Top 10 Books to Read Aloud
The Guardian has posted a top 10 list of good books to read aloud to children. In my household, this was a big hit. My mum is a huge nerd (in the most wonderful way), and her theatrical performances of voices, rhymes and stories at bed time were a favourite treat. One of the books I most clearly remember her reading to me was Hand, Hand, Fingers, Thumb by Al Perkins. It was rhythmic, and about monkeys drumming, and my mum would often be moved to stand up from the bed and dance around with an imaginary drum.
Hand, hand, fingers, thumb.
Dum-diddy, dum-diddy, dum-dum-dum.
One hand, two hands, drumming on a drum.
Dum-diddy, dum-diddy, dum-dum-dum.
The illustrations were marvelous – bohemian, beatnik-looking monkeys who looked they belonged in coffee houses rather than jungles or even zoos. And sure, I learned that we can use our hands for drumming, picking fruit, wearing rings, and much more. But my mother’s voice, cadence and enthusiasm of reading it aloud to me is what I remember most.
Here’s the Guardian’s list:
Peepo! by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
The nigh-on perfect picturebook for very young children. Memorably repetitive and rhythmical text, circular peepholes to anticipate what comes next and pictures packed with sly detail. One of the many things I admire in the Ahlbergs is that they understood that children are visually literate long before they are textually so; that simple language does not necessitate simple illustration. Janet’s illustrations stimulate close observation, conjecture, discussion; thus a book of few words becomes a shared and rich reading experience.
Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
My three fun-loving criminals were delighted by a character who helps himself to what he fancies and gets away with it. For quite some time, the words, “That’s a nice hat/ball/fishfinger, I’ll have that!” introduced various uproars in our household. In the end, of course, Bill gives everything back and goes straight. As did we, more or less.
The Lorax by Dr Seuss
It’s never too soon for a parable about deforestation and its consequences. Or for messing about with language. This is the tale of the regretful old Once-ler, whose capitalist greed led him to fell a fine forest of Truffula trees and use their soft tufts to knit useless Thneeds. (Very infectious, is Dr. Seuss.) Lovely, rubbery, rhythmical language, and a message you can’t argue with. Good to have your children marching up to bed chanting, “I am the Lorax! I speak for the trees!”
Stanley Bagshaw and the Mafeking Square Cheese Robbery, written and illustrated by Bob Wilson
So memorable is the rhyming text of this one that, before too long, all I had to do was hold up the book and the children would recite it.
The BFG by Roald Dahl
Like many adults, I’m ambivalent towards Dahl; like most children, mine weren’t. I was leery about Dahl’s lickspittle portrayal of HM the Queen in this story – was he angling for a knighthood, perhaps? – but it’s a great read-aloud, largely because of the word-mangling voice of the Big Friendly Giant and the genuine scariness of the Fleshlumpeaters (described with characteristic relish). The farting is a major plus, of course. For several weeks, everything my kids drank became frobscottle and they devoted themselves to defying gravity by means of turbocharged flatulence. A book to read with the windows open.
Wolf Pie by Andrew Matthews
Food, especially mad food, always goes down well in book form. In Matthews’s story (illustrated in lively fashion by Tony Ross) the king and queen, like plutocratic Hong Kong gourmands, demand continual culinary novelty. Their exhausted chefs quail. (“Quail?? Had that! Had that!”) Eventually a young underchef teams up with a band of wolves to provide the fat tyrants with a bite more than they can chew. A short, taut and funny book with some splendid writing. One of my favourite bits is when a bunch of runaway chefs (what’s the collective noun for chefs, I wonder?) take refuge in a tree, where they hang like sad pale fruit. “Isn’t that a great image?” I’d say. To which the kids would reply, “Shut up, Dad, and get on with the story.” Respect …
The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
A must on any list. Grahame’s masterpiece has been rerendered (and frequently travestied and cheapened) in so many forms that it’s easy to forget how literary and magical a text the original is. Yes, it’s occasionally arch, self-indulgent, even child-unfriendly, but this adult reader almost always found some new little nugget of irony, a felicitous phrase, an unsuspected insight to enjoy. I love particularly the immensely long sentence, recapitulating English history, that follows Toad being given an immensely long sentence for reckless driving and cheek. (How deliciously these ideas coil in upon themselves!) My children liked to challenge me to read that passage without drawing breath; I never could. Regrettably, I was usurped as a reader aloud of the book by Alan Bennett’s peerless audio version. Tom fell asleep to it well into his teens. Sometimes I snuck into his bedroom to listen, to sink into the story’s pillowy dangers and relish the cheek of Bennett giving Toad the voice of Tom Stoppard.
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
We used the Gollancz edition with the beautiful illustrations – paintings, actually – by NC Wyeth. On the first reading I overdid the “Oooh-arr me hearties” piratical voice, on the grounds that if you can’t camp things up reading to your children at bedtime there’s no point going on. Then I realised that Long John was much more sinister, or sinisterly sympathetic, if you tone him down; if you make him almost kindly. This is another classic that has become overfamiliar in other media; the original is rather rich in moral ambiguities, and sometimes discussions of these took us dangerously close to the Ten O’Clock News.
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Yes, we did read this at Christmas for several years. It was a ritual; I make no apologies. Quite the opposite: it would be a good thing if Rowan Williams, the archbish, gave up reminding us that Christmas is about the birth of our Redeemer rather than shopping and instead urged all people of good will to gather under the Christmas tree with A Christmas Carol. Sadly, my spirited reading was supplanted by the Muppets’ video version. No, not sadly, actually. The Muppet Christmas Carol is brilliant, Rowan. Honest.
Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
The other Dickens novel that children are most likely to enjoy. Mind you, you’ll do well to get through it in under a month. I could never be an actor. I’m too easily embarrassed. I do like doing voices, though, and Dickens – an actor manqué himself – writes great voices. If time travel were an option in the Guardian travel supplement, I’d pay good money to be in an audience when Dickens was reading. I’d like to know how well he managed the myriad voices he deploys in his books. I was pretty good but inconsistent. “Dad,” Lauren would complain, “this is the Artful Dodger. You’re doing Nancy.” The strange thing (in the sense of “not funny at all”) is that Oliver Twist, a story about abandoned and unloved children resorting to street crime in order to survive, seems urgently contemporary.