which make it seem as if Emily has decorated her own book with doodles, drawings and stickers. The Friendship Fiasco starts with Emily’s best friend leaving and relocating with her family, and a new girl starting at school, with whom Emily desperately wants to make friends. All is not quite as it seems with new girl Chloe though, and after some misunderstandings are dealt with, Emily realises that maybe her new best friend has been in the classroom all along. A great new character, with some laugh-out-loud scenes. Publishes February 3rd.

Also to be published later this year, Emily Sparkes and the Competition Calamity

Old Friends New Friends

New Friend Old Friends by Julia Jarman
Julia’s series on friendships takes on a slightly different style, as the stories are narrated piecemeal by the friends in the story – first one, then another. There’s an introduction to each character at the beginning to help the reader navigate around who’s who. This works very well and is quite clever, in that the personalities of the girls begin to shine through; the tone shifting slightly between each child, and the reader has the omniscient eye of knowing what all the girls think. It enables the reader to foresee problems and jealousies that will inevitably arise. New Friend Old Friends introduces Shazia from Pakistan, and relates how the group of friends help her to fit in and adjust to life in England. It’s a fun read with realistic characters and situations. The illustrations are animated and accentuate the girls’ differences.

Also available, Make Friends Break Friends, A Friend in Need, and soon to be published, Friends Forever

Pea's Book

Pea’s Book of Best Friends by Susie Day
There’s nothing like an eccentric family in children’s literature. Almost reminiscent of I Capture the Castle, this glorious encounter with the Llewelllyns is highly visual and engrossing. Pea’s Book of Best Friends introduces Pea and her two sisters, Clover and Tinkerbell and describes their move to London. As with the other books here, the quest is on to find a new best friend, as Pea discovers that her old best friend isn’t missing her as much as she thinks. Pea makes a list of qualities she’d like in her new best friend in London, only to realise that people aren’t usually very well suited to lists – they tend to be slightly more complicated. The roundedness of the story is what appealed to me most – as Pea finds out that not only do her sisters also need to make new friends, but so does their Mum. There are some wonderfully funny touches, and it is a very sweet, and yet slightly quirky book, and Susie Day shows great skill in honing in on a girl’s experience of school and family. This is for a slightly older age group than those above – more 8+yrs.

Also available, Pea’s Book of Big Dreams, Pea’s Book of Birthdays, Pea’s Book of Holidays

 

Thank you to LBKids Publishers for providing me with a copy of Emily Sparkes and the Friendship Fiasco.

Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty

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One of the most exciting children’s books to be published in recent years, Shane Hegarty bursts onto the scene with this super quintessential tale of good versus evil – or in this case Legend Hunters versus monsters (the Legends). Finn is being trained up to become the next Legend Hunter in his small town of Darkmouth, the one remaining Blighted Village on earth where gateways open between the human world and the world of the Legends. The problem is, Finn is a bit rubbish, and it seems as if the Legends are plotting a big evil invasion. It’s a gripping read from start to finish with tremendous fighting scenes, and subtle cliffhangers, which give the whole book a feel of suspense. The standout feature for me is Finn’s generational burden, as all Finn’s ancestors were Hunters, and he must fulfill his destiny of becoming one himself, despite his misgivings. His father is insistent that Finn will rise to the challenge, and the scenes in which Finn is attempting not to disappoint his dad are heart-breaking and thrilling at the same time. The ongoing struggle to please parents is inherent in so many children, and Hegarty picks up and brilliantly describes this emotion for his readership. There’s a feisty female sidekick too, and a glut of repulsive and dangerous monsters. The descriptions of the village, the monsters and the fighting scenes are terrific, but massively enhanced by James de la Rue’s phenomenally detailed pictures. It is a highly visual read. I read the proof without illustrations, but was bowled over when I finally saw the finished product. More than worthy of book of the week, this is set to be a big series for Harpercollins, and rumour has it, a movie too!

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For Holocaust Memorial Day

“To forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time.” Elie Wiesel

Teaching children about traumatic events in our collective history can be difficult, and when picking a book on the subject it’s more important than ever to judge content more than appearance. There is fierce debate on how old children should be before they are taught about the Holocaust or other genocides. Teaching the historical context of the Nazis, of death and what’s morally right and wrong can all be taught much earlier, but it’s hard to teach the meaning and mechanics of mass murder before secondary school. Even some adults have a hard time grasping the enormity of it. The national curriculum dictates that the Holocaust should be taught in key stage 3 – Year 7, 8 or 9, which is the first three years of secondary school (ages 11-14).

“Fiction cannot recite the numbing numbers, but it can be that witness, that memory” – Jane Yolen

Firstly, I’ve chosen three works of fiction. They are all picture books, but that doesn’t mean they’re for small children – in fact they are best for age 10+ yrs. I’ve chosen them for their exploration of the Holocaust from different viewpoints, and as starting points for serious discussion about the Holocaust. None of them should be read in isolation, but rather explored after an initial insight into what did happen to the Jewish people during the Second World War.

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass

Benno and the Night of Broken Glass by Meg Wiviott, illustrated by Josee Bisaillon
This is a cat’s eye view of Kristallnacht. Benno is the neighbourhood cat, who visits Sophie on Shabbat, and is fed schnitzel by the Schmidts after church, and gets titbits from the kosher butcher. All is seemingly well. Then gradually Benno realises that there are fewer scraps, and the neighbourhood people are growing ever more impatient, and that there are now new black boots stomping along the pavement. Then Kristallnacht happens, Benno’s paws are sore from the broken glass on the pavement, and Benno doesn’t see Sophie and her family any more, nor Professor Goldfarb. It’s a simplistic animal tale of a neighbourhood changing, but the masked horror of the Holocaust pervades the story. The implied disappearance of the Jewish people of the neighbourhood leaves it up to the reader to imagine what may have prevailed that night. The Afterword explains Kristallnacht in a little more detail, telling what that night was about and what did happen to the Jews in Germany. However, the last paragraph is a little emotive, which is a shame for a page that should remain factual. However, it is a clever introduction to the build-up of the Holocaust in Germany.

Star of Fear

Star of Fear, Star of Hope by Jo Hoestlandt, illustrated by Johanna Kang
Another simplistic story, which belies the terror underneath, is Star of Fear, which tells the narrative from an old lady’s point of view – looking back on those things that she couldn’t comprehend as a little girl. Helen remembers growing up in France after the German invasion of 1942. She remembers her childhood friend Lydia, and the yellow star Lydia was forced to wear on her clothes. It’s a story about friendship, and how little girls can say things to their friends that they don’t mean – and ultimately live to regret. Helen regrets more than most, as in a spontaneous angry outburst she tells Lydia that they are no longer friends, little knowing it was the last time she would ever see her…it is supposed that Lydia was taken away by the Nazis the next day. The simplicity of the text and pictures adds to the poignancy.

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The Whispering Town by Jennifer Elvgren, illustrated by Fabio Santomauro
Published last year, The Whispering Town tells the story of the Danish Jews through the eyes of a little girl. The Danish story itself is quite remarkable. As a nation Denmark actively resisted the Nazis’ plan to round up the Jewish people, and managed to smuggle a huge percentage of their Jewish population to safety in Sweden. They relied upon the goodness of their people, and The Whispering Town shows how the shopkeepers and neighbours all helped the hidden Jews in one cellar in Gilleleje to escape by boat from the harbour. The illustrations depict the Nazis as menacing, gun-wielding soldiers and the Danish people with simpatico faces. Cleverly, the Jews hiding in the cellar are simply white pen lines on black – a shadow almost. The colours throughout are muted – pale greens, much black and grey – other than the stark red of the Nazi symbol on the soldiers’ shirtsleeves. This may be a story of hope and salvation, but the events happened in a terrible time. My feeling is that it’s important to teach children that there is hope despite the horror of six million Jews and many other people losing their lives during the Holocaust. It is vital that children understand there are pockets of goodness and humanity. If a whole nation can rise up against the Nazis, then it is possible for goodness to overcome. This link describes the Danish efforts well.

usborne holocaust

After a wealth of discussion of story, it is worth consulting some reference too. One such title that sets things out clearly and easily for children is Usborne: The Holocaust. In a matter-of-fact tone, but with excellently precise vocabulary, Susanna Davidson sets out the narrative of the Holocaust, encompassing the roots of anti-Semitism, the Nazi definition of whom they defined as being Jewish, the treatment of other minority groups, the advancement of Germany through Europe, the increasingly harsh treatment of Jews and minorities, before going on to address ghettos, and the final solution. It also covers small acts of defiance in the face of certain death, both from Jews and non-Jews, which is really important. It’s simple to understand, crams a mass of information into short digestible chunks, and does its very best to explain a seemingly inexplicable event. Despite its conciseness, the book does contain graphic information on the killing of Jews, including shooting at mass graves and the death camps. It also quotes people from the time, and includes graphic images, including the painting ‘Gassing’ by Auschwitz survivor David Olere. There are many photographs too, including those of a survivor at the liberation of Belsen. Be warned, this is not a book for young children, but would do well to accompany those studying the Holocaust at Key Stage 3. The afterword throws up some questions that children may ask afterwards, and doesn’t try to answer them, but instead finishes on the note that the Holocaust is not something that should ever be forgotten.

DK Holocaust

I’ve not included a comprehensive review of DK Holocaust, a title that I worked on myself, as sadly, it appears to be unavailable at most good bookstores. However, if you can get a copy it’s an all-encompassing examination of the Holocaust for older children, which I worked on with the superb writer Angela Gluck Wood. I can self-promote shamelessly as I receive no royalties.

Holocaust Memorial Day is on January 27th.

 Usborne Holocaust was very kindly sent to me by Usborne Publishing

The Wickford Doom by Chris Priestley

The Wickford Doom
Not usually one for ghost stories, this little tale of the supernatural set during the Second World War and aimed at eight year olds gave me a few shivers! It’s a beautifully compact story of Harry and his mother, who discover that they have inherited an old eerie mansion, Wickford Hall. However, it becomes apparent that this is a cruel joke, and as the story unfolds Harry is led further and further into the creepy past and supernatural evils of long ago. Chris Priestley is a master of suspense and tight plotting, and this is his first title for the dyslexia-friendly publisher Barrington Stokes. At nearly 140 pages, it’s slightly longer than some titles for this age group in their range, but rattles along at a grand pace – the anticipation building, and the emotions wonderfully crafted. Chris Priestley manages to convey Harry’s thoughts and feelings perceptively, yet with sparse words. The language is both simple and yet highly evocative:
“The cliffs were high, and they were cracking and crumbling like a huge, half-eaten loaf of bread that was shedding crumbs.”
Published on dyslexia-friendly paper, and appealing to both avid and reluctant readers, with easy chapters and good spacing, this is an excellent starting point for leaping into longer novels. Highly recommended and spooky – the banging door is still haunting me!

The Wickford Doom was kindly sent to me for review by Barrington Stoke publishers. Click here to purchase

Silly Stories for Six and Over

Did you know that 70 per cent of children aged 6-17 years say they want more books that make them laugh? Here are some books I think the youngest in this age bracket might like:

Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face
Stinkbomb and Ketchup Face and the Badness of Badgers by John Dougherty, illustrated by David Tazzyman
This is a gigglefest from start to finish. A self-reflective story that follows Stinkbomb and Ketchup-face as they take part in a silly adventure on the small island of Great Kerfuffle, engaged in a quest decreed by the king to rid the kingdom of the ‘bad’ badgers.  John Dougherty applies wit and endless humour as he employs clever storytelling devices to lead you on a trip through funny chapter headings, allusions to characters realising they are only playing a part in a story, and playfulness on the words themselves. It’s a perfect short read for older reluctant readers, or a good contained story for newly independent readers. The humour is not too juvenile – more witty – which is very refreshing in children’s ‘funny’ stories, and you will have to rein yourself in from wanting to read bits aloud! The story is also suitably matched to David Tazzyman’s illustrations (those familiar with the Mr Gum stories will recognise the illustrator’s style). A brilliant read – with two more in the series already published, and another to come in July 2015.

Pigsticks and Harold

Pigsticks and Harold and the Incredible Journey by Alex Milway
Alex Milway brings to the table a cross-over link between picturebooks and chapter books for first readers with this wonderful full-colour chapter book about a self-important pig and a reluctant hamster and their ill-judged adventures. Pigsticks decides to make his mark and explore to The Ends of the Earth, but realises he’ll need an assistant to carry his gear and cook. Hamster inadvertently gets the job, and they set off on their adventures. The language bears out the characteristics of the pig and hamster brilliantly, and there are numerous laughs both from text and picture. There’s also a lot of cake. Beautifully produced, and wonderfully manageable, this is also a treat to be read aloud and savoured as there are plenty of little in-jokes for adults too. It feeds into the current trend in children’s publishing for more illustrations alongside text, never a bad thing with so many talented illustrators such as Alex Milway in the mix. If there weren’t already a hugely famous pig out there, I would say this lends itself beautifully to a television cartoon too. A second in the series was published in November 2014, Pigsticks and Harold and the Tuptown Thief.

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Superhero School: The Revenge of the Green Meanie by Alan McDonald, illustrated by Nigel Baines
From the author of Dirty Bertie comes a new series about a superhero school. Stan Button is an ordinary child who receives a summons to a special school for an interview. Before long he’s enrolled and participating in superhero lessons with his superhero peers. Unfortunately for them, the Green Meanie is on the loose, and battle commences. Almost everyone in the story is inept – from the headmistress to the dinner lady, the students to the baddie, which makes the whole enterprise slapstick and in the end it’s more common sense and teamwork that overpowers the baddie than superskills. This is a good first reader, with the typical bottom jokes that children of this age find so humorous. I must warn though – this book strongly suggests that the tooth fairy doesn’t exist (which some children this age may find upsetting and surprising!) More are promised in this series later this year.

Fish Fingers

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers by Jason Beresford, illustrated by Vicky Barker
For slightly more advanced readers, this first in a wacky series about four children who are granted their wish to be superheroes is a riotous read from start to finish, packed with groanworthy jokes and laughable antics. Our fabulous four fish fingers, Chimp, Nightingale, KangaRuby and Slug Boy, otherwise known as Gary, Bel, Ruby and Morris, take on evil duo Jumper Jack Flash and the Panteater to stop them stealing all the sweets in the village of Tumchester. What sets this funny story apart from others in the market is twofold: firstly Jason’s inventiveness, which seems to know no bounds, and secondly, the heart behind the book. Each character is imbued with the authors’ immense sense of fun and jauntiness, but there is also incredible feeling, from Ruby with her fear of rabbits, to Morris, aka Slug Boy, who always seems to get the short end of the straw, but inevitably manages to rise above. The underlying theme of the book is teamwork, as the four children discover that you can’t actually become a superhero overnight but need to practise and work as a team to overcome the enemy. Another in the series was published late last year, Frozen Fish Fingers.
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The 13-Storey Treehouse, by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton, publishing UK 29th January
First published in Australia, Andy Griffiths’ treehouse books are now making their way to the UK. This is one of the most fun books I have read and I know several Year 3 students in my library who will adore this book and fall about laughing. Actually reading it was not unlike listening to banter between my husband and my son, as the book relates the dialogue between Andy and Terry as they think up what to write about for their latest book. The book is also stuffed full with cartoons, which are full of life, zesty and zany. Andy and Terry live in a 13 storey treehouse complete with lemonade fountain, man-eating shark pool, theatre and library and giant catapult (all simply illustrated). There are pages of detailed cartoons, and pages of simple ones, interspersed with lively laugh-out-loud text. The children who read this were enthralled by the idea that if they didn’t write the book, Andy and Terry would have to revert to working in the monkey house. They were also taken by the fact that the main characters were also the names of the authors. A fabulous laugh – it’s a joy to know there are more titles yet to come.

 

The Fabulous Four Fish Fingers was very kindly sent to me by Bounce marking on behalf of Catnip Publishing.

Reading Aloud: the key to nurturing passionate readers

Do you read aloud to your children? The recent Scholastic Kids and Family Reading Report, Jan 2015, suggests that reading aloud to your children all the way through primary school, well beyond when they become an independent reader, has a link to their general love of reading. For 41% of children who are ‘frequent readers’, the critical factor is that their parents kept reading aloud to them after the age of six.

What do I mean by frequent readers? I mean those who read for fun five to seven days a week, infrequent readers only read for fun less than one day a week. Frequent reading makes a real difference. “Enjoyment of reading has a greater impact on a child’s educational achievement than their parents’ socio-economic status” OECD Reading For Change, 2002, 2009. “Children who read for pleasure make more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10-16 than those who rarely read.” Institute of Education, 2013.

In fact parental involvement in reading is one of the biggest factors in determining if your child will be a lifelong reader. If you read aloud to them frequently before they started school, they are 60 per cent more likely to be frequent readers, and this will continue if you have books at home, make frequent trips to the library, discuss books they are reading, and are seen to be reading yourself.

What may surprise you is that generally we’re not reading aloud to them. The Scholastic report tells us that 52 per cent of children aged 0-2 yrs are read aloud to 5-7 days a week, and 55 per cent aged 3-5 yrs, but only 34 per cent aged 6-8 yrs and 17 per cent aged 9-11 yrs. And yet across all age groups, 83 per cent of kids say they loved or “liked a lot” those times when parents read to them aloud at home.

But they love reading independently

Reading independently is terrific, but the data implies that reading aloud encourages reading independently. It is also a simple way to push your child ahead. Parents invest in tutors, music lessons, day trips – spending time reading to them likely has an equal or bigger impact. Not only will they get something out of it, but so will you. It’s a phenomenal bonding time – children aged 6-11 yrs pointed to this being a huge factor in why they enjoyed being read to. In an age of disconnect, with fewer shared family meals, and more time spent alone on electronic devices, reading to your child is a great way of communicating. Of course, it takes time to read regularly with your children but the rewards are worth it, so it’s all about prioritising.

For those children who are excellent independent readers already, it’s a perfect opportunity to introduce texts that they might not reach for themselves – fiction for avid independent non-fiction readers, or more complex texts where you can explain the nuances of the plot and define the stretching vocabulary, especially for those stuck on ‘series’ books. You can discover the new books published for children that you couldn’t read when you were a child, or rediscover the classics you did read as a child.

Here are a few great texts to read aloud to the different age groups.

Nora Nora inside Nora inside cake

Nora, the girl who ate and ate and ate by Andrew Weale, illustrated by Ben Cort, is a treat to read-aloud. A book that rhymes screams to be read aloud, and children adore guessing following words once they pick up on the rhythm and rhyme. There are some special words that ‘Boom’ out the page, and of course, it makes children laugh – a key strategy in encouraging children to love books. I can never make it through to the end without children giving me the two punchlines in the book, one…
“They all went down in one huge SLURP!
Then Nora did a great big…”
If my three year old guessed what came next – I’m sure you can…I won’t give away the final punchline, but suffice to say, it’s a winner too. The energy just bounces off the pages – resonated by the author and illustrator, whom I had the pleasure to meet at the Southbank Children’s Book Festival a couple of years ago.

wheres my teddymister magnolia

Two other beautifully funny and clever rhyming books for very young children are the much loved Where’s My Teddy by Jez Alborough – which manages to conjure the dark and frightening while still being loved by small children everywhere – and Mr Magnolia by Quentin Blake, serving up the most delicious rhymes and images. We still can’t talk about boots without invoking Mr Magnolia.

momo and snap

There are other stories that were written to be vocalised. Momo and Snap are NOT friends by Airlie Anderson has no words. Simple sounds and grunts illustrate the story of a crocodile and a monkey making friends.

the book with no pictures

Of course the most recent addition to the canon of ‘must be read loud books’ is The Book With No Pictures by B. J. Novak. It does exactly what it says on the cover – there are no pictures in this book, and the joy only comes by reading aloud. The fun that can be had by doing different voices and playing with words and language in the simplest form is exemplified by the author’s video of him reading his book to a class of kids. Here’s the video.

Enormous CrocodileEnormous Crocodile inside

My favourite Roald Dahl book to read aloud for the 5+ yrs audience is The Enormous Crocodile. (I would encourage you to buy or borrow the colour illustrated version). I think even the shyest reader can manage to inject some menace into the Enormous Crocodile’s dialogue, and there’s a special delight to be had from reading the tremendous vocabulary out loud:
“’Oh you horrid hoggish croc!” cried Muggle-Wump. “You slimy creature! I hope the buttons and buckles all stick in your throat and choke you to death!”’

Once children start reading independently most will visit Enid Blyton. I wouldn’t personally read aloud all her books (!), but it’s nice to read the first in a series, then you can explain words such as ‘sanitorium’, which today’s children may not understand.

Inkheart

The great stories and tremendous subtleties in some older children’s literature can be enjoyed equally by parents and children (eg. Harry Potter, Narnia stories). Inkheart by Cornelia Funke manages to convey beautifully the ‘wise adult’ narrator, and the ability of the author to empathise with childhood feelings within one phrase:
“Sometimes, when you’re so sad you don’t know what to do, it helps to be angry.”

Revisiting the classics with your child at this age is truly rewarding. Many of the titles are fairly inaccessible to a young independent reader due to the old fashioned vocabulary and references, but together they can be digested more easily, examples include Black Beauty, Heidi, The Railway Children. You can read my blog on classics here. Be wary though, some read alouds can result in adults’ tears; I found it very hard to stumble to the end of Charlotte’s Web as I was crying too much!

Goodnight Mr Tom

A more difficult book is Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. I wholly recommend this as a read aloud text. Whilst many children from age ten should be able to cope well with this book, the issues thrown up deserve some time and discussion. Issues of grief, parental responsibility, displacement and suchlike, need exploring, and it can be hard for children to give voice to the emotions raised by the book. Reading aloud enables the parent to see the child’s reaction at each stage and probe for feelings as you go along. Of course, not every book can be read aloud, but there are arguments for fluent readers to be read to with more difficult texts as they start reading on their own, so that they can see books can be discussed and issues that come up can be raised with their parents. Even some young adult titles deserve reading aloud so that the concepts within can be fully raked over. Examples for me would include Nothing by Janne Teller, Bloodtide by Melvin Burgess, and The Bunker Diary by Kevin Brooks.

Nothing

 

For reference:

Scholastic report
New York Times Article

Children’s Classics

I’m not going to explore what makes a classic children’s book – this is best saved for a university essay, but there is a wealth of children’s literature which is universally recognised as being the classical canon. Whether it’s the Victorian/Edwardian canon of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the 1950’s canon of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Charlotte’s Web, these books have something in common. They endure through the ages, they are well written with quality narrative and most of them can be read on two levels – the basic story childhood level, such as children stepping through a wardrobe into a fantastical land, or into a secret garden, but if you care to look you will find them imbued with deeper meaning, such as the allegory of Christ as Aslan in Narnia, or the motif of the Garden of Eden before the fall in the grounds of Misselthwaite Manor in The Secret Garden.

I was recently inspired to write on classic children’s books by two events. One, the currently trending #2015classicschallenge on http://theprettybooks.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/2015-classics-challenge/ , which if you are inclined to social media you should look at, but mainly by my trip to the theatre at Kings Cross to see E Nesbit’s The Railway Children.

The Railway Children

Although many adults may balk at the ‘prison’ spying storyline for little ones, in essence the story starts with a miscarriage of justice. Even the five year old who accompanied me to the theatre fully understood that premise – many a time they have been ill accused of a misdemeanour at home when in fact someone else was to blame. The bulk of the story revolves around neat little incidents as the children get used to their new home in Yorkshire alongside the railway line, befriending the locals and helping out, particularly Mr Perks, the stationmaster, and the children’s endless optimism fires each adventure. E Nesbit’s books are always beautifully full of hope. The older children to whom I read the story both commented on how neatly and satisfyingly all the storylines come together in the end. And they couldn’t get over the mother’s utterance:
“Jam OR butter, dear – not jam AND butter. We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays!”

Peter Pan and WendyThe Adventures of Tom SawyerTom Sawyer illus

In fact reading classics aloud to children aged between six and 10 (or any age) is in itself enormously satisfying. They often see it very differently from how you remember the story. One thing I’ve always tried to do is to use illustrated classics. Although the e-reader has its place (as I’ve said before) I haven’t heard of any parent (yet) using this to read aloud to their child at bedtime. So many of the illustrated classics allow the children an insight into a tale that is usually set a long time ago and can be quite a leap in the imagination. A small drawing can do wonders and start the ball rolling in their own imaginations. Pick carefully though as the illustrations can stick in the mind for many years. One set I’ve used many times is those illustrated by the great Robert Ingpen. His imaginings of Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie are quite startling, and a long way from Disney. Be warned, the story too is a long way from Disney. In fact, our perceptions of the classics may be somewhat different from the reality as we read them as children ourselves and memory can be shapeshifting. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has ceased to be taught in schools in the US as it contains the ‘n’ word more than 200 times, although of course this was widely accepted when published in 1884, and I don’t remember it being a huge issue when I was a child (no age reveal here though!) The language in Peter Pan is quite difficult and dated, and the undercurrent of sexuality and frustrated loneliness in the boy who never grows up is never far from the surface. Of all the classics I’ve reread with children, this was the only one where I wished I’d stuck to an abridged version.

The Secret GardenThe Secret Garden illus

Other beautiful illustrations are those of Angela Barrett for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, although I have shown the cover version illustrated by Charles Robinson, another fine illustrator, as it is easier to purchase. The language here is not difficult, only reading aloud those Yorkshire accents for we Londoners, and is quite captivating from the start:
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.”
The characters in The Secret Garden are loveable and sympathetic despite the fact that sometimes (like us all) they can be quite selfish and stubborn. This is a beautiful story of how Mary, and her cousin Colin, despite their disagreeable misfortunes, come in time to recognise the beauty around them and to embrace it, eventually bringing warmth and friendship to the cold harsh Yorkshire household in which they live. It has magic and darkness and timeless quality. In my 1983 Octopus Books edition, there are full page colour illustrations every so often which highlight a particular phrase from the book:
“She put the key in and turned it” illustrates the door to the garden but doesn’t quite let you see inside – that is left magically for your own imagination.

Alices Adventures in WonderlandAlice in Wonderland queen

Of course a book will always conjure slightly different impressions depending on the age at which you read it – and perhaps the person reading it to you, but one book that never fails to delight – even amongst five year olds who don’t really get it – is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This I read in any version that sticks to the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. No one else can illustrate the Queen in quite the same way:
“The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming ‘Off with her head! Off-“
It’s a fantastical, subversive adventure where nothing really makes sense, but it should make you laugh. Also written as a satirical viewpoint on Victorian life, people hurtling to keep up with the industrialisation and inventions of the time, and the autocratic behaviour of the queen, there is no end to the depth of the Alice books. However, reading it to children introduces them to fantasy and ‘wonder’ and hopefully will invest them with a sense of the possibilities of literature.

As I said before it’s not just literature from more than 100 years ago. Puffin Modern Classics have cited as classics both the The Sheep-Pig by Dick King Smith, and The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross, as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

But a literary culture is always fluid. Will Harry Potter last as The Railway Children has, and be the ultimate children’s classic of our time? The past couple of years has seen a growing chorus of new children’s literature that demands to be read– including Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders, see my review here – and The Last Wild by Piers Torday (soon to be reviewed). This year too is filled with promise. The question is which titles will endure?

And So This Is Christmas…

The Story of Holly and Ivy

On my bookshelf are a fair few books from my childhood that are now sadly out of print. One, for which I lament its inaccessibility more than others, is a traditional Christmas tale, The Story of Holly and Ivy by Rumer Godden. In fact, it’s not my favourite book of Godden’s – that title belongs to the brilliant The Diddakoi (in my view one of the best books on outsiders and bullying), but The Story of Holly and Ivy stands out as a simple, old-fashioned story that deserves to be read every Christmas Eve.
It is a story about wishes. After all, every child has their wishes at Christmas – wishes that Father Christmas visits them and delivers the correct present – wishes that their family can spend some quality time together – wishes for a healthy and happy new year following the holiday season.
Holly is a doll in the story, who wishes to be bought and owned and loved. Ivy is an orphan child, who likewise wishes to be looked after and loved, and Mrs Jones is a woman with no child who wishes for her own. The three strands tie together to create a little Christmas tale with a happy ending. It may sound sentimental, and does massively affect the heart strings, but the narration is so pure that you forgive any play on the emotions.

The Story of Holly and Ivy1
Reassuringly confident, Rumer Godden takes the role of the omniscient author, addressing ‘you’ the reader and speaking of ‘I’, the storyteller, as she explains what you and/or I would feel, and what she knows that Ivy does not know. Her gentle tones sweep the reader through the story. Some of the most stunning lines of the story have a presence today that the author could not have anticipated when she wrote it in 1959:
“They did not know, and Abracadabra [the owl] did not know that it is when shopping is over that Christmas begins.”
And my Christmas wish is for the publisher to realise the strength of this story and to commission a new and upcoming modern illustrator, and repackage the book for the next generation. Although it’s available on an e-reader (and I truly believe e-readers have their place for many texts), this book deserves to be given as a gift, shared with siblings, and pored over in book form.

The Story of Holly and Ivy3

The cover version Young Puffin shown at the top is my old copy from the 1970s, illustrated by Sheila Bewley, but out of print. This edition, Viking, 2006 was illustrated by Barbara Cooney and is available in some shops, although there seem to be more copies available in the US than here in the UK. An ebook edition is available.