The Seven Ages of Picture Books

I recently wrote a guest post for the wonderful Picture Book Den blog. If you’re an author, illustrator or reader of picture books the blog’s a great read, as some fantastic picture books authors write for it regularly. This post is an edited version of the one that appeared there.

A selection from the 'Seven Ages'

A selection from the ‘Seven Ages’

My daughter is almost seven, and takes any and every opportunity to read. She will happily get through a book a day, and we make weekly library visits to replenish her supply. Current favourites are anything by Holly Webb, the pervasive Rainbow Fairies, Mr Gum, and the first ‘Little House’ books. Regular readers of this blog will know that she’s flown in wishing chairs and climbed up faraway trees and that she and I are working our way through the Narnia series (almost done). Her reading is fluent and sophisticated; she’s done with picture books.

Or so I assumed. Yet when I read to my children, my daughter invariably chooses a picture book, and listens enraptured. She never says, “too babyish” or “picture books are boring”. She listens to the story and investigates the illustrations with as much fascination as her just-reading younger brother.  I watched her class listening to their teacher reading them a John Burningham book the other day, and I considered this enduring appeal of picture books to older, literate children, and their presence in my adult life. It’s almost as if there are seven ages of picture books.

First age

My daughter’s first ‘reading’ experience was My Bunny Book. It’s a cloth book in bright colours, containing different sound and touch effects – crinkly bunny ears, boingy bunny leaps, strokable bunny fur. It’s tactile, dribble- and rip-proof, designed for chewing, grabbing, scrunching and bashing. The first age is all about wonder, discovery and curiosity, laying the vital foundations for a book-reading life.

Second age

This is the golden age of picture books. Now it’s all about real pleasure and appreciation – sharing books, understanding and discovering the absolute joy that stories can give. It’s the age of “Again!” “Read it!” and “More!” when 12 pages of short sentences or even single words become embedded within a parents’ consciousness, and libraries come into their own. It’s when you don’t just read, but talk about stories, characters and illustrations together, and children delight in discovering that there are other children (human or animal) that are like them.

Third age

My son is learning to read, and loves spotting words when I’m reading to him. In this third age of picture book reading a new world opens up, where a child can take control of their reading, and become more independent in their enjoyment of stories. It also adds another layer of interaction between adult and child – when I read to my son now, we share the experience in a more active way, and he can start to make the telling his own by using a different voice to mine.

This third age is also about stories taking on deeper meanings and enabling children to deal with life challenges and concepts. Of course such issues can be approached using picture books when they’re younger, but it seems that during this third age picture books offer a safe, non-threatening way to explore concepts and feelings that children can’t articulate. Recently, I read my children The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside, and I have rarely seen my daughter sit so completely still. I could almost feel the intensity of her interest in it, and it made me realise that perhaps there were anxieties that she felt unable to share which were being addressed by the book.

Fourth age

Now comes the pleasure of picking up a favourite picture book and actually being able to read it to yourself, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for you. The book is there to discover or re-discover for yourself, completely on your own. A child in this fourth age of picture-book reading has moved into that wonderful and everlasting realm of I’m Reading My Book.

Fifth age

This is where my daughter is now, a fluent, voracious reader, working her way through the middle-grade bookshelf. And yet she returns again and again to picture books, perhaps to re-create that security and comfort she felt as a baby or toddler being held close by a parent, when she didn’t have the responsibilities or requirements of school or friendships to manage and negotiate. She enjoys me telling her that Dear Zoo was one of her favourites, or that she loved the Blue Kangaroo books, in the same way as she loves looking at her baby photos.

Sixth and seventh ages

These are the adult ages. The sixth is all about nostalgia – I have shelves full of books that I owned as a child, the oldest being One Morning in Maine, which was given to me in 1973 on my third birthday. Many I have read to my own children, all three of us feeling the specialness of ‘mummy’s books when she was a little girl’. I have my own childhood memories and feelings bound up in them – I often find that memories are triggered by illustrations in a favourite picture book. Which leads me on to the seventh age – the reading of picture books to one’s own children, re-experiencing old ones, and discovering new ones.

I have written picture books, blogged about them, and read them to my children every day of their lives so far. And yet I have underestimated their power. Picture books lay the foundations of our future and become a constant in our lives, as enduring as the seven ages of life itself.

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‘We couldn’t wait to get into bed!’ Dads reading to their children

My dad reading to my kids, just as he read to me when I was their age

My dad reading to my kids, just as he read to me when I was their age

Sometimes when I’m planning a blog post, life has a strange way of tossing me a hook. ‘What book have you been read aloud that you loved?’ tweeted the Library as Incubator Project, and I was instantly taken back to evenings lying in bed sucking my fingers, listening to my dad reading his way through the Narnia series, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It must have taken him months to get through that lot – in my memory it took pretty much my entire childhood, as the only other book I remember him reading to me is Watership Down. I should write a post about this, I thought.

The very next day, the reading and writing charity Booktrust announced their campaign to get dads reading more to their children. Apparently only one in eight dads take the lead in reading to their kids, 25% of whom blame working late for not reading stories at bedtime. Thank you Booktrust, for the perfect hook!

What benefits do children get from their dads reading to them? I can only speak for myself, but I hardly know where to start my list. Dad introduced me to some of the literary greats from a very young age – I was only six when he read the Narnia books, and barely seven when he read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He brought those stories alive for me by virtually acting them out, giving every character his or her own accent and characteristics – when I re-read those books as an adult my dad’s voices were in my head.

It gave me time alone with him, which was rare in our house – I usually had to share him with two brothers and a 60 hour-a-week job. As a result there are tiny memories that are exclusive to the two of us, which brought us closer and that over the years have helped deepen our relationship. By reading me books which some would consider too complex at my age, he widened my vocabulary, my love of language and my confidence in what I was capable of reading and understanding. He gave me an experience that I remember with absolute pleasure.

I did a straw poll among Facebook friends and Twitter contacts about their experiences of dads reading to them, and people broadly echoed Booktrust’s findings – many said that their dads didn’t read to them because of commutes to work or long working days (we are mostly children of the 80s after all). But I also elicited some beautifully-expressed andn obviously fondly-held memories. Books that were mentioned included some stalwart classics – Black BeautyThe JumbliesTom Sawyer, Treasure Island, The Princess and Curdie and The Midnight Folk, plus an American author I’d not heard of called Holling Clancy Holling. Slightly surreally, my sister-in-law’s unreligious and Jewish father read her and her sister the Old Testament…

Those whose dads did read to them used words such as ‘safe and secure’ and ‘comforting and reassuring’ to describe their memories. One talked about feeling scared (hers read ‘Little Suck-a-Thumb’), but that it was ‘ok to be scared with a dad there’. A few remembered the exciting, hilarious or crazy stories their dads would make up for them. One image I especially loved was a dad sitting on the end of the bed each night with a book, glass of whisky in hand. A memory for all the senses!

What I wasn’t expecting though (although it perhaps should have been obvious), was the number of people who said that their dads now read or tell the same stories to their grandchildren, or didn’t read to them but do now read to the grandkids. And of course there are those of us (myself included) who now read their children the books that their dads read them. There is clearly a strong and vital legacy of the ongoing cycle of dads reading, and passing on that sense of safety and security to the next generation. The photo above is my dad doing just that for my kids last spring. What more compelling reason could there be for all you dads out there to read to your kids at bedtime tonight!

Which books do you remember your dads reading to you? And dads – do you read to your children now?

“The first real adventure we’ve ever had in our lives!”

Enid Blyton. There, I’ve said it. Was there ever a more dreadful and more brilliant writer for children? Is there anyone in the UK under the age of about 80 who hasn’t had an Enid Blyton phase in their lives? (I was going to say anyone under 60, then a quick glance at The Adventures of the Wishing Chair shows me it was published in 1937).

Until the wishing chair fluttered on its red wings into our lives, I had been feeling quite negative towards EB. Yes, I’d devoured the stories as a kid – for me it started with the Secret Seven, who were quickly ditched for the Famous Five, Malory Towers and the ‘…of Adventure‘ books (Castle… Island… Circus… – you get the idea). Unlike other much-loved books from my childhood though, my general feelings on remembering them were ones of disdain and self-righteous horror at her sexism, racism and, most of all, iffy writing style. I have to say I half dreaded the day that she returned to my home, and I wasn’t going to be the one to welcome her back. It turned out to be sooner than I anticipated when my daughter’s teacher read the class some Wishing Chair stories in Year 1 (so fortunately I am absolved of responsibility).

Well, I owe Enid Blyton half an apology. My children begged me to read Adventures of the Wishing Chair as their bedtime story, so I put aside my literary snobbery, promising myself I would challenge any reference to soppy girls, women’s work, swarthy gypsies and men of the house. And I was right – these are not ‘well-written’ books. Events are utterly illogical – fairies and pixies co-exist with humans quite happily and no questions are ever asked as to how or why this could be. Fortunate coincidences occur, ‘luckily’ is used to move the story on whenever a sticky situation arises, things happen for no apparent reason and the characterisation of characters is minimal. The text is littered with stereotypes and inconsistencies, and I couldn’t say the pixie’s name (‘Chinky’) without wincing and doing a silent mea culpa.

And yet as I read I found myself developing a grudging respect for Ms Blyton’s abilities. This has been said before, but she really does write as if through the eyes of a child. My children are quite tough little souls, with a ‘take no prisoners’ approach to magic. But they did not once question whether these brownies and fairies and gnomes were real, or how they came to be living in the garden. They didn’t wonder at the geographical location of the strange and marvellous countries to which the wishing chair flies, they accepted the existence of spinning houses, talking clocks and magic shrinking pills.

The story development, structure and even (limited) character development of the books is strangely satisfying. Scary characters don’t stay scary for long and are always defeated, and every tale ends reassuringly. Mollie, Peter and Chinky are friends, but they also have spats and fallings-out and arguments that are remarkably similar to those my kids have. The chapters are short enough for a newly-independent reader to tackle alone, and long enough to provide a satisfying story before bed. At the end of the day when I’m usually tired and low on patience, I actually found myself wanting to read another chapter.

In the summer, my daughter discovered an anthology of the Magic Faraway Tree in a Norfolk secondhand bookshop. “Three books in one!” she gasped, and I didn’t have the heart not to buy it. We barely heard from her for the rest of the holiday. She now carries it around with her like a comfort blanket – a metaphor for what I think Enid Blyton offers, and why she endures. She is safe, secure and escapist, the childish equivalent of wrapping yourself in a large blanket with a glass of wine and a copy of ‘Grazia’.

Update on 24th December: The Magic Faraway Tree is being serialised on the radio over two weeks. My daughter is almost more excited at the prospect than about Father Christmas.

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?