Reading with young children, pre-readers, is both necessary and a delight. Fiction for children is necessary because it is an early gateway to independent reading and because it builds empathy. There is an obligation to the individual and to our society to develop literacy in young people. This is the argument of Neil Gaiman in his lecture Reading and Obligation for the Reading Agency in October 2013. You can read his lecture in full on the Reading Agency website, here.
‘The simplest way to raise literate children is to teach them to read, and to show them that reading is a pleasurable activity.’ Gaiman argues in favour of all reading, including comics, Enid Blyton and so-called ‘escapist’ fiction. ‘Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing.’ Anything they want to read will help them onto ‘the reading ladder’ and up, rung by rung into literacy. He makes a strong case for protecting libraries as well.
His argument about building empathy is also strong. Reading is different from action on screens, which happens to other people, in this respect, because it depends on the reader’s imagination. Further:
Fiction can show you a different world. It can take you somewhere you have never been. Once you’ve visited other worlds, like those who ate fairy fruit, you can never be entirely content with the world that you grew up in. Discontent is a good thing: discontented people can modify and improve their worlds, leave them better, leave them different.
Extending Gaiman’s points, I argue that reading with pre-readers is a powerful way to build social bonds. It is necessarily a social activity, full of emotional and physical closeness. A few days ago, at their request I read some classic stories to my two grandsons. The older one is five years old and on the edge of reading, and at the end of each story he took pleasure and pride in matching pictures to words: bear, porridge, chair, Goldilocks… The younger one, who is two, fell asleep with his head on my arm. His brother and I shared conspiratorial smiles at this. They have both been enjoying books since they were just weeks old.
It is one of the chief pleasures of reading to share it with someone else, through a blog, in conversation with friends, in book groups and – in my case – with my grandsons. There was a time when they preferred different books. The picture above makes me smile as I attempted to appease the tastes of both boys. No wonder I look so awfully tired.
Reading to the very young crosses generations, and I have a much-loved sequence of photographs of my mother reading to her great-grandson. The book is The Lighthouse Keeper’s Lunch by Ronda Armitage. The photograph was taken a couple of years ago, but we still love reading it. We love Hamish the cat’s resistance to entering the basket, which will mean an aerial flight over the sea to the lighthouse. Hamish’s job is to keep the seagulls off the wonderful lunch prepared by Mrs Grindling. We love listing the contents of Mr Grindling’s lunchbasket and shouting CLEAR OFF, YOU VARMINTS! with Mr Grindling as the seagulls steal every bit.
The older one has begun enjoying longer stories with chapters, like the BFG, or Paddington Bear. The younger one loves being read to, and is not that bothered what it is. Here he is with Mog by Judith Kerr, which appeals to his love of books and cats. I used to read Mog to his mother. Mog is another delightful (but dim) cat.
I can see ahead years and years of reading aloud, of giving books, of sitting with books, and of hearing each of them discovering that they can do it on their own. For me, part of the pleasure is discovering that even over two or three generations we can share our tastes: for favourites such as the Three Bears, Mog, The BFG, and for new favourites such as It’s a Book! By Lane Smith or 365 penguins by Jean-Luc Fromental. (Thank you Anne P for suggesting this big book, which delights us with numbers as the collection of penguins grows by one more penguin every day for a whole year.)
Here is a brief list of some of my current favourites from among the books I like reading with them.
Anything by Anthony Browne because his images allow you to enter strange but familiar worlds. My Dad was a favourite until it fell apart.
Where the wild things are. Maurice Sendak
Roald Dahl’s The BFG, which was one of my daughter’s favourite reads.
Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson and pictures by Axel Scheffler. Be careful what you invent because it might just turn out to be true!
You can see that we share a taste for humour, cats, anthropomorphic animals and good illustrations.
Here’s a link to the Booktrust’s list of Our 100 best children’s books. Lots of people pointed out omissions and some will have voted for their favourites. Have you any suggestions for me to read with the boys? After all Christmas is coming and although it is true that a book’s not just for Christmas, it’s for life, the gift of a book is always a good one.