I read to children a lot. Over the past seven years, I have spent a large chunk of my person hours reading aloud to small people. There are some children’s books I have grown to love and will happily read over and over again, and others I would prefer to toss into the nearest bin, if not actually onto a burning pyre of ill-written crappery. Some books lend themselves especially well to being read aloud and give the frustrated stage star in me a chance to shine.
One of my all-time read-aloud favourites is Kay Thompson’s Eloise, with its stunning line drawings by Hilary Knight. It’s about a poor little rich girl who lives in the Plaza Hotel in New York with her Nanny. Eloise is knowing and innocent, angelic and out-of-control. Her absent mother “knows The Owner”, as well as the Dean at Andover and Coco Chanel. I read it to my four-year-old last night, and I laughed more than she did, but she also laughed at me laughing. We had fun. Eloise is full of pearls of wisdom, such as:
You have to eat oatmeal or you’ll dry up
Anybody knows that
I have two dolls which is enough
They have to have a teaspoon of water every hour or so, so you can
see they are an extremely lot of hard work
The best thing about Eloise is that there are no full-stops. This would usually irritate me, but there are commas, and capital letters to indicate the start of new sentences. The lack of stops adds to the wild breathlessness and makes it extra entertaining to read.
Other read-aloud favourites in our house for the younger kids are the Doctor Seuss books, the Hairy McClary series and anything by Emma Chicester Clarke (her illustrations are stunning too). I love reading Beatrix Potter’s prose aloud, but somehow, we never really got into the Potter groove – I think her language is lot more sophisticated than her pictures and plots. When the kids were able to understand the slightly stilted, old-fashioned language, they were a bit old for the narrative. However, if anyone thrusts me a Beatrix Potter, I read it happily, as much for my own entertainment as for theirs.
As we’ve moved on to chapter books, we’ve loved everything Roald Dahl wrote, Peter Pan and the Horrible Henry books. I enjoyed reading The Secret Garden and The Little Princess aloud, as they were childhood favourites of mine, but they were hard going in parts for my six-year-old. She and I recently read The Scarecrow and His Servant, by Phillip Pullman, which was great, with lovely shards of humour to keep this grown-up’s attention. We’ve loved the Little House on the Prairie series and Charlotte’s Web, of course. Soon we’ll be starting C.S Lewis’s Narnia books with her.
So many fairy tales have rather wussy princesses as heroines, who sit around moping or cleaning, waiting for their prince to arrive and sort things out. My mother gave us this book: Girls To The Rescue: Tales of Clever, Courageous Girls from Around the World. It is delightful, and delivers exactly what it promises – stories about brave and clever girls who get to do the sorting out: the slaying of dragons, the outwitting of wily merchants, the winning of jousts. They also win the hearts of princes, so it is romantically satisfying. It’s written by Bruce Lansky and published by Meadowbrook Press, if you’re interested in pursuing it for the girls in your life.
As with books for adults, there is a ton of stuff out there for children, and much of it is awful. I especially loathe bad grammar and plots that don’t flow clearly. For me, it takes one read to realise that I’m going to be monumentally irritated by a book but unfortunately my kids often love the crap ones as much as they love the great ones. There is no telling. We are now at the point where I can say “I really don’t like that book, please choose another one” and they generally oblige. How we are all growing up.