Thursday, 28 June 2018

Books that stick, books that don't - What happens when your child starts to leave picture books behind? - A ReadItTorial

As our blog races ever closer to its 8th birthday (I know, can you believe it's been going that long? I certainly can't) It's a good time to reflect on how a child's reading journey constantly changes and evolves as they get older.

In particular it's interesting to dig through the books that have stuck with us for more or less the entire blogging journey. Books that are so utterly amazing that even now they still regularly crop up in bedtime reads - as I still manage to squeeze most of our picture book reading into bedtimes when reading picture books perfectly squeezes in between my daughter's own chapter book reading (plus, hey, we run a book blog - we've got to read the books we get sent otherwise what would be the point, eh?)

Starting off with Helen Cooper's utterly sublime "The Bear Under the Stairs".

Back when we first encountered this book we didn't like it at all - at least C didn't because she found it quite a scary book so it ended up garnering a zero out of five (back when we did scores).


Then something odd happened. C would (rather frustratingly) grab this book again and again on our library trips, demanding to have it read to her. I would like to think that some of the reason for this was my own interpretation of the bear's voice (he doesn't actually speak in the book but I used to 'ad lib' helpful little speeches from the bear in between page turns to try and make the story a bit less scary, adding a gleeful gurgling voice to the readings).

So we re-reviewed the book, bought our own copy and...well the rest is history. We have ended up reading it time and time again and both love it to bits. The simple tale of a boy who imagines (or does he?) that a bear is actually living in the understairs cupboard, coming out at night to indulge in various bear (and not-so-bear) like pursuits. If you're familiar with Helen's books (and you should be, they're all absolutely brilliant) you'll know that as much of a story happens in the illustrations as it does in the text. Truly wonderful.

It's such a great book that entertains 10 year old C just as much as it began to work its charms on her when she was much younger (and the end never, ever gets old!)

Casting eyes over our shelves for other examples of books that have been read and re-read there's also "Not Now, Bernard" by David McKee.

This one had far more instant appeal to C. When she was tiny she seemed to love books featuring monsters and this one just grabbed her right away.

Though again when we originally reviewed it, it only got 4 out of 5 stars.


We re-reviewed it after we'd moved away from giving books scores out of 5 (which always felt like a slightly odd thing to do anyway) and yet it still didn't get a coveted "Book of the Week" from us (it most certainly would if we took another look at it now).

McKee's timeless and also very timely story of what happens to a boy who is blithely ignored by his parents (let's face it, if you rewrote it now Bernard's parents would probably be glued to their mobile phones rather than digging into the newspaper or doing the housework). After he discovers a monster living in the garden, the book takes a rather hilarious (some might even say shocking) turn.

 It is just achingly funny, and the sort of children's story that sticks in the mind, mostly because in our rather cotton-wool-wrapped modern world you couldn't imagine a publisher wanting anything to do with a book where the main character gets gruesomely eaten half way through.  It demands to be read and re-read, and again this is one that regularly crops up in our reading pile - we just can't get enough of the way the book cleverly loops back in on itself at the end.

With the way we organise books at home, sometimes we end up 'archiving' certain books in our overflow cupboard (you've all got one of these, right? Either that or a lot more bookshelves than we've got, I guess!)

When we rediscover them - sometimes years later - it's a joyful rediscovery that reminds us just how great those books were, and how they still work even as both of us grow older.

So it was when re recently rediscovered Rob Scotton's original "Splat the Cat" books. The very first one was one of C's Bookstart books and she fell completely head over heels in love with it.

Again I'd love to think that a lot of that was due to me adopting a curious Lenny Henry-like Brummie accent for splat during read-aloud readings of the story, but the reality is that Rob's story is such a fabulous little (wibbly wobbly) tale of a cat's first day at school, and the anxieties that so many kids face about their first day and all the worries that they build up in their mind - before rushing home to talk about just how great school actually was.

The artwork really has to be mentioned too, it's just totally lovely and chock full of hilarious little details (We used to giggle at Seymour's "Black Olive" nose and the various kittens in Splat's class with their creative gaps in their teeth!)

So what makes a book 'stick'? Why do some picture books lend themselves to being read again and again and again, even when a child knows what's coming and what to expect? Even when that book's text is really simple?

"Pants" (and its follow up - "More Pants") by Giles Andreae and Nick Sharratt are great examples of books that were demanded again, and again and again at bedtimes back when C was really beginning to love books and stories, and could start choosing what we read to her each night.

These are both great because you almost sing along with them as you read. The rhymes are utterly perfect, the artwork is big and bold and they're just the right kind of silliness that you sometimes really need after a hectic day.

We thought C would be completely 'over them' by now but because both my wife and I used to read these to her, both in different ways (quite unusual for us as we both used to favour books we liked to read to her rather than our tastes crossing over) I think she got double the value from these.

Oddly though, there is also a "Socks" book by Giles and Nick - which C absolutely HATED so we've never tried that one again.

One more to squeeze in (well, sort of two really as neither C or I can fully agree on this one).

"That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown" by Cressida Cowell and Neal Layton was the first in the "Emily Brown" series, and one of the earliest books to regularly make our library borrowing pile week after week.

Again, a lot of the success of this book comes from the fact that it's such a ludicrously simple idea for a story - a little girl with a beloved bunny toy refuses to give it up for all the amazing alternatives she's offered by a rather naughty princess. So the princess STEALS Stanley in a rather shocking move - before Emily Brown decides enough is enough and goes to get her bunny back.

We're underselling it woefully here, it's just utterly perfect and again a story that ended up becoming a piece of performance art as I ended up making up a series of silly 'posh' military-style voices for the various Army / Air Force / Navy commanders in this tale.

The reason C and I disagree on which of the Emily Brown books is best is because I also rather love "Emily Brown and the Thing" too..

I just love the silliness of The Thing's behaviour, and the poor thing actually being scared of...THINGS (and of course there's that killer line about scoffing 100 burgers plus an apple 'for the vitamins').

Again a great opportunity for lots of silly voices, Cressida's storytelling is sublime (well, duh, I mean she's only one of the best children's writers of the last umpteen years) and Neal Layton's artwork is always, always brilliant in everything he does.

So pleased to hear that a new Emily Brown book is on the way later on in the year, we'll be waiting in the queue, mark my words.

Returning to the eternal question, what makes these books stick? I think in each case with the books above, each has a very distinctive story or 'gimmick' that works in a similar way to your favourite comfy pair of slippers, or your favourite food.

Even though you know what to expect each time, it's the sheer feelgood feeling of opening these books and diving in that provides the buzz and the long-lasting long-term buzz at that.

As you can imagine, after reviewing thousands and thousands of books over the last 8 years there are many more that we didn't have room to feature, and even more that have been read once and never been touched again.

If I knew what the difference between the two types of picture books was, I'd somehow distil that into my own writing but it's such a tricky thing to try and quanitify. If I ever do discover the answer I'm definitely keeping it to myself :)

If you haven't encountered any of the above books or are missing one or two in your collection, we can comfortably recommend them all - I mean if they're good enough for us for 8 years of reading and re-reading, they might just have the same effect on your little ones too!