Never say no to a story

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I miss reading to my children.

Having four kids, I was fortunate that the time I spent reading to them in total stretched for several years. It was still over far too quickly.

It is a marvellous shared experience, the cozy words of familiar stories, the child learning the narrative structure, anticipating the plot, relishing the punch lines, the parent’s focus on entertaining and educating.

Reading to your children is one of the great unbounded joys in life.

Peace at Last (Jill Murphy)

My eldest son loved this little tale of a poor old father bear who kept getting woken up by a variety of nightime noises, a dripping tap, his wife’s snoring, an owl in the garden. By repetition it became a mantra that had his eyelids drooping from the first lines, mine too as I cwtched up on the bed with him, lulled by the milky warmth of his room. The yawn at the end, every single time, was completely unscripted, Yaaaawn, peace at last!

In those early days my wife worked shifts so it was usually my job to do bedtimes. The thing that got me through was sticking to a rigid routine.

Reading to my son became part of his nighttime, settling him down for sleep. After tea we’d sit and watch some TV or play with his toys, then I’d carry him upstairs for a bath. Squeaky clean and pyjama’d up I would tuck him into bed and choose one or two stories, depending on their length. It was a pattern that we stuck to with little variation for all our children. It helped us cope with our busy days and, once they were down, gave us a bit of space together before our bedtime.

Nothing (Mick Inkpen)

My daughter’s favourite was this beautifully illustrated story of a once loved toy cat called Nothing. At least that’s what he heard them call him when they found him in a terrible state in the attic when the family moved house (What’s that?, Oh, that’s nothing). It has a strong narrative pathos and a wonderful uplifting ending showing the miraculous transformation of the little cloth cat back to rosy health in the bosom of the family once more.

Reading to her, before her older brother’s turn, established a hierarchy. He got to stay up a little longer, she got the individual attention she needed above all else. It also meant I got to read twice.

My daughter naturally loved stories that involved brave little girls (or cats) winning out against the odds and this genre challenged me, stretching my normal baritone to the limit when doing the voices.

The Elephant and the Bad Baby (Elfrida Vipont)

He’s a lovely lad of 22 now, but as a toddler my middle son identified strongly with the bad baby who never once said please. The story follows a procession of shopkeepers and tradesmen who are appalled at the bad baby’s behaviour. It takes a wise old elephant to help him see the error of his ways.

Our own bad baby was a little bugger at bedtime, on more than one occasion jumping out of bed after being put down and emptying all his drawers while cackling behind his dummy. We stuck to our routine though and, like the elephant eventually triumphed, but it was exhausting, rumpeta’ing down that particular road.

I always loved doing the voices when I read but this book with its large cast of characters was very challenging and I was often chastised for getting my old Scots lady from the sweetshop mixed up with my cockney barrow boy.

The boys by now were sharing a room. That meant that I had to become a bunkbed contortionist to get into the cramped headroom of the lower bed and a high jumper to rival Dick Fosbury to get to the top.

Peepo! (Janet and Alan Ahlberg)

A sensitive snapshot of a baby’s home life just before the second world war was my youngest son’s favourite. There is real depth to this story with oodles of detail in the drawings and a desperately touching ending to this simple tale.

By now his siblings (the oldest eight years his senior) were staying up much later of course but would still gravitate to earwig at his door when they knew he was having a story.

My youngest son (now nineteen) is the one who values reading the most. He was always the mathematician of the family, stoic and straightforward and, he won’t mind me saying, the least creative by far, but he has always lost himself in books. It’s a great gift.

Varjak Paw (S.F. Said)

Probably my favourite book that I read to the kids, a beautifully constructed story with great detail and memorable, anthropomorphised characters. It also has the most satisfying sequel I’ve ever read.

I persisted with reading to them into their early teens as it was such a rewarding exercise to share those special times. We got into the habit of reading communally so everyone, including me, got their fix. The books became more sophisticated with pictures being gradually taken over by words and the words getting longer and smaller but the activity remained essentially the same.

I kick myself now for the many occasions I professed to be too tired, too busy or too whatever to read to them. I would take all of those occasions back in a heartbeat and read and read and read.

Never, ever, say no to a story.

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