On reading favourite childhood books to your children

Since the day my children first drew breath I have been waiting to read them my favourite childhood books. No, really. Patience is not a virtue I possess. It was fun with the picture books – The Tiger Who Came to Tea, Where the Wild Things Are, Mog, The Hungry Caterpillar and the rest. But as we move through each phase of literacy and development and get closer to the big-hitters, I can hardly contain my excitement.

As you might have gathered if you read this blog regularly, books from my childhood and young adulthood are hugely important to me and who I am. Certain books have influenced my values and choices, formed some of my most influential memories, contributed to the person I’ve become. I love the idea of my kids getting older so I can introduce them to the authors who meant the most to me.

On the other hand there’s a real anxiety. What if they don’t like the books I loved, or don’t get them, or find them dated, or simply aren’t interested? Books can be pivotal in forming relationships – love the one I couldn’t live without and I love you. Love the one I threw across the room in disgust and our friendship is doomed. If my daughter felt no affection for Pippi Longstocking would this lessen our bond?

Well, we’ve done Pippi Longstocking and thankfully they loved it (despite my hasty editing out of some of the shockingly racist language). Roald Dahl is a guaranteed hit and luckily they appreciated my absolute favourite, Danny the Champion of the World (“Why are you crying?” my son asked in awe as I choked through the last line of the final chapter). We’ve done Gobbolino the Witch’s Cat (a lot wordier than I remember), and the little-known (but much loved by me) The Tale of Holly and Ivy which had my daughter transfixed. And now I’ve finally taken the plunge with The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Yes, I know it’s not the first one in the series. Yes, I know The Magician’s Nephew is possibly better. But they’re only 6 and 4, and I’m honestly not sure they’d get all the nuances of the first book. It’s also quite frightening in places – Jadis with her bare arms and giant stature standing amid the ruins of a dead city terrified me 35 years ago. And anyway, this is the order in which I read them and it never did me any harm. It probably made me appreciate both books more, in fact – The Magician’s Nephew is almost like a prequel to the more famous Lion.

So I started the tale of Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy at bedtime this evening, with, I’ll admit, some trepidation. The kids listened, they asked lots of questions about fauns, and about dryads, and about who would be next to go into the wardrobe. They were very specific about the children’s ages, and who had been my favourite when I was a little girl (Lucy, obviously). Strangely they didn’t ask what was meant by ‘Daughter of Eve’, so we’ll save that piece of theology for another day (I’d better brush up, as there’ll be plenty more as we proceed through). But most importantly they wanted another chapter, and when I kissed my son goodnight I noticed him eyeing up the wardrobe in the corner of his bedroom with a curiosity I’d not seen before….

Anyone out there read old favourites to their kids? How did they (and you) react?

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27 thoughts on “On reading favourite childhood books to your children

  1. I’d love to know how your kids dealt with the language. When I revisited the novels (and god, I loved them as a kid) they felt so of their time. Not a criticism, just an observation. It obviously didn’t bother me as a kid in the 1970s, but it really got in the way of my reading experience as an adult in the 1990s. Hey, maybe says more about me than those wonderful stories.

    • I agree Karen, but you know, my kids really don’t seem to notice it. They ask what the odd word (or phrase) means, but the old-fashionedness of the language seems to wash over them. I feel more self-conscious reading it at times than they seem to be hearing it!

  2. Great post Lucy. I don’t have kids, but did read PLENTY of books to classes of 8/9 year olds when I taught in schools. Roald Dahl’s stories were huge favourites and C S Lewis went down well. I think, as adults, we worry too much about what’s right and wrong in language and don’t credit children with enough sense and intelligence to work it out for themselves. True, a lot of it does wash over them, but they simply ask if they want to have something explained. Brilliant discussions would often ensue after a reading session in class! One particular writer I discovered when teaching was Diana Wynne-Jones. The kids REALLY loved her books! I’d recommend ‘Power of Three’, ‘The Ogre Downstairs’ and ‘Archer’s Goon’, but all of her incredible output is immensely readable.

  3. I think you’re right Julie – kids aren’t fazed by language, and some of the littlest children love long and complicated words (just look at the obsession with dinosaurs). And I happily read Enid Blyton over twenty years after she was writing (as my daughter is now, another 35 years on!)

    I must confess to a terrible ignorance of Diana Wynne-Jones, even though I know she is a classic and much-respected children’s author. I shall enjoy rectifying my failings by reading her to my kids! Thanks for the recommendations.

  4. Very interesting article, Lucy and it got me thinking about how my own childhood favourites have gone down with my children. One favourite which survived in its 1960s edition with the help of lots of sticky tape was John Burningham’s Borka, which they both enjoyed as much for the fact I’d written in it and played at libraries with my teddy bears as for the story itself.
    The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe went down very well with my daughter (7-8 at the time) with her little brother listening in without too much fidgeting. They both loved The Magician’s Nephew too, as they already knew Aslan would make everything OK in the end. And we continued quite happily through the series (although The Horse and His Boy wasn’t a particular favourite) until we reached The Last Battle. I spent so much time explaining the theological side because they didn’t really get the story that they just lost interest. It occurred to me that the other stories work well as straightforward magical adventures and the theology comes through unobtrusively, but maybe this is one for my children to read themselves when they’re old enough.
    I don’t think the language being dated is much of a problem. They are both happy with Enid Blyton, Old Possum and The Wind in the Willows. But I came across a different issue with another of my childhood favourites: The House at Pooh Corner (along with Winnie the Pooh, of course). I tried reading it to my daughter a few years ago and she didn’t really get it. She was expecting the dumbed down version of Pooh Bear that’s sadly taken over on film and TV, instead of the clever, witty stories that work on multiple levels. Now she’s nearly 10 and reading Jacqueline Wilson or Michael Morpurgo, while I’m reading The Hobbit to her at bedtime. But I think I’ve found a solution – I’m going to order an audio book version for long car journeys and hope that this will inspire both my children to read the book themselves one day.

    • Thank you Jenny for such a considered response. I’ve been thinking a lot about CS Lewis today, and his language, and at which point I picked up on the Christian allegorical aspect that has been recently criticised. I also concluded that it wasn’t until The Last Battle that I remember noticing anything ‘odd’ – it was the same when I re-read the books as an adult (before having children). What I’m noticing more about Lewis in my reading now is his intrusion on the narrative: ‘She knew it was a very foolish thing to shut oneself into a wardrobe’ is repeated about four or five time in the first three chapters alone (Edmund of course, shuts the door, hence he is bound to come to a sticky end)!

      I’m fascinated by what you say about Winnie the Pooh and your daughter’s response. Mine loved it from quite an early age, because we would listen to Alan Bennett reading the stories as an audio book. They didn’t see the Disney version for a while, and didn’t enjoy the films at all. Another confirmation for me that reading the original first is best!

  5. A great article, Lucy. One of my all-time favourites from early childhood is an Enid Blyton Holiday Book of short stories (published in 1958). I read one to my grand-daughter (about a mouse who had his whiskers burnt off by a bonfire) and she found it frightening. I recently tried it again on my 4-year-old grandson and he loved it. This book is long out-of-print but many of the stories have echoes in the new ones of today. Good themes re-circulate and last forever.

    • Thanks so much Margret, and welcome! It’s fascinating isn’t it – guess it’s part of what makes a classic a classic, or an author an enduring favourite (even Enid Blyton!)

  6. Hi Luce. Have you read The Borribles by Michael Larabierti (or something like that)? I read it to Dylan when he was still in a cot, mainly for my own reading pleasure but think he will soon be ready to hear it properly. He keeps asking me if it hurts to have your ears clipped!

    • I’ve never read The Borribles. Ears being clipped sounds a little scary though – the kind of things kids have nightmares about! I’ll have to get hold of it. I wonder if he’ll have any memory of you reading it to him as a baby?

      • He was under 1 when I read them – totally inappropriate but more to entertain me when he wouldn’t go to sleep. I think they are meant for 9yrs plus. No idea though. Brilliant books, you should check them out, London based adventures, I think there are 3 or 4 books in total. I would recommend them to any adult for a good story. I read them for the first time when I was about 28!

  7. Lovely article, that’s got me thinking!
    Can’t imagine trying Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I was never a massive fan. For about five years, I read Enid Blyton and Enid Blyton alone. Sigh.
    I try and offer a variety of classics to 12 yr old son, but he prefers modern stuff – The Hunger Games, Young Bond etc. I will look out for your books.

  8. Thank you grandad, and welcome to my blog. Yes, Enid Blyton. I’ve been thinking a lot about her recently! I’m intending to write a post about her some time very soon so keep a look out. Has your son read the Alex Ryder books, or is he too old for them now?

  9. Have you read ‘Alfie and the Werewolf’ books by Paul van Loon. They have brilliant cliff hangers at the end of each chapter. My son loves them and I think they are the best modern books we have read so far.

  10. Just about to start the Lion… with my daughter – really enjoyed your post. My (older) son has only really taken to Roald Dahl of my childhood faves (although am about to give him some Just William stories for his 9th birthday), but with the daughter, we’ve done Gobbolino, The Secret Garden, Pippi :Longstocking, Mrs Pepperpot , CLever Polly and the Stupid Wolf and My Naughty Little Sister. Can’t wait to get her on to Laura Ingalls Wilder

    • Oh me neither Recipe Junkie! I am living for that day! Just out of interest, how old is your daughter? I was toying with The Secret Garden for mine, but had a quick flick through and concluded she was probably still a bit young for it. Perhaps not though?

  11. Hello Lucy, I’m a first time reader of your blog. It’s great! 🙂
    The Lion, The witch and the wardrobe is a firm favourite in our house hold too… and of course anything Pooh bear related.
    I’m the same when it comes to old films and musicals – watching my daughters faces at The Wizard of Oz this year was priceless.
    Have a lovely day… adding you to my Blog ‘love’ x

  12. Thank you Lucy for your kind comments! It’s great to have another follower and welcome.

    We’ve not done The Wizard of Oz yet – I still have childhood memories of the terrifying flying monkeys! Have you read it as well? I think it’s one of those children’s classics that most people only know through the film.

  13. I’ve shameless been reading my old favs to my kids, probably earlier than i might have, but then my mum read me the hobbit when i was about 4 and the lord of the rings not long after. We did attempt the hobbit but i got stuck before Pearl did, i could get past all that Dwarf geneology. Maybe my mum edited it out.

    I really think reading to kids to needs to be a mutually enjoyable experience and i have no qualms about refusing to read ( or only reading once!) books that bore me. So we have gone through quite a few old classics, (Mrs Pepperpot, the Uncle books – does anyone remember those?) But it has also been great to discover some new things together, like Mr Gum for example, books that me and the kids all enjoy as much as each other. …”Please please can we have one more chapter??” “Well….. Ok then.”

  14. We’ve done a few of the narnia books and Pearl’s loved them too. Best new/ old descovery recently though is Ronia the Robbers daughter by Astrid Lingand who wrote Pippi.

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