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How to read to a six-year-old

Earlier this month my six-year-old daughter and I progressed to chapter books for her bedtime reading. We had dabbled with slim children’s chapter books involving fairies, princesses and ballerinas but now I’m reading what I would call proper books – namely Roald Dahl.

We started with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and then followed up with James and the Giant Peach, which was completed in three days during a snow-bound weekend. Last night we started Danny the Champion of the World. After reading the opening three chapters, I looked at my watch, saw it was 7.28pm and said “Right, that’s it – bedtime.” My daughter jumped at me, grabbed my shoulders and begged me to continue. I crumbled and carried on.

I love Roald Dahl and I’ve told my daughter he is one of the world’s most famous writers – she loves that fact. I love how he doesn’t sugarcoat anything in his books. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I had forgotten how vividly he describes the wretched starving state of Charlie’s poverty-stricken family. On the opening page of James and the Giant Peach, James’ parents are killed by an escaped rhino from London Zoo – after reading this sentence to my daughter I stopped, whispered the word ‘dead’ and drew my finger across my throat to ensure she fully understood that James had just been orphaned. She nodded calmly and we carried on. The deaths of James’ evil aunts are celebrated in James and the Giant Peach. On the opening page of Danny the Champion of the World, Danny explains that his mother died while he was a baby. Again, she didn’t even blink.

None of these dramatic events has affected my daughter. In fact, it’s the Scooby Doo movies that give her nightmares rather than Dahl’s tendency to give his young heroes miserable up-bringings.

The other beautiful thing about Dahl is the simplicity of his language. My daughter gave me more grief after I finally said that I would read no more of Danny the Champion of the World and I explained she should hurry up and learn to read herself. She is currently at a French immersion school (read Things White People Like to understand this better) and we’re teaching her to read in English at home.

I opened Danny at the bookmark and encouraged her to read the next paragraph, which she did slowly with a little help on the world ‘excitement.’ I explained that she could be reading this book very soon if she continues to practice. Dahl does not have a complex style of writing or use difficult language. He had a wonderful grasp of what children need from a book – practically and literally.

I don’t remember having his books to read to me but I do remember reading them myself at roughly eight, nine or 10. Frankly, it’s great fun to be reading them again because there are huge chunks that I simply can’t remember.

I got a very strange feeling when in James and the Giant Peach the peach floats over New York and the New Yorkers flee because they think it’s a huge bomb. Suddenly images of 9/11 was rushing through my head. Thankfully, that’s something my daughter has yet to discover. While I was reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I couldn’t help feeling the oompa loompas were being exploited and the factory probably didn’t meet the latest food safety regulations but I guess that’s adulthood.

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