Today I took my five year old to the local library where he was given a medal for completing his first summer reading challenge. I think it was one of his highlights of the school holidays and, seeing his proud and beaming little face, it was fairly high up on my list of memorable moments too – it makes my heart soar that he is such a bookworm and lover of words.
Bedtime stories are my favourite bit of a typical day. The remaining 23 ½ hours are unpredictable – breakfast, dinner, journeys in the car, going out for a walk - they all have the potential to be magic little moments or exasperating stretches of time but shared stories at the end of the day seem to cast some sort of spell. Two noisy, boisterous boys, who may have just drenched the bathroom with another game of tub pirates and followed on with a session of high-impact bed bouncing, slowly calm down as they realise it's time for tales.
It's the one time I know I will have both snuggled up to me, tucked in on either side. It may be a well-thumbed favourite where the boys join in as a chorus on final lines or the excitement of a new find brought home from the library or book shop.
The love for stories means we have audiobooks in the car (I have recently heard Alexander Armstrong read Chris Riddell's Wendel and the Robots more times than I care to remember ) and we make up stories, sometimes using story stones. A friend bought the boys a set of imagistones tailored for their tastes so we often have elaborate tales where Batman and Buzz Lightyear end up in the back of a police car with a diplodocus!
It is books that have the ability to transport them though. Research shows that reading aloud to children when they are very small helps with their brain development; building language, literacy and social-emotional skills. I wasn't thinking about this when I read to them as tiny babies, it was just something I loved doing with them, a part of parenthood I had always looked forward to. Now they are bigger at 3 and 5 I do see all those benefits though and witness the way it fires their imaginations.
Books have made us hoot with laughter together but they have helped me tackle difficult subjects with the boys too. When I’m struggling to find the words it's useful to turn to the professionals.
On days when I feel like I’ve fallen short as a parent; when I’ve been bad-tempered with them or passed on the offer to play one too many times, I can at least feel, when I'm pulling their doors closed and saying goodnight, that I have done something good, that by sharing a story I've made sure that everyone has gone to bed happy and that I'm raising readers.
I think story time will be one of the hardest things for me to leave behind as the boys get bigger.
These are some of the books we have loved most. I would be deliberating forever faced with the pressure of a top ten so it's not that but it is a list of some of our all-time favourites and why they have meant so much.
Sometimes by Emma Dodd - We love all the Emma Dodd books in this house but this was read most when the boys were tiny (along with Goodnight Moon and Each Peach Pear Plum). In those early months we focused on the lovely elephant illustrations and central message that they are loved but as babies turned to toddlers they recognised some of their own challenging behaviour and also the nature of our unconditional love for them: “No matter what you say or do, it makes no difference...I love you!”.
A Year in Brambly Hedge by Jill Barklem – The charming stories of the Toadflax and Apple families of mice living in the Hornbeam tree captivated me as a child and, like Molly Brett’s The Jumble Bears and Jean de Brunhoff's Babar the Elephant, I have enjoyed passing the love for these characters on to my children. They stop on each page to peer closely into the detailed illustrations just as I did and look out for Teasel and Wilfred amongst the tree stumps when we are walking in the woods.
Tabby McTat by Julia Donaldon – Like most families we have a large section of our bookshelves devoted to Julia Donaldson’s brilliant books. At one time or another I think they’ve all held the number one spot and I could recite The Gruffalo, Room on the Broom and A Squash and a Squeeze off by heart. Tabby McTat is special though, the first favourite of our eldest boy. For several months at the midway point between 1 and 2 he asked for this book every day and if we were in the car he would ask me to sing the buskers song with him. “How perfectly, perfectly happy we are".
The Tiger Who Came to Tea by Judith Kerr - This was the smallest boy’s first favourite. We had been reading it before he was born but something about it captured his imagination and it became a regular fixture at bedtime. More than once he looked for a giant tin of tiger food in the pet aisle at the supermarket and his favourite toy this Christmas was a cuddly tiger. It’s recently been knocked off his top spot by Sophie Henn's fantastic Pom Pom gets the Grumps but I don’t think it will be long before its back on the bedtime playlist.
Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers - I love all the Oliver Jeffers books but particularly Lost and Found as this was the first time I saw one of the boys genuinely fall in love with a book all on their own. Tabby McTat might have been the first book my biggest boy recited but this was the first story he fully immersed himself in. He was that boy and he loved that penguin. Both the boys have donned a stripey jumper and carried a cuddly penguin for World Book Day and I will happily continue to read this book to them over and over again.
The Lorax by Dr Suess - As much as I love storytime at the end of a crazy day I do fear the Suess books if I’m feeling especially weary. I feel as though they demand a certain level of energy and eloquence not compatible with the hours leading up to bedtime but if I'm up to it then I love the playful pages of Cat in the Hat and Oh the Places You’ll Go. The Lorax is probably chosen more than any of the others and the plight of the barbaloot bears and swomee swans has prompted some of our earliest discussions about the importance of looking after the environment around us.
The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber - We only live 20 miles from Mousehole so the boys were immediately excited when we bought them the story based on the legend of Cornish fisherman Tom Bawcock. They were then completely absorbed by the books alliterative and lilting language and the stunning illustrations. Their love for the book led to one of their first theatre experiences when we went to see a magical puppet production of the story – and whenever we go to see Mousehole’s Christmas lights we look for Mowzer, the Mousehole Cat.
I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen - Sometimes we just want a bit of a shared giggle at bedtime and along with the brilliant Oi Frog by Kes Gray & Jim Field and Chris Haughton's Oh No George this is one of our favourite funny books. I wasn’t sure whether the boys would appreciate the dry subtle humour in this story but they absolutely do and still fall about laughing like it’s the first time they read it. We love this cute and quirky read.
Grandad's Island by Benji Davies – I struggled to answer the boys' questions about my Dad, their Grandad, dying. This heartbreakingly beautiful story did it for me in the gentlest of ways, providing them (and maybe me) with reassurance and comfort and suggesting that Grandad is somewhere he is happy and well again. I can rarely get through it without tears in my eyes but I love sharing it with them. We absolutely love all of Benji Davies’ beautifully written and illustrated books. The Storm Whale stories are always at the front of the shelves and On Sudden Hill helped open up conversations when the tricky first year of school saw friendships change.
Words and Your Heart by Kate Jane Neal - This fantastic book has a strong anti-bullying message and should be read to every child as a demonstration of the power of words and their influence on the hearer. The book is powerful but so positive and when we read it at bedtime it prompts conversations about all the different words you can use to make someone’s heart feel good – and what can be better than that?!