A thing I have noticed in conversations with some other parents about whether or not their children read is how much morality they, (the parents), probably unwittingly, attach to this. If your child reads it is a good child, if your child doesn’t read, it is – if not exactly bad, then somehow less good. It’s a bit like the wrong-think around the eating or not of green vegetables. “Do your kids read?” takes over in later years from that friendship-ending query “Do your kids sleep?” and it’s all just so stupid.
And a waste of time worrying about. Like fruit and green vegetables, books and reading ought to always be available but beyond that, it’s not your problem. Early-years reading to your children is pretty non-negotiable but later on they’ve really got to decide for themselves. Children who don’t like reading early on might really get into it later. Or they might never get into it and just be much better and more interested in any number of other equally intellectually diverse, important or helpful things. For example, the comedian Michael McIntyre claims to have read only six books all the way to the end.
I can get my knickers into quite a twist about this. Maybe it’s because I dislike and disapprove of the book Matilda so much. I find the fetishisation of the precocious child a bit distasteful – a high IQ, or whatever you want to call it, is only a quirk of nature like very lustrous hair or the ability to beatbox. The books slobbers over Matilda so much for this random set of abilities, thus implying all the other children are frankly garbage. What message does this send to children? Unless you are an intellectual prodigy you are worthless. Doesn’t the Unabomber have an IQ of 160+? I bet he’s an avid reader. I’m sort of on Mrs Wormwood’s side in all this.
Here are things that my children don’t, won’t, cannot do: ride a bike (Kitty); play in a swimming pool for hours (both); play on a trampoline for hours (both); sing, dance, act or play any sort of instrument except the drums (Sam); play with their friends for hours at the weekend; play with each other for more than 5 minutes before hitting, kicking, hair-pulling; do Lego without throwing it across the room and screaming oaths after 15 minutes; build anything. I’m sure there’s loads of other stuff.
But, yes, they both read – all the time.
Though, let’s get real, Kitty is the reader – less so Sam. He’s just forced to do it because the rest of the family is always reading. He would much rather be playing sport literally all day or be face-down in his iPad. Kitty finds a comfort and predictability in books that she doesn’t find in the real-time world, which is probably down to some neurodiversity that we have only really scratched the surface of.
And, she’s not reading Black Beauty or Little Women or Lord of the Flies. She reads the avalanche of pulp fiction that is churned out for young readers these days, which she is very lucky to have, by the way, and it’s not that it isn’t improving or good. I think I probably would have read a lot more when I was younger if there had been as much good stuff as there is around right now.
I remember my mum, probably at a loss for anything else to do with us when we were little, taking us to a book shop in Muswell Hill about four times a year. There was only ever the freaking Borrowers, Stig of the boring Dump and Tom’s Midnight stupid Garden on offer. No wonder my generation were still gobbling up Harry Potter well into our twenties.
Anyway, I’ve gone completely off my point. If your children don’t read my advice is, don’t fret about it. Reading is not a moral issue and is certainly no sort of predictor of adult contentment. If your children don’t read I bet they’re very good at something else and who is to decide what set of interests or talents ought to command our respect? Fuck you, Miss Honey.
Having said all that, these are the books that my children have enjoyed. I have always hesitated to make a list of these books because – see above – I don’t want you to go out and buy a whole load of books on my recommendation for your children, which they also refuse to read. On the other hand, you might also have some readers who burn through books at a high rate and need constant suggestions like frantically tossing oak trunks into the fires of Mordor.
Adventures in Time series by Dominic Sandbook – The Second World War
This is an absolutely brilliant series and I am 2% in love with Dominic Sandbrook anyway because of The Rest is History podcast. I just finished reading this book, (although it is aimed at 11-14 yo), and it was amazingly gripping and for the first time in my life I have a proper grasp of what happened in the Second World War and will no longer confuse the D-Day landings with the evacuation of Dunkirk. Other books in this series are to follow – The First World War, Alexander the Great and other titles are also available. This is a really good book to buy this Christmas for a niece, nephew or godchild of about the right age. Don’t fret that they might already have it – it’s the thought that counts and this is a good thought.
The Diary of a Wimpy Kid
I mean, do I even need to mention this series? Sam has read each book 40 times.
The Treehouse Series
Another one that everyone will have heard of. I think they are crushingly dull, unfathomable, weird, but my children like them.
The Murder Most Unladylike series by Robin Stevens
Extremely readable, very, very brilliant and clever series of murder mysteries for 10-13 yo set in a girls’ boarding school in the 1920s.
Noughts and Crosses series by Malorie Blackman
This is for older readers, probably 10yo + and tackles quite adult themes, in my view. Kitty loved them all.
The Hunger Games
Again, for older readers. I read the first one and thought it was alarmingly violent but Kitty says that the first Hunger Games is her favourite book, ever. (Although Kitty does tend to fob off questions like “What’s your favourite…? with the first thing that pops into her head.) And children are able to cope with quite high levels of violence in fiction as their empathy is still so nascent.
Kay’s Anatomy and Kay’s Marvellous Medicine by Adam Kay
These are very funny and totally informative for the young scientist in your life. Or any child – I don’t think we are really taught enough about the basic principles of our own bodies and, like, how antibiotics work and stuff.
Glory Garden series by Bob Cattell
For cricket nerds only, but if you’ve got a son – or daughter – who likes cricket, this is a non-toxic-masculine series about a hilariously crap local cricket team that will satisfy their love of bowling stats and unfathomable cricket plays with a lot of chat about batting order and LBW.
The Adventure series by Willard Price
A very old-fashioned, very long series of books (Amazon Adventure, Underwater Adventure etc.) about two teenage brothers who are somehow free to go on totally bananas round-the-world adventures where things happen like they go fishing and somehow catch a shark, which lands in their boat and they have to heave it back into the sea etc. These were written a while ago and there is quite a lot of morally ambiguous behaviour towards animals and indigenous people, but I believe that it’s actually quite important to encourage children to confront former attitudes about stuff like that, discuss it and reject it. Sam was read these books as bedtimes stories, rather than reading them independently, so those discussions could be had as we went along.
The Captain Underpants series
Again, I found these really not interesting, but Sam dug them all
Maze Runner series
Kitty read the books and watched the films. Both seem to offer diminishing returns, but wasn’t it ever thus with any series other than Toy Story?
The surreal but elegantly-plotted and fun series of graphic novels about a dog’s head grafted onto the body of a policeman. It makes sense in the cartoon.
Ultimate Football Heroes series
A series to try out on your child if they are super sporty with no interest in reading whatsoever, and you would quite like them to read one book? Maybe just once? These are biographies of famous footballers like Messi, Ronaldo and, I don’t know… Ryan Giggs perhaps. All written with the style and panache of a match report but perfectly harmless.
Garfield Fat Cat compendiums/Peanuts
There is absolutely nothing wrong with reading strip cartoons. When I was little we had one Peanuts collection, Peanuts Classics, and I read it over and over again. I also had a subscription to Garfield magazine, which came out fortnightly. Giles says he’s not sure he read a proper book until he was about 14, up until then just gorging on strip cartoons and The Beano. We have what feels like a hundred “Fat Cat 3-pack” Garfield collections and a whole load of Peanuts books. There is a huge amount of philosophy, humanity and – obviously – humour in a decent strip cartoons and honestly I’d rather my children were reading that than some of the crap that gets churned by actors who think they can write, full of pathetic fart jokes.
These are some more titles that Kitty, (and occasionally Sam also), has enjoyed – a quick read of their descriptions online will tell you if your child will like or is suited to these.
On A Sunbeam by Tillie Waldren, They Both Die At The End by Adam Silvera, Wolf Wilder by Katherine Rundell, Frostheart series by Jamie Littler, Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, The Divergent Series by Veronica Roth, Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, A Girl Called Justice series by Elly Griffiths, Afterlove by Tanya Byrne, Lumberjanes (multiple authors), The Last Kids on Earth Series by Max Brallier, Ruby Redfort series by Lauren Child, Shirley and Jamil Save Their Summer by Gillian Goerz.
How about you? Have your kids read any good books lately?
Fleur BENNS says
God it’s all so judgmental isn’t it. I once mentioned that my son read books on his kindle – another mother responded “my children still read proper books” 🙄
Ugh what a snob
Another vote for Murder Most Unladylike… which has set my 13yo daughter up for a life fighting crime … she’s now on Tony Kent’s Marked For Death, which 16 pages in we discover is not quite as appropriate as the author assured me it is (rather grisly murder, but he said there’s strictly no smooching) … she’s still cracking on with it in the hope of picking up tips on her future criminal barrister career.
Recs for pony mad kids, KM Peyton’s Fly-By-Night from 1969 and it’s sequel The Team. Both without any trace of dumbing down or sentimentality. Flambards series (plus the very recent sequel) also holds its own well I think. And of course, Elizabeth Goudge’s The Little White Horse, which I believe was an inspiration for Harry Potter. Beautiful in every way.
She only wants to be a barrister so that she can argue for a living and pay for many horses in livery … delusional is what springs to mind … but hey-ho.
And I totally agree with you on Dominic Sandbrook …
Thank you Esther! Long (LONG!) time reader and first time commenter, this just popped into my inbox and I’ve hurried straight here. Yes, so much to this. I really needed to hear it and, after years of suffering with a non-reading child, it’s the first time anyone’s put words to what the problem is – the conceptualisation of this as a moral issue. It’s so true and so damaging. My son (yr 5) has now been diagnosed with dyslexia but I have spent years berating myself, and sadly probably him, for not being a reader. We’ve always read to him every night so we just read the books other kids read alone to him. He will read Tom Gates and there is a wonderful range of graphic novels now with more meaty plot lines – thinking of Illegal, No Country, A Wrinkle in Time, Nimona. Stokey bookshop is an indie with an amazing and unusual selection of graphic novels for that tricky older kid/tween age if anyone’s in London.
This is such a great post, thank you! As a Mum of a dyslexic child who is very clever but doesn’t read for pleasure I hadn’t even seen articulated the judgement from other patents about this, but have felt it! Reassuring to read and some nice suggestions of books we could try on audible x
My husband is very dyslexic and was certainly no reader as a child. When we first started going out he was ploughing determinedly through a biog of Thatcher. I gently suggested that he might like something a little lighter, something actually enjoyable, something to read for pleasure … Apparently this was an alien concept for him – now he has a pile of ‘lightweight’ books by the bed and loves reading. He had thought novels etc were for ‘stupid people’ and was trying so hard to prove (to whom?) that he wasn’t stupid just because he found reading so hard *gosh, who’s cutting onions?*. I think reading for pleasure comes, if it comes, to dyslexics much later partly because of this book snobbery, and because they need time and privacy to pick up a book. My husband says that, like practicing any skill, reading got much easier after he started to enjoy it, as he was reading more. Also the sense of achievement finishing a book, even if it was ‘only’ Agatha Christie, was enormous. He would have LOVED something like Audible as a child.
BTW if you are ill yourself or, in my case, have a back which likes to fail regularly, audio books are an absolute gift. Much as I hate most things about the modern world, there are some fantastic things out there.
Poor little mite
My sister’s dyslexic and was forever frustrated by all the “cultured” things that were an uphill climb for her as a child – books with tiny print, movies with subtitles, etc. etc. Well now she’s a nuclear pharmacist who uses robots to make therapeutic agents all day and the two bookish siblings do nothing as good. I won’t say pharmacy school was easy but she really wanted at those robots.
This is hilarious
The thing that’s always annoyed me about Matilda (especially the musical) is that Mr and Mrs Wormwood have working class accents but Matilda magically develops an extremely middle class accent simply in virtue of liking books. Seems very classist.
Thank you Esther!!! This is so useful. Especially before Christmas! My two eldest boys are voracious readers and I was struggling with what to get them next. They both loved the Murder most Unladylike series and Adam Kay’s books. The Glory Garden books sound exactly what they’d love…..Onto some of the books they’ve read and loved..Kidnap on the California Comet and the rest of the series, the Percy Jackson series, all the Onjali Rauf books (The Boy at the Back of the Class and so on). The Land of Roar books (my 9 year-old especially loved these)….
My 11 year old has just read the Murderer’s Ape by Jakob Wegelius and loved it (the sequel has just been released). He loves Agatha Christies. They’re probably tamer than the Hunger Games and there’s a lot to discover!
Thank you again. You’ve helped by Christmas shopping no end!!
My kids really loved Holes by Louis Sachar.
mrs charlotte l nesbitt says
mine too. It’s my son’s favourite book
My son loved a series called Real Pigeons about a gang of crime fighting pigeons. He also loved a written for a younger audience version of the Odyssey by Gillian Cross, which has sparked an absolute obsession with Greek mythology. He also likes the Percy Jackson books by Rick Riordan.
Hear hear for Marcia Cross and Percy Jackson et al! My dyslexic son adores them and anything Greek myth-related, after his interest was piqued -weirdly, IMHO- by having the Usborne Greek myths book read to him when he was little (it was a gift..) I always buy books for children, and make sure I get a gift receipt in case they have it/hate it. Like a book token but looks more thoughtful.
I love this especially re the morality of reading – I really agree, it’s just a preference. We’re still on Julia Donaldson in my house but I hear good things about Department 19 by Will Hill (teen vampire hunters?)
Both my children are avid readers thank fuck. But it’s just dumb luck and a heaving bookcase!
Anyway John Grisham wrote a series for young adults and my son loved them Theodore Boone is the protagonist. Also he’s just discovering some Stephen King- the shawshank redemption got a read and a reread.
Wagstaff the windup boy is also brilliant and weird.
My little girl loves the The Boldness of Betty book by an Irish writer Anna Carey, she has few in the series. Great for our young feminists!
I highly recommend the Old Kingdom series by Garth Nix, one for slightly older readers, maybe 11 or 12 plus. My 10yo loved the Percy Jackson books and has also just finished reading all the skullduggery pleasance books. A bit violent I think but that definitely adds to their attraction! Also the demon headmaster and the prime ministers brain books, I think by Gillian cross? Been around for ages but seem to hold up well. My 8 year old is less reading oriented. He likes stories but would far rather be read to. His favourite ever books, which I read to him, are very old fashioned books from when I was a child. The tree that sat down, the stream that stood still and the mountain of magic. He does like reading some comic type books, and particularly likes the books about Freddy the robot by neill Cameron, which come in comic strip form and a couple of more traditional book style but with lots of pictures.
Esther, I especially love the list of all the things your kids can’t, won’t or don’t like to do, brilliant!! Why can’t we all be this honest about this kind of stuff? I’ve recently introduced my daughter to Judy Blume. I worried that they wouldn’t have stood the test of time but they are every bit as magic 30 years on.
The Nevermoor series – although they enjoyed it on audible and have listened to all the books multiple times.
And they DEVOUR The Phoenix magazine. And all the spin-off books (a la Dog Man): mega robo bro’s, bunny vs monkey etc. I think they might actually lose brain cells reading them, but they are much read in this house.
And Tom Gates. I borrowed from the library, what I thought was a new one, but no it’s one he’s read a 1000 times as it’s one I bought him previously. They look the bloody same!
The Ottoline series by Chris Riddell is fab as are the Jolley Rogers books by Johnny Duddle. I second Captain Underpants and Dog Man, these all pass the read more than once test in our house!
The Explorer by Katherine Rundell was really good as is The Voyage of the Sparrowhak by Natasha Farant.
Don’t like Tom Fletcher I’m afraid, there was a section in the Christmasaurus where the bully was making fun of a boy in a wheelchair and I burst into tears and couldn’t read beyond it. Don’t know how that bit got past the editors. We have just finished the Great Dream Robbery by Greg James which is really poor, pages of prose which sounds like you’ve just had to write a book for your English homework and have to make 2000 words…..
I was an avid, voracious reader as a child but it was mostly Enid Blyton etc. When I was about 8 or 9 my teacher suggested I try something more challenging, and handed me Dickens – David Copperfield maybe? – which I dutifully whizzed through, thanked her, and went right back to Mallory Towers. I read a lot of history and biography these days and have a lifelong aversion to Dickens. If your child reads, it doesn’t really matter what they read, but not forcing the issue probably does!
Dickens is pulp fiction for the masses of his time
Sophie the Classics Hater says
And urgh Thos Hardy. Did two for English GCSE and A level and proof-read every goddam one for money shortly after. No thank you.
Yes what a crashing bore he is
No mention of the Beast Quest series?
My son got hooked on these as a year 2 in lock down – forever grateful to the author (who has no idea how much he saved our sanity during that time!). There are seemingly endless number of them – and are utterly repetitive (in my humble opinion) (boy defeats mythical beast is the repeating storyline) but I’m so grateful for them as they got my son obsessed with reading (having previously been disinterested).
My daughter is in year 1 and we are reading the Owl Who was Afraid of the Dark together – it is magical.
Peabody Bites says
The Aadvark who wasn’t Sure is also a totally charming book by the same author if you fancy a follow up!
mrs charlotte l nesbitt says
My 12 year old daughter is obsessed by Twilight – has just read the whole series twice. Also loved the Malorie Blackman’s “noughts and crosses” series. And a book called Cinders, she raved about.
I used to fret endlessly about my daughter’s lack of interest in reading, drawing, painting and stickers were her passion. I remember a meeting with her English teacher when she was 14; he was rather concerned for her upcoming GCSEs in that her current book choices were the biography of Cheryl Cole and a book called ‘Knocked out by my Nunga Nungas’ ! But she got through her exams ok and now at 24 has finally discovered for herself the pleasure and escape of reading – it just took a while.
I like the sound of her
Nicki Francis says
So my kids are no longer kids really (19 & 21) but I want to say “go to the library”. Lots of reasons for this – it’s free, if they don’t like a book you haven’t wasted £s on it, there’s lots of non-story books there – graphic novels (aka cartoons but still books!), Non-fiction, audio books. If they find a book they like you can reserve lots more like it, the staff have great recommendations. And it’s all free. And if they aren’t used, libraries get closed down which would be very sad. Not least as I work in one…. Great post though, not all kids do reading, and that is completely fine.
I put on the Treehouse series as an audio book for a car journey once and it was SO badly read I nearly threw myself out of the car to get away from it. Luckily I came to my senses and threw the CD out of the window instead.
My daughter is obsessed by the Robin Stevens books too. And really enjoys anything by Pamela Butchart – they’ve become her default present for her classmates and seem to have a high hit rate.
The skulduggery pleasant books by Derek Landy are amazing! The humour is 👌
Such a relief to hear all the things my kids hate to do is universal! My daughter loved a series called My story, a diary format. It follows a by stander to real events in history- our favourites were the books in the court of Henry 8th wives. Really fun and short and sharp.
For football mad types can’t recommend enough Tom Palmer’s new Roy of the Rovers series and the Football Detective.
I loved books as a child, so much that my parents found it quite annoying and I had to beg to be taken to the bookshop. I still feel the sting of coming home from school one day and my mum had cleaned out all the tatty ones (ie my faves) and all in was left with was pristine copies of Little Women.
On another point – the neurodiversity. I suspect my 4 year old has some sort of ADHD related thing, as I do, and while it doesn’t impact anything significantly, I’d like to help him cope with it a bit more. Asking other parents for advice/contacts appears to be akin with saying your child has some horrible infectious disease. They literally back away slowly. I find it baffling and also quite isolating, and have to resist the urge to aggressively insist how ‘normal’ he is. Did not expect this at a smart London prep school known for valuing diversity…
Mills can you email me? firstname.lastname@example.org I have things to share with you x
I love this post, Esther! So well thought out. Mom one upmanship is truly everywhere.
I love books/reading so much but my daughter does not at all. It’s disappointing to me on a personal level because there’s so many books I would like to share with her. On the other hand, she’s really good at math. I have always found math to be terrifying but my daughter thinks it is “fun”
Goes to show how differently we are all wired.
I do have really good memories of reading to her when she was little and our absolute favorite was The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo. Edward is a stuffed rabbit and a bit of a dickhead. It is the most sweet and charming book. Usually her books get made into movies but not this one, surprisingly.
My childhood favorites were the Little House on the Prairie books and anything by Judy Blume. Every prepubescent (I don’t really like this word but I don’t know how else to say it. Tween?) girl should read Are You There God? Its Me Margaret. It’s a masterpiece.
So many good suggestions here – have just ordered several so thank you, Esther, and Spikers.
I still read to my 12 year old son every night. He’s never really taken to reading fiction independently but loves being read to so it’s just part of bedtime still and we’ve enjoyed some great books together. We’ve just finished the sequel to Holes – Small Steps – and it was great. Even better than the first.
Can also really recommend the Spy School series by Stuart Gibb – we picked one up in America and then devoured the whole series. For ages 10/11 up and great characters and plot with some feisty female characters who are brilliant spies.
Kate Caplan says
Tore through this and wanted to put in my two cents as a primary school teacher. I often get parents despairing at me that their child doesn’t read but I have to remind them that reading takes many forms and different things appeal to different people – I’m not going to sit down and read a cricketer’s autobiography just because I *can*, in the same way that I will tear through any classical fiction – different strokes and all that. I often recommend magazines like National Geographic kids for those who are interested in animals or non fiction and you’d be amazed at how many children prefer that short, sharp burst, just like us adults! It’s a lot less daunting to read a magazine article and therefore children are a lot more willing to try it. One child I used to teach hated reading in all forms but loved football, so I told his parents to let him read the sports pages of the newspaper and he loved it! I’m not saying this is a quick fix and will work for everyone but I’ve seen a vast improvement in willingness to read from a lot of children with this approach.