Children's Fiction: Books to read together
School holidays are around the corner. If you’re a parent, aunty, grandparent or guardian with school-aged children in your life, this knowledge may trigger feelings of panic or relief, or else a mixture of both.
On the upside, holidays are a break from homework, a pause from routine. And, though it may be a quaint idea, or even a dying art in a world of iPads and the XBox, holidays also give you enough time to read a book together.
This means that even if you’re stuck at home over the break, you’ll still get to travel someplace else, somewhere exotic, like Narnia, or the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or outer space. Sharing the reading experience, like all good travel, means you’ll come away with a new perspective on things, a different view of the place you live and the people around you. And because you did it together, this ‘travel’ to other places will become a collective memory—only a lot cheaper than the cost of a holiday to Hawaii—a sort of in-joke that you’ll always share with the children you’ve read to.
For getaways, if I’m organised enough, I’ll try to find an audio book we can all listen to on a long car trip up the coast. My husband is yet to recover from a 9 hour trip we made a few years ago—despite the inevitable initial protestations from the kids I popped Roald Dahl’s Matilda into the CD player just before we turned up the M1 heading north from Sydney. Ten minutes later the kids were hooked. Four hours into the trip we were still listening to the beautiful tones of Joely Richardson’s voice as Matilda fought the dreaded Trunchbull. The kids were deaf to my husband’s pleas for a break to listen to the cricket. We finished the book in a day. The audio was turned off only for a toilet break or to refuel.
There are many rewards to be had from reading a book out loud to everyone. The idea of reading for fun with school-aged children may well have evaporated the day your child came home with a graded school reader. But this makes it doubly important that you change this dynamic. When you read aloud to a child simply for the joy of it, the angst goes out of reading, because you’re reading the book. No one is correcting anyone on the right pronunciation.
Reading a good book together means that the reading level of the book will become irrelevant. A good book is both timeless and egalitarian—if offers something for everyone. The reading adult gets to visit childhood again, while also picking up nuances and wicked jokes that sail over the head of the kids. Children experience things that in real life they are too afraid of, or too young to do, all from the safety of the lounge.
And still on the egalitarian theme, not all children find reading easy. For some children, words can swim backwards and refuse to behave, and reading can become a battlefield. Reading to this child will be a particular gift because it will ensure that he or she won’t miss out on some great characters and important narratives. And who knows? One day, this child may become the next Jackie French*, but until then, why should they miss out? They might need being read to aloud most of all.
Finally, this reading together will expose the children in your life to something that is being lost in a culture where, increasingly, image is everything. They’ll be immersed in sparkling, complicated, unexpected and nuanced w-o-r-d-s. These words will fire their imaginations, and possibly help them be a little braver, or kinder, or more compassionate. These words will help them make a little more sense of the world. Most likely you’ll never know the gifts that a given book will provide for kids, but the best books will have something special just for them, something that will serve them well for the journey ahead.
It’s a risky business recommending books to people, as tastes are so varied. But below are some widely appreciated books that have been important to our family. Many are classics: books I read when I was a child, books I didn’t want my children to miss out on.
So whether it’s audio books in the car, reading aloud as a family or simply setting the eager beavers off on their own, here is my list to consider, in vaguely ascending order according to age (youngest to oldest):
Tim Winton, The Bugalugs Bum Thief — Skeeta Anderson wakes up … without his bum.
Randolph Stow’s, Midnite — the world’s most stupid but well-meaning bushranger.
Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr Fox or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Frank Cottrell-Boyce’s modernised Chitty Chitty Bang Bang series.
Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows — the adventures of Ratty, Mole and Toad.
Tim Winton, Blueback—a boy and his friendship with a Blue Groper.
Kate Di Camillo, Because of Winn Dixie — lonely Opal finds a dog, and everything changes, or The Tale of Desperaux—an overlooked mouse sets off on a unlikely quest.
Patricia Wrightson, The Nargun and the Stars — fantasy set in Australia, drawing on Aboriginal mythology.
David Walliams, Billionaire Boy — Joe Spud has everything, except a friend.
Betsy Byers: The Eighteenth Emergency — a kid on the run from the school bully, or The Midnight Fox—a kid forced to spend the summer on his aunt’s farm.
Michael Morpurgo, I Believe in Unicorns — a boy in a library in war-torn Europe.
Frank Cottrell- Boyce, Framed — art theft in a small town in Wales, or Cosmic—kids lost in space.
E.L. Konigsburg, The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler — Claudia hides out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Fabio Geda, In the sea there are crocodiles — the true experiences of a child asylum seeker from Afghanistan.
Cassandra Golds: Clare d’ Lune — a small ballerina, a mouse, and a monk. Cassandra Golds, The Three Loves of Persimmon - a dreamy girl and a dreamy mouse find courage.
Eva Ibbotson: One Dog and His Boy—all Hal wants is a dog …
Mary Norton: The Borrowers — a tiny family live under the floorboards of an English manor.
Louis Sacher: Holes — a brilliant mix of adventure and folk law as Stanley Yelnats IV, overcomes a family curse.
Madeline L’Engle: A Wrinkle in Time — time travel and a fight against evil.
Katherine Paterson, The Great Gilly Hopkins — Gilly’s last chance in a foster home.
R.J Palacio, Wonder, August just wants to be an ordinary ten-year-old.
*Jackie French: Nanberry — definitely for older readers: early Sydney through the eyes of Nanberry, an indigenous boy taken in by the colony’s first surgeon.
*Jackie French is one of Australia’s most prolific and beloved authors. She is dyslexic.