Thursday 12 July 2012

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien (HarperCollins Children's Books)

A recent article on children 'giving up' on picture books at a certain age got me thinking about my own shaky start in reading. At primary school I (and probably a fair few of you of a certain age) had a newsletter / catalogue that used to be circulated, allowing parents to buy subsidised books for their kids. Like the wonderful job Bookstart does in bringing fantastic books to the attention of our little ones today, this newsletter meant I got to see books that otherwise would've passed me by (remember, before the internet, the mummy / daddy bloggers and coverage in the press, kids books had little or no exposure outside schools).  Through one such newsletter, I got my first copy of J.R.R. Tolkien's masterwork, The Hobbit.

The book instantly clicked with me, mostly through the efforts of one of my first form teachers at Primary School, the awesome Miss Cox. She had long black hair and equally long black fingernails (we used to think she was some sort of divinely attractive witch!), and she recognised that I'd got a bit beyond the Peter and Jane books and needed to sink my teeth into something meatier. She loaned me her copy of The Hobbit until I got my own and I was completely hooked.

So this morning, before Preschool, I started to properly read my rather battered old copy to Charlotte (partly inspired by a recent conversation with the sublime children's author / illustrator Nicola Robinson whose dad also introduced her to The Hobbit at an early age - something that probably had an awesome hand in steering her towards her current career choice).

The Hobbit is a meaty book for a 4 and a half year old (in fact most big and proper 'chapter' books are) but reading to your children, even without the visual aid of broad panel illustrations (Tolkien's ink squiggles are rather lovely though), can still work if the book is strong enough to let you exercise your vocal talents and paint a fantastic picture in your child's mind.

Be prepared for questions with this approach, there will be many. We did one chapter and I had to field a ton of questions about the Dwarves ("Are they like Snow White's dwarves? Why aren't there any lady dwarves? Why did they want to eat all of Bilbo's food?") and Hobbit Holes ("Why do Hobbits live in such funny houses? Can I try blowing some smoke rings?") and of course grand old wizards ("Why doesn't Gandalf do any tricks?") but that's all part of the fun. Answering the questions is like dipping your brush into the pot to paint a few more strokes in your child's imagined 'map' of the characters, settings and concepts of a fairly meaty tome.

Of course, it goes without saying that we might not even finish the book this first time. We might get to some of the longer more drawn out passages and lose our way or more accurately, lose Charlotte's interest (though 'The Hobbit' is eminently more approachable and more feasible a read than most of Tolkien's other books, possibly with the exception of Farmer Giles of Ham). I'm also acutely aware that  doing the 'soccer dad' thing of introducing your own interests to your child in the hope that they'll pick them up and run with them is always slightly risky (particularly if your other half thinks that books about swords, sorcery, dragons and dwarves are probably not suitable for 4 and a bit year old girls who obsess about princesses, fairies and unicorns normally!)

This isn't a review so we won't stick a rating on the end of this. Suffice to say that my advice if you're considering diving into best beloved chapter / word-only books as an alternative to quick reads at bedtime, do it! You may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.