Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 21 Jul 2019

Why real books are always better than lists

The internet provides quick and easy access to comprehensive lists of books relating to all kinds of genres and topics. It must be a godsend to teachers and parents when they are looking for recommendations for children of different ages with varied interests. But are these lists enough in themselves? I understand that online shopping in general can be convenient, quicker and usually cheaper than browsing real shops, but I don’t really get how it can be as satisfying an experience as seeing and handling the real books.

This is especially the case when choosing children’s books because, in my view,  looking at book covers and reading a synopsis plus reviews online can’t possibly measure up to seeing the three dimensional object. I also think that a personal recommendation from someone who has read the book, and enjoyed using it with children is a big bonus when there are so many to choose from. I often go into schools, nurseries and other community settings for ‘Wild Things and Gold Rings’ events and by taking a wide selection of books from my personal collection and by using a theme requested by teachers, I can usually know the books that will have an impact on children and adults of different ages. Let me give you a couple of examples.


Books about Going on a Summer Holiday

When I am asked to bring along books relating to a theme, it is a great excuse for me to spend hours sifting through my collection, reminding myself of the many treasures on my shelves. When asked to do this session with Year One and Year Two children, I immediately selected ‘A First Book of the Sea’ by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Emily Sutton. This sumptuous non- fiction book is packed with interesting information, highly detailed illustrations and wistful pieces of prose. Of course I then had to decide which bits I was going to show them as wanted to entice the staff to think about buying a copy for the school. On reflection, I could talk for an hour about just this book! 

Even though it is rather on the large side, I naturally had to include one of my childhood favourites, ‘Orlando: A Seaside Holiday’ by Kathleen Hale with its extraordinary illustrations. My rather battered copy of ‘Come Away from the Water Shirley’ by John Burningham with his distinctive soft illustrative style that blends social realism with fantasy had to be shared and talked about.  The marvellous ‘ Flotsam’ by David Weisner also had to be included as I realised that the premise of finding an old fashioned camera  washed up on a beach would be a chance for a history lesson with five and six year olds!

 I added copies of two of my more recently acquired seaside related stories: ‘Baba’s Gift’ by Beverley Naidoo and ‘Abdi’s Day’ by Verna Wilkins, both of which are beautifully illustrated by Karin Littlewood.  I had already contacted the authors and illustrators who had kindly responded with messages for the children. I hadn’t seen either of these picture books appearing on seaside related lists before but wanted to include them as they depict families from a range of backgrounds that should be part of any school collection. I know the staff at this school well, and so decided to lend them the books for a few weeks. I am hoping that they might spend some time studying them more closely and perhaps sending some illustrated letters in response. There were plenty more to choose from but thought it was important to recognise that not every child gets the chance to go away from home for a summer holiday. I included two books that celebrate the joys of staying at home at little cost (as long as you have a good imagination): ‘Tilly’s At Home Holiday’ by Gillian Hibbs and ‘Grandma’s Beach’ by Rosalind Beardshaw.  

Wordless Picture Books

Nothing can replace the drama of the turned page in a picture book. I recently took a selection of wordless picture books to share with some Year Three children and their parents, many of whom had English as their second or third language. Not all were confident readers and it was great to see how confidently they engaged with visual texts that allowed free interpretation. The parents could talk with their child in their preferred language and seemed to thoroughly enjoy the experience. All of these books deserve close attention to be able to appreciate the many layers and perspectives portrayed in the illustrations, as well as giving time and space to the reader to fill the gaps with their own interpretations of the content. Book covers usually provide some clues as to what will follow but watching the pages of a wordless picture book slowly turn can be an extraordinary experience. I chose to show them ‘The Waves’ by Suzi Lee with no verbal commentary and was very impressed with the concentration on their faces. When I asked them what they thought about it, one boy explained that it was ‘like watching a very quiet film’ and another said that she could hear the sea and the seagulls! With a different class, I tried using ‘Chalk Eagle’ by Nazli Tahvili with its restricted but very effective colour palette of blues and greens which had similar impact. 

I often use ‘The Arrival’ by Shaun Tan with its nostalgic sepia tones and strangely compelling imagery deserves close scrutiny, but by sharing a few key moments from the story, I am convinced that many children (and adults) might go away to find a copy. Another favourite of mine is ‘Bee and Me’ by Alison Jay which is packed with messages about friendship and caring for the environment. I often share the whole of this beautiful picture book with just a few words to focus them to look at the quite small but exquisite illustrations. I often buy such books from small independent bookshops or come across them in second hand shops and know that they are not usually stocked in mainstream booksellers, which is another reason for showing them to adults and children in schools.

I know from experience that spending time looking at real beautiful books can inspire interest and enthusiasm from adults and children alike. Recommending a list can certainly be a first step, but I also know that being able to select appropriate parts to read aloud and to have knowledge of the whole story, and preferably some biographical context about an author/ illustrator as extra information to share can be vital in persuading people to give something a try for themselves.


Karen Argent

July 2019