A book at beach time
Summer holidays are a perfect opportunity to get children hooked on reading. Sue Palmer shows how and, below, recommends some titles
Thursday 20 July 1995
For many parents, though, the first problem is how to get children started. With increasing competition from the electronic quick-fix media, the more leisurely joys of reading are sometimes difficult to promote.
The first rule is: don't aim too high too soon. The parents of a child I taught were so keen to turn him on to literature that they locked him in his bedroom for half an hour every evening with a copy of Treasure Island. I don't think he's voluntarily read a single word since.
Besides, in summertime the reading should be easy. Just as adults choose comfort reading for the beach, children are most likely to be attracted by their age-group's populist equivalent. The obvious choices are the old favourites - Roald Dahl, Judy Blume, Willard Price, dear old Enid Blyton - if that's what turns them on.
A lot of people sneer at Blyton, but she continues to be popular because she wrote what beginner-readers like: simple, child-friendly stories in restricted vocabulary. So don't worry if she seduces your children for a while: once they've built up fluency and stamina, you can lead them gently on to better things.
Matching books to readers - especially reluctant readers - is not easy. I once conducted lengthy research with a school-full of children and found "funny books" easily topped the list. Animal stories, adventure and sport figured highly, with poetry surprisingly popular, but the most salutary finding was an anonymous note left on top of my questionnaires: "We like thin books best."
Better even than thin books, of course, is letting your child choose his or her own holiday reading - and not minding if it's not to your taste. Many children, especially boys, prefer non-fiction to fiction; many cut their reading teeth on comic books, joke collections and "spoof" books such as The Spy's Handbook and the Horrible Histories. The choose-your- own-plot Fighting Fantasy series is popular with older boys. And many children turn into readers by devouring series of books - usually rather downmarket stuff - such as the Babysitter books (female) and the Hardy Boys (male) for nine-year-olds and the ever-increasing list of Point Horror, Point Crime, etc for 10 years and upwards.
The second rule is: provide opportunities. This largely means luring your child away from the TV, video and computer games, and it is where the fair-weather advantages of the great outdoors, far from plugs and hardware, are obvious. If it's wet, you'll just have to pray for boring schedules, or impose time-limits on screen-gazing ... or there is always sabotage (a friend of mine once removed the fuse from the TV plug, claimed a breakdown and said the repair men couldn't make it till a week on Wednesday).
The third rule is: don't expect your child to become a reader overnight. Stumbling, unconfident readers seldom pick up books voluntarily, and if they think you want them to, they are even less likely to oblige. But you can pick up a book and read to them, and this is the surest way I've found of hooking children on books.
Read the first couple of chapters, or the first few poems. Chat about it. Have the book lying around while you stop reading (reluctantly, of course) to do something else, and see if your child is sufficiently motivated to pick it up and try taking over. But if this doesn't happen, don't worry. Pick up the book again and read some more. When you finish that one, start another. Some children are happy to split the reading - a page or so each, or reading stretches of dialogue, like a play - which is a good way of easing the transition from listening to solo reading.
As a way of sharing quality time with children, reading to them beats everything. It's a rare child who can resist the opportunity to cuddle up and partake in (a) a story and (b) their favourite adult's highly focused attention. From the adult's point of view, a book can be a delightful medium for getting to know your child better, and a stimulus for exchanging opinions. I was once sustained through reading a ghastly Famous Five story to my daughter by the fascinating discussions it inspired, ranging from sexism, racism and classism to whether food really does taste better in the open air.
Once children are interested in books and can see the pleasures to be had, it is a natural reaction for them to want to gain access for themselves. So if the material you provide is easy and enticing, the lure should eventually prove strong enough.
But don't let that stop you reading. Even competent readers love being read to, and once they can manage the easy books, you can move them on to books at the next level of difficulty - familiarising them in advance with more sophisticated story-lines, more demanding language, more complex characters. This is the way to turn competent readers into fully fledged readers. While they practise walking with the Babysitters, Hardy Boys, Blyton or Dahl, you hold their hand and show them how to run!
The writer is a former primary headteacher, and general editor of the Longman Book Project.
S o, what will they enjoy? Here are our suggestions. An asterisk means the book is part of a collection chosen for the age range. Other books in the same collection are also recommended. Good readers may enjoy titles for the next age group up.
Allan Ahlberg: It Was A Dark and Stormy Night, Bye Bye Baby, Burglar Bill, Funnybones, Mrs Plug the Plumber (and other Happy Families books), Puffin
Jill Bennett (ed): Bags of Poems (two poetry books), Picture Corgi
June Counsel: But Martin, Picture Corgi
John Cunliffe: Postman Pat's Wet Day, etc, Deutsch
Adele Geras: Gilly the Kid, MacDonald (Yellow Storybook collection*)
Jill Murphy: Five Minutes' Peace, All In One Piece, A Quiet Night In, Walker
Michael Rosen: You Can't Catch Me, Mini Beasties, Puffin (poems)
Edward Lear: The Owl and The Pussycat, Walker
Leon Rosselson: Swim, Sam, Swim, Puffin (Ready, Steady, Read series*)
Martin Waddell: Going West, Puffin, Little Dracula books, Walker
Allan Ahlberg: Please Mrs Butler and Heard it in the Playground, Puffin (poems)
Michael Bond: Paddington's Disappearing Trick and others, Young Lions
Tony Bradman: Adventure on Skull Island, Puffin (Young Puffin Story Book series*)
Nicholas Fisk: The Telly Is Watching You, MacDonald (Red Storybook series*)
Dick King-Smith: The Hodgeheg, Puffin, Sophie's Snail, Walker
Colin McNaughton: There's an Awful Lot of Weirdos in our Neighbourhood, Walker (poems)
Bel Mooney: I Don't Want To and other Kitty books, Mammoth
Michaela Morgan: Pickles Sniffs It Out, A &C Black (Jumbo Jets series*)
Michael Morpurgo: Mossop's Last Chance, Young Lions (Jets series*)
Michael Rosen: Horribly Silly Stories, Kingfisher
Tony Bradman: Fantastic Space Stories and A Bag of Sports Stories, Doubleday/Corgi
Andrew Davies: Marmalade Atkins, Magnet, and Conrad's War, Hippo
Anne Fine: Bill's New Frock, Crummy Mummy and Me, Puffin
Jean George: My Side of the Mountain, Puffin
Ted Hughes: The Iron Man, Faber & Faber
Ann Jungman: Wad the Drac books
Brian Patten: Gargling with Jelly and other collections of poetry, Puffin
Ian Serraillier: The Silver Sword, Puffin
Jacqueline Wilson: Cliffhanger, The Suitcase Kid, The Bed and Breakfast Star, Corgi Yearling
David Henry Wilson: Elephants Don't Sit On Cars and other Jeremy James books, Piper
Malone Blackman: Not So Stupid - Incredible Short Stories, Livewire Books
Robert Cormier: I Am The Cheese, After the First Death, etc, Lions Tracks*
Anne Fine: Goggle Eyes, Madame Doubtfire, Flour Babies, Puffin
Paula Danziger: It's an Aardvaark Eat Turtle World, The Cat Ate My Gymsuit, Piper
Joan Lingard: The Twelfth Day of July and other books, Puffin Plus*
Jan Mark: Nothing to Be Afraid Of, Puffin
Roger McGough (ed): Comic Verse, Kingfisher, Strictly Private, Puffin (poetry)
Mildred D Taylor: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry, Puffin Teenage*
Robert Westall: The Devil on the Road, Puffin Teenage
Paul Zindel: The Pigman, Red Fox.
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