One of the great things about being a parent is that every evening I get a chance to read night-time stories to young children. These books vary greatly in quality. Many children’s books (particularly the ones with toys and teddy-bears on the cover) are insipid, formulaic, manufactured and quite forgettable . Kids get bored by them just as much as we grown ups do. However there are some books that I still love reading to my younger ones whenever I get a chance.
So, in no particular order, here goes:
“Out of the gate and off for a walk went Hairy Mclary from Donaldson’s Dairy”
This is a terrific little book about a gang of dogs who get more than they bargained for when they all head off for a walk down town. The drawings are superb, the rhythm in the lines is mesmerising and the “MEEEOOOWFFZZZZ” twist in the end has kids jumping with delight. Very soon, even small kids can recite the lines of the book along with you. Superb. (I am indebted to Teuchter for introducing me to this book..)
2) The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson)
“Silly old snake, doesn’t he know, there’s no such thing as a Gruffal…”
This extremely well-illustrated book recounts the adventures of a clever little mouse, beset on all sides by predators, and how he manages to outwit them all. The book is written in a gentle, rhythmic verse that is a pleasure to read out loud. Three quite similar stories are recounted before the plot twists and the mouse is confronted with the monster of his nightmares. What happens after this is an act of genius on the part of the mouse. I always shout out the Gruffalo’s lines in a very angry gruff voice – my kids love it.
3) Some Dogs Do (Jez Alborough)
“His paws just lifted off the ground”
This is a rhyming story about a small dog named Sid who discovers one day that he can fly. When he tries to tell his friends in school, nobody will believe him. The miserable pup is comforted by his parents, who let him into a secret. I particularly like the drawings of Sid’s face – the faraway stare – when he is confronted by opposition on all sides. It’s a captivating, delightful tale that the kids want me to read again and again.
4) Green Eggs and Ham (Dr. Seuss)
“That Sam-I-Am, That Sam-I-Am! I do not like that Sam-I-Am”!
No list of good children’s books would be complete without a title from Dr. Seuss. This story tells the tale of a grown-up creature who is pestered by the much smaller and younger Sam into eating a seemingly disgusting meal of green eggs and ham. Despite his protestations, Sam never gives in and finally the adult takes a bite. The whole tale is a reversal of the usual story where an adult is forcing a child to eat something that the kid doesn’t like the look of. Like many of the tales here, the story is recursive, repetitive, rhythmic and rhyming. Soon the child will be reciting the tale along with you.
5) How to Catch a Star (Oliver Jeffers)
“Once there was a boy and the boy loved stars very much”
This story concerns a small boy who wants to catch a star from the sky so that they can be friends and have fun together. He tries reaching for it and climbing trees to get it, but to no avail. Eventually he is drawn to the sea-shore where he finds what he is looking for. This is a wonderfully creative tale that talks volumes about the ways small children see the world. The simple cartoons that complement the story genuinely add to the tale. As an adult you can’t but help feeling for the little boy as he tries to understand a mystery of life.
What makes these books special?
All of these stories are quite similar in that they blend poetry, colour, artistic detail and repetition into a coherent whole. All of the storys take about 3 to 5 minutes to recite. Neither are they “fluffy”: They grapple with quite deep topics concerning relations with adults, friendship, fear, disappointment and making sense of the world. If you are a parent of young kids or are wondering what to give your young niece or nephew for their next birthday, I would wholeheartedly recommend all five titles.
Do you know of any other children’s books that you would add to this list?