Thursday 17 November 2016

Ten children's books I couldn't wait to introduce my daughter to when she was 4. Now she's 8, how am I doing - A ReadItTorial

This week's Read-it-Torial is a bit of a time-travelling escapade.

Way back in 2012 when Charlotte was a busy little 4 year old who loved picture books, I imagined one day that she might quite like to read books that had wowed me when I was a kid.

So I picked ten and four years on I thought it would be fun to revisit the list and see just how many she had read, either with me or on her own. Here is the list, with updated comments on whether we've read or not read the books. Read on!

1) The Giant Under the Snow - John Gordon (Not Read)

One of the spookiest, most atmospheric and most influential books I have ever read and one you're probably sick of hearing me talking about. I spent a good 25 years or more hunting for a copy of this and was lucky enough to find one (with this original cover, and its nightmare-inducing illustration) at a car boot sale. I was almost in tears as I handed over a quid (the price was 25p but I was so grateful I just forked over a quid) and took it home.

It's the tale of Jonquil Winters, and her two friends who are pulled into a terrifying mystery surrounding the return of The Giant - a long-buried figure of malice who once again stalks the earth through dark magic, ready to rise again and enslave humanity.

The sort of book that - if it was released today - would receive plaudits for its strong female character and brilliant marriage of myth and legend with the modern world, it's still on the 'to do' list and one day I really do hope Charlotte wants to read it herself. Possibly a bit too spooky and dark for her right now but in a couple of years time perhaps, she'll love it.

2) Stig of the Dump - Clive King (Read)

The original print of the book - with its superb illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, is a standout children's classic.

I read this to Charlotte about a year and a half ago and we reviewed it here: Stig of the Dump by Clive King and Edward Ardizzone (Puffin). It was delightful to find that she tapped straight into the same sense of wonder that I had, and loved Barney and Stig's interactions and the whole 'fish out of water' scenario of a stone age man trying to adapt to Barney's world. Glorious stuff and I'm so glad she enjoyed it so chalk this one up as a success.

3) Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Read)

I read this to Charlotte and then she read it to herself off her own back, along with just about all the other Dahl classics you can think of (Matilda is still her overall favourite though, oddly mostly because she likes The Trunchbull - possibly one of the most terrifying children's book characters ever dreamed up by Dahl).

I remember this book being one of the most talked about books in my junior school and here we are nearly 40 years on from when I first encountered it, and it's still as popular at Charlotte's school with her and her classmates as it was with me and mine.

I think so many Dahl books are revered that it's become something of a cliche to pick on this one in any 'best children's books of all time' list. It's also (rather irritatingly) the book that other more contemporary authors have latched on to, and enjoy having their work compared to.  Essentially though it is still a fantastic read and I expect the news of yet another Willy Wonka movie being made will only see it grow in popularity. Again it was awesome to chalk this one up as a success and to see Charlotte wanting to read it on her own.

4) The Owl Service by Alan Garner (Not Read)

Another spooky book this, and another book chock full of atmosphere. Alan Garner's "The Owl Service" was passed around at school (the school's library copies never seemed to be "in" whenever I wanted to borrow them) - but we were lucky enough to study the book during English lessons and I was hopelessly hooked from the word go.

For some reason, this was touted as a "Boy Book" at school, back when such ridiculously sexist terms existed and there was still a perception that certain reading material could only be enjoyed by either sex rather than both.

Telling the story of three teenagers coming to terms with family upheaval, and encountering an all-too-real welsh legend that threatens to sweep them up in its grasp, it's a multi-layered and quite complex book (even for an adult) that really strikes a chord with anyone who grew up in a single-parent family. I really still don't understand the 'boy book' thing though, not at all.

As others have said elsewhere, it could well put you off family holidays in Wales forever. Spooky, imaginative, descriptive and absolutely essential reading for young teens. Again though we've not read this one yet I could see Charlotte loving it in a few short years' time (so I'd better update this blog post idea when she's 12 and see if we've polished off any of the books we have yet to get around to).

5) The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall (Not Read)

Another book that was studied at school, and another book that was largely seen at my school as "A Boy Book". The Machine Gunners tells the story of a young lad coping with the Blitz in World War 2. Fascinated by the ever-encroaching war, a downed German plane crashed on a piece of wasteland near his home provides an opportunity for the boy's imagination to let fly.

It's been a very long time since I read the book but I remember the way Robert Westall builds up the levels of tension throughout, until the quite shocking and wholly unexpected end.

There's no easy way to help children understand the importance of the sacrifices their grandparents and great grandparents (and great great grandparents) made for their country in wars, but Westall's book offers both an insight into these, and also an insight into how easily influenced a child's mind can be by world-shattering events unfolding around them. A subtle lesson to learn about how war affects the modern world too, and the direct effect it has on children who are forced to cope with the upheaval of war on a daily basis.

Again, like some of the other books on this list that Charlotte hasn't read yet, I think this is probably one suitable for ages 12 to 13 and beyond, but I can imagine her really not being able to put this one down once she starts on it, it's still utterly compelling.

6) The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier and Jane Serraillier (Not Read)

Another book touching on the impact of war, this time with a driven message of hope threaded throughout an expertly written story of children fending for themselves in war-torn Poland, embarking on an epic journey to be reuinted with their parents. The symbolic 'Silver Sword' of the title is their almost mythical belief that something other-worldly can protect them on their hazardous quest.

Never holding back harrowing descriptions of the impact of war, The Silver Sword is probably one of the best books written for children about the impact of WWII on Europe - but more than that, it contains some of the strongest messages of self worth and self belief a child can read. Once again for very similar reasons to the two books preceding this one in the list, it's a book that she'll find fascinating once she's a little older  - and let's face it, though we want children to understand and remember the sacrifices during the two wars it's probably a better idea to wait until they're a little more emotionally mature to breach some pretty horrific subjects with them I guess. Three war books in the list, makes you wonder what was going on in schools in the 1970s because this was again a book I was introduced to in English lessons but became completely obsessed with.

7) The Hobbit by J.R.R Tolkien (Read)

Does this book fall in and out of favour every few years or so? Or is there a perception that Tolkien's works are slowly being eroded by other fantasy novels, more modern fare that suits the contemporary palate better? I'll argue that The Hobbit - the perfect introduction to Tolkien's (sometimes unapproachable) works - is a book that paints vivid pictures of the world of Middle Earth far more effectively than the most expertly produced CGI, more effectively even than Tolkien's own scribbly ink illustrations. I was first introduced to this book when I was 5 - which might seem a little early (and might make me sound a little precocious) but thanks to my teacher at the time (Miss Cox, take a bow) and the project she wove around this book, I've loved it ever since and it made me want to read The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion just to dip back into Tolkien's imaginative worlds.

Charlotte's reaction to The Hobbit was entirely different to mine. I read it to her and she loved the intricate little details of Bilbo's life before his incredible journey began, but seemed to very rapidly lose interest in the book after that - despite some really exciting stuff later on. The bits that worked best for her were the more comedic light-hearted moments - and this ties in with the sort of books she likes to read from the school library or books we're sent for review.

Oh well, you really can't win them all!

8) The Chronicles of Narnia - The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe (Read)

Charlotte and her mum are actually working their way through C.S. Lewis' Narnia books in one huge volume, one heck of an achievement!

Amazingly they've already polished off all books up to and including "The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe".

I listen to my wife reading this to Charlotte (not without a few pangs of envy as I always wanted to read this with her!) and my wife always describes Charlotte as hanging on every single word, often demanding my wife reads for longer than she intended to (though this may also be classic diversionary tactics to avoid having to go to sleep!)

They both love the books as much as I do, and I can imagine her wanting to read the whole lot again on her own once they're done. Definitely a hit!

9) The Guardians by John Christopher (Not Read)

This is definitely still on the "yet to do" pile and without meaning to repeat myself again, this is definitely a book I could imagine Charlotte tucking into with gusto once she hits the Senior School (which was pretty much when I read it properly first).

There are so many John Christopher books I'd love her to read (though I'm not entirely sure her taste for perfectly written dystopia stories tallies in any way with mine). I'd gladly include "The Tripod Trilogy" on here as well but for me "The Guardians" was always the book I'd recommend to folk who'd never heard of John Christopher's work before as a really good starting point.

Even now it relates a fantastic lesson about class divides, about the dangers of modern society losing touch with not only its cultural heritage but with our own roots and traditions regardless of class. It also, rather chillingly, feels very contemporary in its depiction of an all-encroaching all powerful government that will stop at nothing to maintain the status quo.

Still timeless, brilliant and still one of Christopher's most underrated books. Even though Charlotte is a few years off reading this, I really hope she does one day.

10) Chocky by John Wyndham (Read - well, ish!)

Oh dear. This one did not go well at all. Oops, bad parent moment!

I read this to Charlotte up to a point where it was pretty obvious she was becoming more and more uncomfortable with it. I've got both Chocky and Chocky's Children at home and I'd still love her to read them, but this is definitely one of those books that serves as a shining example of how different tastes are now compared to what they were like when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s.

The bits that scared her the most were the interactions between Matthew (the boy in the book that Chocky chooses to 'inhabit') and his sister Polly.

As Chocky starts to force her will on Matthew more and more, he becomes a sinister version of Polly's brother - one she doesn't recognise and doesn't like, and that really began to disturb Charlotte so I'm afraid we ended up ditching the book.

Thinking back to when I originally read these (around the same time that two TV series based on the books were commissioned and played out on teatime kid's TV slots), I just cannot even imagine that something like this would seem like a good idea, even back in the 70s when dark stuff was fairly normal on kid's TV.

To be fair, the books are incredibly disturbing at times and definitely do play on the mind so we'll put an indefinite pause on this one until Charlotte perhaps feels like she's ready for stronger darker stuff.

The scores on the doors

Not too bad, 5/10 so we're about half way there. Reading back through the list I think of the five remaining left to read I could imagine Charlotte wanting to read at least 3 of the books with two being possibly of lesser interest. Bearing in mind that when I was a school kid, most boys of a certain age were a bit too obsessed with World War 2 and tanks, action men and god knows what else so it's not difficult to see that any book that related directly to the war would be an instant draw - and this wouldn't be the case for Charlotte at all.

Thinking back to the age I was when I read a lot of these books, I'm pretty sure that 12 is going to be the next 'red letter' age that Charlotte could potentially revisit some of these at so who knows, we might just catch up again in four years time to see if any more have been ticked off the list.

I'm also very pleased to say that Charlotte is equally influenced by books her mum read as a child, so she's happily worked her way through far more of my wife's favourite childhood books than mine (the likes of Black Beauty, Mallory Towers, The Secret Seven, The Secret Garden and many other classics) so there's a nice balance being achieved and it's definitely not all down to pushy dad shoving books up her nose, poor child!

I'd love to hear whether other parents had a top ten list of books to one day pass down to their kids when they were old enough - or read to them over the course of a few bed times.

If so, please do leave a comment below as we'd love to hear about them and whether or not you've managed to read them to your little ones yet!