Jayne Dowle: Hard choices for children opening up a new chapter in the world of reading

YOU’RE lucky if you have a child who will read anything, willingly and with genuine enthusiasm. My son, who is eight, has to be coaxed to engage with anything more taxing than a football magazine.

My five-year-old daughter, on the other hand, loves to discover new stories, and complains that her school reading books are “boring”. Mind you, her literature of choice at the moment is the Argos catalogue.

So I was interested to read new research from Dundee University which suggests that children are failing to achieve their potential in reading because they are choosing books which are too easy.

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And when you learn that The Very Hungry Caterpillar, a picture book aimed at toddlers, is apparently one of the favourite books amongst 14 to 16-year-old girls, you can see what those researchers mean.

That said, I wouldn’t dismiss anything as too easy for Jack. As long as he reads something independently before he drops off to sleep at night, I am happy. But pretty soon, he is getting a present. For as long as I can remember, I’ve given every eight-year-old I know a copy of Clive King’s Stig of the Dump.

It was a favourite of mine when I was eight, long before the recent television adaptation brought it alive for another generation. Our teacher read it out in class, and I loved it for the spirit of Barney, the shy little boy who discovers a caveman living in his local quarry.

Like all good books, it opened up the potential of exploring another world. So it probably tops my children’s “must-read” list, although I realise I am probably hopelessly out-of-touch.

The Dundee poll reveals that five of the six most popular books read by eight and nine-year-olds were by Roald Dahl, the big favourite being The Magic Finger.

I bet if your child’s school is having an event for World Book Day, at least two-thirds of the class will turn up dressed as either a character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Harry Potter.

Far be it from me to doubt the overwhelming popularity of either Roald Dahl or JK Rowling, but don’t you find their domination of the children’s book market, a little, well, boring? There are so many books out there, but all too often, parents and children opt for these two as the safest bet.

So what other books should your child read? Well, let’s begin at the beginning, with a book that brings alive the magic of language to the tiniest of babies – Good Night Moon, by Margaret Wise Brown.

This was the first book I read to my two, and I’m sure I could still recite those simple reassuring sentences that lulled them into sleep. We read it so much, our first copy fell to pieces. But I will treasure it for ever, its frayed pages stuck together with milk and rusk crumbs.

Again, for the sheer pleasure of the language, I’d also recommend any of the illustrated poems of veteran children’s author Shirley Hughes. And, it’s also more than 40 years old, but Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea should be on every bookshelf. Jack and Lizzie love it because it proves that even on the most ordinary day the most extraordinary things can happen.

But what next? Inevitably, as your child gets to seven or eight, you end up entering the great Enid Blyton debate. Should you embrace her, politically-incorrect eccentricities and all, or dismiss her as hopelessly old-fashioned? Well, if you want your child to grow up with a sense of adventure, I’ve yet to find an author who beats her.

There is a reason why kids still love The Famous Five, and it’s nothing to do with their parents waxing nostalgically about their own childhood favourites. And, if you’ve got a daughter, she should read at least one of the Malory Towers books. Okay, so I’m as guilty of nostalgia as the next parent, but reading Malory Towers was something of a landmark moment for me. For the first time ever, I realised that not all kids lived in terraced houses and walked to school.

A political awakening? Perhaps, but I didn’t recognise it as such at the time. I just enjoyed the stories. And I still like those vintage “girls books”, with their illustrations of hockey matches and jolly fourth-formers in plaits. In fact I found one in a second-hand bookshop recently, and was amazed at the complexity of the language.

I don’t know what those teenagers who favour The Very Hungry Caterpillar would make of them, but if you find one, give it to a girl near you. It certainly puts Jacqueline Wilson’s admirable Tracy Beaker – another must-read – into perspective.

And to give any teenager something to really think about, add in George Orwell’s 1984, and the saddest book I have ever read, Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo. This tale of a young soldier who questions the senselessness of the First World War made me cry from about page six. And I only read it last year.