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book update, approaching four

Books + Ideas, Children, — November 2016

An update on the books I've been reading with Helen.

One big find has been the Jenny Linsky books, dating back to 1944 but reissued in lovely hardcovers by New York Review Books (with black, white and some red and yellow illustrations). We started with Jenny and the Cat Club, which consists of five stories of 32 pages each (but mostly text, so longer than similar length picture books). These stories describe how Jenny, a little black cat who lives in New York, deals with various social problems and insecurities: being accepted by the local cat club, coping with additions to the family (her adopted brothers), going to a party and being left out, and having a favourite possession stolen. I think they'd be accessible to anyone old enough to have a feel for that kind of social logic. We've also read Jenny Goes to Sea, which is 140 pages long but has episodic chapters and a single story arc.

In an attempt to compete with the multi-modal assault of Disney (Frozen) and Peppa Pig, I found a My Neighbor Totoro picture book. This offers stills from the movie, with quite nicely done text. It is moderately long - more illustration than text, but still 192 pages - and covers pretty much the whole film, but we read through it in four or five sessions. Not recommended unless you've seen the film, however: while it's a nice enough book, the film is something really special. With similar motivation, we've almost finished our second chapter book (we read The Iron Man quite a long time ago), the Moomin novel Moominsummer Madness. Helen is enjoying this, but its vocabulary and plotting are quite complex and I think we might have a break before going on to the next one. I've also bought the other two Moomin picture books, Who Will Comfort Toffle? and The Dangerous Journey, to go with The Book about Moomin, Mymble and Little My. These are a bit more accessible. (We also have some of the reworked and adapted Moomin picture books, for even younger children.)

Following a Lake District visit, and in conjunction with audio CDs listened to in the car, the Beatrix Potter stories have taken on a renewed life (The Pie and the Patty-Pan is a favourite), and we bought a lovely Complete Tales to replace the ten book set we had. We're still enjoying the Frog and Toad stories, and a number of other Arnold Lobel story collections: Mouse Soup, Owl at Home, Grasshopper on the Road, Mouse Tales and so forth. And I keep an Ant and Bee omnibus at work, for when I take Helen to visit there.

There's been a revival of interest in the Madeline stories, after a gap so long she seemed almost to have forgotten them (her favourite now is the first story, Madeline, where before her favourite was Madeline and the Rescue). And she clearly understands now that Paris is a real place which we can visit (she's been, but was too young to remember it). I plan to go back to Paddington (another recently neglected favourite) again too, perhaps using the picture books (with the R.W. Alley illustrations) alongside the full-length stories.

Lest anyone think I curate Helen's reading completely, that's by no means the case! She picks books from the library (and to buy) herself, often ones I don't think much of. A favourite for a while, for example, was a charity-shop acquisition A Crocodile for Billy, a didactic story published by Lloyds Bank about the importance of saving money (to allow deferred spending). And we still read a lot of easy picture books - current favourites include the Tilly stories by Polly Dunbar, Jane Hissey's Ruby and the Naughty Cats, and a recent gift of one of Jill Murphy's Mr Large books. She also reads books at preschool, and people give her books. The reason I put some effort into selecting books for Helen is not because I think she'll notice the difference, or that it will have some kind of mysterious influence on her later literary development, but largely because I have to read these books multiple times, and I'd rather reread Beatrix Potter or Tove Jansson (even in translation) than unnamed bank ghostwriters.

Next: book update at four


  1. I'm glad you found Ant and Bee! I did look for it some time ago, but in bookshops not via computers. You loved it and we read it daily for ages.

    Comment by Peter Krinks — December 2016
  2. At this age, the books Helen is exposed to may not have any "mysterious" influence on her literary development. But I found that by age 6-7 this became a concern. For example, Lego produces story books of such intensely low textual quality that reading them aloud feels like having styrofoam in your mouth, and the "multi-modal assault" meant the demand for these books threatened to displace any others. When you start to hear elements of the Lego book register in your child's speech, you realise how much they are absorbing. My primary motivation for guiding text choice is, like yours, the avoidance of personal exposure to oral styrofoam, but concern for literary development isn't entirely misplaced either.

    Comment by Mark L — December 2016
  3. Yes, by six I suspect children are already developing something of a style. And possibly a feeling for prosody develops even earlier. I simply refuse to read some things to Helen (I've told her Peppa Pig is "too oinky") and once she can read herself I might get stricter about this - reading to her needs to be something we both enjoy!

    I was expecting to borrow more books from the library and buy fewer, but the council library's holdings are not actually that good. It doesn't help that the main library is operating in a tiny temporary space, and it is perhaps skewed by the better books (and the classics) being out on loan more, but there seem to be an enormous number of books that are just pedestrian, even if not actually styrofoam.

    But I'm going to try not to get too worried by bad books, I can remember reading a huge amount of fairly low-grade material as a child. In primary school I pretty much worked my way through the library's entire holdings, and in high school I read almost every book in Chatswood Library that had a red spot "fantasy and science fiction" marking.

    Comment by danny — December 2016

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