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spires from Carfax

reading at age five

These book updates now cover the books Helen is reading herself (with a bit of support) as well as the books I am reading to her.

Helen is steadily getting both better at and keener on reading herself. She will happily read short bits of text in any quantity: book and chapter titles, street signs, menus, and so forth, and she's gone back to baby books such as The Gruffalo Little Library, Snowy Animals and Rosie's Walk. And (with a bit of support) she's read early readers such as The Fire Cat, The Runaway Pancake (lent to her by her teacher) and some of the Frog and Toad stories, and even a short chapter book The Chocolate Monster. (At school she's finished the twenty little pamphlet-books that the children are working through at their own pace, and they are now giving her short early readers.) At the moment, spurning my plan to finish the Frog and Toad stories, she's insisting on tackling picture books such as Good Dragon, Bad Dragon (an old favourite) and Extra Yarn (a birthday present), even though these are significantly harder than the early readers.

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I've mentioned Frog and Toad several times in this blog already! They're the first books I'd recommend as early readers (though I was reading them to Helen for a long time before she started reading herself). There's a lovely hardcover with all four books (twenty short stories altogether) for under £9 from Wordery and, for background, an essay on them in The Atlantic.)

I plan to keep reading to Helen as long as she wants me to, partly because it's expanding my own horizons and taking me back to old pastures and partly because I experience some material (most obviously poetry) in a different way when I read it out aloud to her.

We've been rereading our favourite versions of the Greek myths (books by Coats, the D'Aulaires, and Lupton/Morden/Henaff), along with bits of Diane Rayor's translation The Homeric Hymns, but have also diversified. We read Joyce Tyldesley's Stories From Ancient Egypt followed by Roger Lancelyn Green's Tales of Ancient Egypt. I read five versions of Gilgamesh myself and between chunks of those - the verse versions are much better when read aloud - Helen got good coverage of the story. We enjoyed the Michael Morpurgo Beowulf. And we read With A Mighty Hand: The Story in the Torah, a really nice reworking of the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures (Old Testament). We enjoyed Grace Lin's Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, but Helen didn't want to start When the Sea Turned to Silver (I have this as an ebook on my phone, for a rainy day).

More traditional children's fare hasn't been neglected. We've read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and George's Marvelous Medicine and I'm not sure what the next Road Dahl will be but we have a big boxed set that should keep us going for some time. We've listened to Winnie-the-Pooh and read The House at Pooh Corner and are midway through the book of poetry When We Were Very Young (we also went to a great Winnie-the-Pooh exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum). And we're still reading and rereading shorter chapter and picture books as well: old ones such as It Might be An Apple and sequels as well as new ones such as The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark and Princess Mirror-Belle and the Dragon Pox.

Camilla buys most of the non-fiction for Helen and tends to read more of that with her, so she will know what the best dinosaur and space books are. But one fun natural history book I've read with Helen is Poo: A Natural History of the Unmentionable. I liked this so much I've bought the other five books in Nicola Davies' Animal Science series.

One morning when Helen refused to come out from under the bedcovers, I grabbed the nearest book and started reading it to her, to try to stop her going back to sleep. That was Walter Burkert's Greek Religion, and she liked that so much she insisted on more of it when she woke up the next day. So I've taken to regularly reading her short bits of the (non-fiction) books I'm reading myself. Sometimes that just leaves her bemused, but usually I can find something that appeals to her: we've had an account of the great 1953 flood from The Dutch and their Delta, a discussion of the Italian proclivity for diminutives from Lingo, and from Spell it Out an explanation of how Anglo-Saxon scribes marked vowel length in new words from French and Latin. (I haven't tried reading Helen any of the novels I'm reading: while I'm happy to try abridging and/or explaining bits of Jonathan Israel's The Dutch Republic, how would I go about doing that with W.G. Sebald or Elfriede Jelinek?)

photo I'm not under any illusion that Helen is actually going to remember any of this! (Possibly some of the history of English spelling, since that connects to something salient in her life, namely learning to read and write.) But if she wants to know about my books it's an interesting challenge for me to try to find suitable bits to read to her, and in some cases rework for her. And she might pick up the general idea that there's nothing scary about complex language and specialist books.

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