There’s a wonderful transition that happens when reading clicks for children. In the blink of an eye, suddenly they are able to read, and they read EVERYTHING. Lo and behold those of you who leave your Facebook page open, or receive uncouth words in your texts…those pesky children get everywhere! For me, as you can imagine, the real spark inside me lights up when they are so buried in their current book that they won’t get dressed for school, when they come downstairs for breakfast without lifting their head from their book. But which chapter books should they first be reading? What will propel them forwards? The series featured below are all for age 6+
Horrid Henry by Francesca Simon, illustrated by Tony Ross
A divisive series among some parenting groups. These are hugely popular with children, and with good reason. They are lively, spritely, filled with glee for a child’s life, and even for me, rather funny. What’s more there are non-fiction versions – Horrid Henry factbooks, which appeal because of the character, but impart interesting facts on a variety of topics. However, more often than not I am approached by parents who loathe the examples of bad behaviour contained within. Personally, I think the books are great. I stock loads of them in the school library, and here’s why. Horrid Henry tests those boundaries that most children wouldn’t dream of testing themselves – it’s a way of living it out for them – children don’t act on the behaviour they read about; it’s merely a safe environment for their emotions. In the same way that we don’t commit a murder after reading Ruth Rendell, children don’t act out just because they’ve read Horrid Henry. In fact, if you read it carefully, you’ll see that Horrid Henry’s catchphrase is ‘Noooooo!’ in response to being caught. Yes, Horrid Henry really doesn’t get away with much. And Francesca Simon has made a point of saying that she doesn’t have him do anything that a child wouldn’t be able to think up.
The other reason I love Horrid Henry books is the simplistic 2-D characterisation. Henry is Horrid, Margaret is Moody, Peter is Perfect. This gives very simple signposts to children as they first read longer stories, enabling them to decipher character and motive easily as they follow the plot. These sorts of signposts are also extraordinarily good for autistic children. Of course, the books also have short stories split into easy sections and good illustrations. The other reason I adore this series is that they truly do equally appeal to boys and girls.
Dirty Bertie by Alan Macdonald, illustrated by David Roberts
Another hugely popular series in the same vein as Horrid Henry. By the time of his 25th adventure in Jackpot!, published May 2015, the series had sold over 750,000 copies. So what’s the difference between Horrid Henry and Dirty Bertie, you may enquire? Dirty Bertie with his friends at school such as Know-All Nick and neighbours such as Mrs Nicely, also features 2D characterisations for easy understanding, has great illustrations and each book is split neatly into three different stories for manageable first reading. Dirty Bertie though is less naughty than Horrid Henry – just has filthy habits, and is more prone to mishaps. In fact, whereas Horrid Henry schemes and devises plans, Dirty Bertie is more passive – things just seem to happen to him, or he picks up on the wrong end of the stick. He’s much gentler, but like Horrid Henry, always gets his comeuppance. In the title story of Jackpot! Dirty Bertie mistakes his grandmother’s win on the lottery as being a life-changing jackpot win and misleads his entire family. In Crumbs! Dirty Bertie mistakes salt for sugar when baking a cake – and that’s not his only mistake of the day – and in the final story Demon Dolly, Bertie’s sister wreaks some well-placed revenge on Bertie after he throws away her favourite toy. They are funny, yukky and addictive. Buy it here from Waterstones or visit the Amazon sidebar.
Animal Stories by Holly Webb
Another storming series for first readers which has also sold well – 650,000 to date. Each one comes packaged with an adorable animal picture on the front – saccharine for an adult perhaps, but endearing for a young child. The latest, A Home for Molly, tells the gentle story of a stray dog rescued by a little girl on holiday. Holly Webb flits between the feelings of the young girl and the feelings of the small dog to create a narrative that’s full of emotion – the little girl comparing her memories of once being lost to how the dog must feel. It hits the right notes with no great surprises, but tells the short story well with cues for empathy, including familiar parental rules and family life, and the preoccupations of being young and on holiday. The text is interspersed with a few illustrations by Sophy Williams which add to the narrative, and the text is split into short chapters. Holly Webb captures simplistic storytelling in a neat package in a formula that can be repeated without getting tiresome. It’s also nicely modern – mention of emails, Calpol!, a father who works long hours, and yet tied into a perfectly old-fashioned beach holiday. Perfect for today’s first readers. (There’s a free Animal Stories app too. You can download it here.) Buy the book here, or see the Amazon sidebar.
Knightmare by Peter Bently
This series by prolific writer Peter Bently is for those readers who want a slightly longer narrative stretch such as the Holly Webb series, but with a plethora of silly jokes and stupid happenings – and a more advanced vocabulary. Rather than based in reality, as Henry and Bertie, Knightmare is set in a time of knights and castles. Each tale is an action-packed, silly, and at times hilarious, romp through a cobbled-together medieval landscape. The fifth book of the series, Foul Play!, takes place during the May Fair, with central character Cedric – a knight in training to Sir Percy – a master who’s not quite as chivalrous or gallant as a knight should be perhaps. Before long Sir Percy is trying to avoid some relatives and some Morris men to whom he owes money, as well as attempting not to lose his castle in a bet over a football game. Medieval football though, is not quite the game it is today, and before long there is much mayhem – and many fouls! There are some lovely modern references – the cook enters a bake-off competition, the football game starts at 3pm, and there’s a fair amount of traffic heading to the fair – not to mention the parking permits! With all the excitement, plays on the historical setting and constant punning, this may be enjoyed by slightly older readers. It’s a pacey read and incredibly daft. You can buy it here from Waterstones, or on the Amazon sidebar.
With thanks to Stripes publishing for review copies.