Top Ten Bedtime Stories
Bedtime stories are vitally important in the same way as sitting round a table for family meals is vitally important. It's part of the unspoken dialogue between family members, part of the glue that binds, an essential part of that long and slow journey to figure out what it is to be human. It also defines the simple notion that reading is essentially a force for good, is enjoyable, and is a habit worth forming. The golden age of bedtime stories ranges from almost nought to about eight, when the act of reading is moved from parent to child. I've found the most productive time for reading aloud is about the six-year-old mark, where children can figure out more complex plots, and we've made the move to 'chapter books' with multiple characters and plots that while not overtly complex, certainly carry subtle and important ideas. This is my random top ten, in rough age order.
1: More Pants by Giles Andrea and Nick Sharratt. Like Godfather Part II, this was better better than the original - unsurprisingly titled Pants. For all those publishers who insist that children's books shouldn't rhyme (to make foreign sales more easy, it is claimed) all I can say is: Pants! Rhyming in children's books is, while not essential, important. It makes them readable, and easier to remember. More Pants has a complex and delightful verse-form that ensure the words peel off the page: 'Arty Pants, Party Pants, Black Belt in Karate Pants'. My daughter could 'read' this book by memory long before she could actually read. Oh, and in case you're interested, the book is about the different sorts of pants people wear. It's that simple.
2: Bear in the Air by Benedict Blathwayt. One of a series of exquisitely drawn picture books for younger children, the 'Bear' series follows the adventures of our stuffed hero through a series of dangers, threats, traumas and mishaps that must have kept Bear in therapy for a very long time, or might suggest that Mr Blathwayt wasn't too keen on him. In any event, bear's adventures being carried away by balloon, drifting out to sea, sinking to the bottom of the ocean and lord knows what else allows us a clear and vivid picture of an idyllic world out of doors, seen from different viewpoints. The wealth in the meticulously drawn pictures allows vast scope for discussion, pointing and discovery. Also highly recommended: the Bramble series, about a helpful yet independently thinking cow.
3: The Little House by Virginia Lee Burton. This story by the American writer/Illustrator is quite rightly viewed as a classic across the pond, along with her other tour de force, Mike Mulligan's Steam Shovel, but is little known over here. This has been a Fforde bedtime staple for over four decades, and has never failed to delight. Children like the same stories quite often, night after night, and the simple story of a little House living on a small hill surrounded by apple trees, does get asked for quite a lot. We like this book because it graphically illustrates the passage of time, and views the same place through the seasons, then with the march of technology and the encroachment of urbanisation - and the loss of simple things, like not being able to see the stars because of the glow from street-lamps. A childhood is incomplete without at least one reading.
4: The Cat in the Hat by Theodore Geisel 'Dr Seuss'. I could mention several titles by Dr Seuss but will plump for this one, probably his best known. Dr Seuss's work is quite simply bursting with invention, and his unique view of the world - of strange creatures with strange names doing utterly strange things is both surprising and wonderful. In this first outing for the eponymous Cat, he attempts - with varying success - to have fun while the children's mother is out. The chaos escalates to near total destruction, but is luckily remedied before adults and normality returns. Psychologists would doubtless read all sorts of interesting stuff into Cat in the Hat, but to be honest, it's just chaotic fun with a capital F.
5: Okay, I admit it, I wasn't totally swept off my feet by the Gruffalo, but writer Julia Donaldson and illustrator Axel Schaffer are a formidable team, and I'll place three of theirs as one choice here, all of which are excellent: Tiddler, The Stick Man and Tabby McTat. Tiddler is the story of a fish who always makes up some bizarre reason why he is late for school, but then gets caught in a net - shock, horror - and finds his way home by the trail left by his own stories. Perfect construction, a brilliant idea, and for early listeners, the notion of a plot - and a push at the fourth wall to end with. Inspired.
6: Winnie the Pooh is an obvious choice, and much has been written about 'the bear with very little brain', but have you tried AA Milne's books of poetry, Now We Are Six and When We Were Very Young ? All of the poems are delightful, but several deserve special mention: Disobedience, about a small child and the difficulties in looking after wayward mothers who will insist on going down to the end of town without assistance, Bad Sir Bryan Botany, whose aggressive tendencies toward fellow villagers leave him bruised and battered and wet when he gets a rude taste of his own medicine, and naturally enough, The King's Breakfast, a small drama about a dairymaid, an Alderney (it's a cow, in case you're wondering) and a king, who wants some cream on his porridge - but the order has to go down the chain of command as a king, quite rightly, can't speak directly to a cow.
7: The Tailor of Gloucester by Beatrix Potter. My favourite of a series of books that while many are a bit twee, others show considerable depth. This remains one of our favourites, and is a simple retelling of the cobblers and the elves. A more lyrical and darker story than Potter's usual, it is full of atmosphere and features a cat - Simpkin - who is portrayed as realistically as a cat as you might find anywhere: self-centred, and not at all pleasant (I'm a dog person, as you can surely guess). The image on the final panel, that of a note from the tailoring mice explaining that they couldn't finish the last buttonhole as there was 'no more twist' has entered Fforde lexicon meaning 'a job not completed through no fault of your own'.
8: Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling. Another book of great tales that has fallen off parent's radar of late, the collection (penned in 1902, and none the worse for that) are by turns exceptionally well told, contain an English that is delightfully eloquent and full of quotes that instantly find you back in the stories: 'Down on the banks of the Great Grey-Green greasy Limpopo river, all set about with fever-trees'. If you've never Rudyarded before, this is a great opportunity to share some of the magic - from an over inquisitive Elephant's Child to the pride of a butterfly, this book has it all.
9: Several series in at number nine, all equally good, and listed here as chapter books for advanced readers. The Moomintroll series by Tove Jansson. Bizarre, plot-driven stories about small creatures that look a little like hippos but walk on two legs. Proves that Finns are very bit as charmingly odd as we suspected. The Narnia Series by C.S. Lewis. Good for kids, good for adults. If you've not been here since your own childhood. Much applauded, and for good reason. Don't be put off by the quasi-religious messages! The Paddington Books by Michael Bond. Much better in print than on the TV, where his character is somewhat simplified, Paddington is the anthropomorphised animal to beat all other anthropomorphised animals. Delightfully positive and upbeat about everything, Paddington is the Pollyanna of UK children's literature. Oh, and the films are great - especially when they aced 'the stare'.
10: Almost anything by Roald Dahl would be the last of my choices, and it's difficult to pick out a book that defines a genre that is at all times charming, mildly seditious, full of wicked adults, savvy kids and and fools getting their comeuppance - a winning combination if ever there was one. Fantastic Mr Fox is as good a place to start as any, and the wonderful things about Dahl books is the simplicity of the prose, the ease of reading aloud (not always as easy a task as one might imagine) and their dark humour. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory would be a good follow-up, followed by the BFG and eventually, when your teenager are reading on their own, a copy of Tales of the Unexpected left in clear view by their bedside. It will be devoured as eagerly as Matilda.
Blast! I forgot The Tiger Who came to Tea, which by long Fforde tradition has a Sean Connery voice for the tiger, and also not mentioned is the original Mr Men books, The Adventure of the Little Wooden Horse, Gobbolino the Witches Cat, Lotta, My Naughty Little Sister, The Borrowers, Mrs Pepperpot, The Worst Witch, Stig of the Dump, The Red Balloon, Billy's Beetle, Tintin, Mog, .. and so on. So many stories, so few evenings. Before you know it, they're at university.