I have just returned from our allotment with a haul of raspberries and gooseberries. Tidying up, watering our garden and staking the echinacea, I’ve been listening to Edward’s Sunday story. Edward is a neighbour aged about two with city working parents. Every Sunday night, I have the pleasure of hearing his parents read aloud. His bedroom faces our property, and I can hear his laughter, his joining in, and the absolute delight that he and his mother and father feel in their closeness.
There is conjecture about children ‘losing their knowledge’ during the school holidays, so that they have to be retrained into learning through the first term of school. As an educator of many years, in many locations, I assert that this is complete tosh. Long summer holidays are essential to all families. They offer a time to drop off the schedule, regroup and rediscover natural rhythms. So much of our lives are spent chasing clocks.
I loved realising the evident changes in children returning to school after the holidays; they’ve always grown so clearly in leaps and bounds; they are happier, chattier, more enquiring and more likely to encounter their siblings in school with pleasurable familiarity, and better able to socialise with equanimity.
One of the best parts of a family summer holiday, either at home or away, is the chance to become completely captivated by a big book or series. This is the time to cuddle up without bedtime curfews, under a camp light, on the sofa, at the beach, or on the hotel bed. Every person involved, be it reader or the read to, benefits and feels loved, close, safe, unified by the experience and the story.
We know that our first sensory awareness is hearing; it is also our last. My cousin and her partner have paved furrows in their constant journey between their home and a London hospital to support their premature babies. Their twin boys were born four months early. Their existence remains fragile, so every step is a breakthrough, an exhalation. Cuddling them, even touching them, has been limited because of their medical needs. So their father has read to them. They’ve worked their way through nursery rhymes and traditional tales, and now, ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’.
Family and friends who raise their children bilingually are giving them an advantage over those who have one language only. Their synapses, like my cousin’s babies’, are soft and so receptive to sound and language. It is why hearing tests on the newborn are so early, that any necessary support is given early, while the synapses are still soft and mobile. It is why, I, at umpty-flip years, have little hope of mastering other languages beyond frantic level one,
Listening to a story benefits a child educationally as well as emotionally. They are hearing the rhythm and sounds of language, they are increasing their vocabulary, gauging reading pace and tempo. Also, they are having the best opportunity to build contextual understanding, and this is the most important part of the reading process. Without using context, reading has no meaning.
Michael Rosen, esteemed poet, former children’s laureate and Professor of Children’s Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London, gave an interesting example of the importance of context, from a family experience. Through repeated sharing of ‘Where the Wild Things Are’ (essential to every home), Emil, aged three, volunteered that Max wanted/meant ‘Mummy’ when he arrived at the text ‘He wanted to be where he was loved best of all’. Emil had interpreted the text. Through sharing a book, taking time, Emil was able to interpret, retrieve and infer. What’s more, Michael Rosen believes that formal comprehension enquiry, which is an increasingly weighty addition to children’s reading experience – ‘kills reading’.
The stories we hear should have a reading age pitched at least two years above a child’s chronological level. That’s why settling into ‘Harry Potter’ as a read aloud when a child is seven or so, works. However, there are many other, and I assert, better titles. Different settings, more challenging themes and subjects, can be included when we read aloud. There is time for discussion and consideration. It is building real reading power. Also, these, more challenging stories, are better shared in a setting where there is an emotional bond. I remember my mother reading me Ethel Turner’s ‘Seven Little Australians’ and us both being overwrought at circumstances and events of the story. There was trust, love and sharing.
We have a few in stock that I would recommend for the distinct purpose of being wonderful books to read aloud. Please feedback to us from our recommendations, letting us know what you thought of our suggestions. Should you wish any further advice, specific to your child, please get in touch. It is a privilege and a joy to match families to books:-
‘They All Saw a Cat‘ by Brendan Wenzel- calls for repeated reading, contemplation and story sense building for children aged from 3 or 4 and beyond;
‘Last Stop on Market Street‘ by Matt De La Pena- what is your journey like, where are the boy’s family, what are the differences the similarities, the stories of the other passengers?- an essential book to share with readers from 3 or 4;
‘The Sleeper and the Spindle‘ by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, a whole new, breathtaking retake of the traditional ‘Sleeping Beauty’ story that is brilliant, bold and beautiful in every sense;
‘The Silver Donkey‘ by Sonya Hartnett, such a family story, such a riveting, emotional, wonderful story, set in France in WW1, when two sisters discover a deserter;
Katherine Applegate is one of my favourite Bookwagon authors. Her titles, ‘Crenshaw‘ and ‘The One and Only Ivan‘ are emotional, based on real experience, humane and linger long after the stories have ended;
‘Journey to the River Sea‘ by Eva Ibbotson is one of the few stories (another is a Kate Di Camillo title) that I read aloud to a class more than once. It deserves its status as a classic children’s book. I have read it aloud, successfully, to children aged from 7;
‘The Journey‘ by Francesca Sanna- (the first ever picture book winner of the UKLA Book Award for 7- 11 year olds)- the story of a refugee family in picture book form calls for families to read and appreciate this beautiful interpretation of a modern-day tragedy, together;
The same subject is dealt with subtly, honestly and movingly in Jo Cotterill’s masterly, ‘Looking at the Stars‘ which I recommend as a read aloud for listeners aged from 10;
‘A Monster Calls‘ by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay, from a story originated by Siobhan Dowd- ideal for children aged from 9 years to hear;
‘Bridge to Terabithia‘ by Katherine Paterson, a Newbery Medal winner, a stunning story, recommended for listeners aged from 8 years;
‘Mostly Mary‘ and ‘Always Mary‘ are Clara Vulliamy’s reprised editions of Gwynned Rae’s much loved stories of the small orphan bear in Berne Zoo;
Scientist Nicola Davies has created a diverting non-fiction read aloud in ‘Animals Behaving Badly‘ which fascinated me, and would be enjoyed by all the family, with members aged from 5 years;
Readers aged from seven would love sharing ‘The Cat Who Came In Off the Roof‘ by former Dutch laureate, Annie M.G. Schmidt. This is warm, funny and entirely original storytelling, recommended for listeners aged from 6 or 7 years;
My 11 year-old goddaughter loved hearing Miriam Halahmy’s ‘The Emergency Zoo‘ which offered her a subject that she would have been intimidated by as an independent reading choice. She and her mother love the story;
Christopher Edge has been one of my great discoveries. He cannot write fast enough for me. Both of his titles, the recent ‘The Jamie Drake Equation’ and ‘The Many Worlds of Albie Bright’ are ideal to read together, talk about and love during, and beyond, a summer holiday.I suggest they fit best with readers from 9 years old;
Older readers are directed toward the incomparable Kate Di Camillo. Every one of her stories is a superb summer read aloud (I speak from happy experience). These beg ‘summer holiday share’- please! Readers from 7 years old would enjoy hearing these outstanding books;
M.G. Leonard, and Mark Huckerby and Nick Ostler have hits on their hands with their exceptional series- ‘Beetle Boy‘ and ‘Defender of the Realm’ respectively. Both are ideal for readers from 9 years old to hear and enjoy;
For those lucky enough to take day trips, a dose of ‘All Aboard the London Bus’ by Anglophile Patricia Toht and Sam Usher is a superlative accompaniment, with a wonderful array of poetry to support and expand the experience;
If you are at home, and looking for something to dip into that is a quality title to keep for years, to share, read and love, please do not look past Jane Ray’s traditional tale collections, from ‘The Emperor’s Nightingale and Other Feathery Tales’ to ‘The Little Mermaid and Other Fishy Tales’ Jane Ray is an exacting story crafter, from her painstaking illustrations, which demonstrate her original training as a ceramicist, to her carefully collated stories . These books are unctuous (in a coffee way!);
‘Pax‘ is a hard and disconcerting title. Sara Pennypacker pulls no punches in this story of a boy forced to give up his tamed fox. We watch them both struggle in new, unknown worlds;
‘The Reluctant Journal of Henry K Larsen‘ by Susin Nielsen was a surprise winner of the 12-16 year old age group at the 2017 UKLA awards. It is a difficult subject that could easily seem exploitative in the wrong hands. It is all the better for being read aloud. I suggest this book is better suited to readers aged from 11, with a parent sharing the reading.
Finally, the great Marilyn Brocklehurst, owner operator of the Norfolk Children’s Book Centre, and national librarian, suggests that you read to your child until they ask you to stop. Reading together is not something to abandon once your child ‘can’ read, but something to be cherished that is good for all the reasons outlined. Marilyn Brocklehurst’s perfectly normal, functioning, academic son, was read to until he was 14.
We know that children who are really reading independently and meaningfully hear the story when they read. Do you? When you read, what do you experience? Ask your young readers, and then, make the most of the forthcoming summer holiday that they may hear your voice.
It has been a pleasure to speak with families this week looking for recommendations specific to their children. We welcome your enquiries; please email or call. Bronnie