Every night when I take three-year-old Benjy up to bed, we go through the same bedtime routine. Benjy scampers ahead and closes the bedroom door: I knock gently on it:
Me: “Knock knock knock.”
Benjy: (reciting from inside) “I wonder who that can be? It can’t be the milkman, cos he’s already been. It can’t be the grocer’s boy, because it’s not the day he comes. And it can’t be Daddy, because he’s got his key. We’d better open the door and see.”
I push the door ajar. “It was a big, furry, stripy ...”
“TIGER!” shouts Benjy joyously.
To which I reply: “Excuse me, but I’m very hungry. Can I have tea with you?”
Benjy opens the door wide. “Yes of course! Come in!”
So we’ve already re-enacted the first few pages of Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came To Tea, and that’s even BEFORE we get to the bedtime story ...!
I’ll be honest, I’m not always in the mood for a bedtime story. Often, after a hard day, I simply can’t wait to get Benjy and his little brother Daniel into bed and collapse on the sofa with dinner. But taking the time to carve out just a few minutes of the bedtime routine for sharing a story has given us immeasurable rewards. If you’re reading this, chances are you’re already aware of how bedtime stories can benefit your child’s neural and emotional growth. Research shows that bedtime reading improves bonding between parents and children and strengthens their brain’s development for language; a child learns to recognise words and the building blocks of pronunciation, and learns new vocabulary directly outside of their immediate environment.
“What story would you like to have tonight, Benjy?”
Benjy pulls out Puffin Peter by Petr Horacek. Again. I groan inwardly.
“Wouldn’t you like to read something else tonight, sweetheart?”
“Nooooo Mummy!” Benjy looks horrified. “I want Puffin Peter. He gets lost, and then the whale helps find him again!”
Voyage and Return! One of the seven basic plots! I put on a bright smile and open Puffin Peter (again).
Though re-reading the same story over and over can drive parents round the bend, repetition actually encourages a child’s predicting of outcomes, appreciation of patterns and understanding sequences. Added to that, reading can lower stress and cortisol levels as children learn to associate reading with emotional warmth and fun. Of course, reading at any time of the day will do this, but bedtime is particularly the time when parents need to calm children down and get them in the frame of mind for bed.
For Eleanor, a journalist and mother of three-year-old Zak, a bedtime routine has always been very important, especially one that revolves around story time. “It's a really good way to wind down a rambunctious child and also because the bedtime story routine was a key part of my early childhood.” Eleanor’s own bedtime story experience as a child fed directly into developing her own love of literature:
“I have a very clear memory of the first time I made the leap from having a story read to me to reading to myself. One night my father refused to read me a story as he usually did saying I was old enough to read it myself. I protested, saying I couldn't possibly read a book to myself if it didn't have pictures in it. My Dad wouldn't give in and left me on my own. But by that age it was such an intrinsic part of my daily routine that the idea of going to sleep without some kind of story first seemed impossible. And so of course I read by myself for a while before turning the light out. I still find it the best way to wind down before sleep.”
These days, Eleanor reads widely with Zak, who first got interested in books with Emma Chichester Clark’s Blue Kangaroo series and has recently gone through various phases of Paddington and Richard Scarry. “I think the Cars, Trucks and Things That Go combination of animals, transport, machinery, obscure facts and the fantastical really seems to appeal to a small boy's imagination & budding male geek brain.”
Observing my own children’s journey with books, Benjy has always been keen on reading since he was literally a couple of months old, but his younger brother Daniel seemed to have much less interest, preferring until recently to concentrate on building blocks or kicking a ball. However, since Daniel turned eighteen months, he’s suddenly become obsessed with books. Perhaps it’s because he sees his older brother constantly with his nose in one, or perhaps he knows it’s a sure-fire way to get some close attention and Mummy-time by dragging up a battered tome of lovingly-torn pages with a winning smile just as I’m about to get the dinner on. For Daniel, his favourites are Rod Campbell’s classic Dear Zoo and Eric Hill’s Where’s Spot, just as they were for Benjy before him. With this in mind, I conducted a quick poll of children in the neighbourhood and friends to find out which their special favourites were.
For my neighbour Helen, freelance writer and mother of one-year-old twins Sonny and Daniel, the Mr Men boxed set have proved quite a hit. “They grab the books and point at them indicating they want to read. Recently they were given Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and they love the flaps and caterpillar holes. The best board books overall which we’ve read again and again since they were little are Lynley Dodd’s Hairy MacLairy from Donaldson’s Dairy, and Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Each Peach, Pear, Plum. They keep them for ages in their cot reading on their own. I’m really looking forward to getting them reading more as they get older.”
Being able to use a child’s own imagination and creativity in reading is an important resource for parents to tap into. Four-year-old Maggie’s current favourite, according to her mother Jenny, is Jon Klassen’s This is Not My Hat. “It’s got very few words but richly deep illustrations and we like to make up what's not being said - and that can change every time we read it! Maggie always gets frustrated by the end - you have to guess what happens to the little fish. Invariably she opts for the big fish having eaten him!” Maggie herself thinks that it “is really funny because the hat is too small for the big fish anyway. I wish we found out where the little fish went though!”
Her three-year-old cousin Cassie's favourite book is currently The Spooky Spooky House by Andrew Weale and Lee Wildish. “I like it because it feels like I'm actually in the story and I'm following the little girl around,” says Cassie. “At the end you find out she's spooky too, but I'm not scared of her because she's my friend!”
Being able to process their own experience through reading is another powerful tool for a child. Three year old Ella has recently become interested in Princess Mirror-Belle and the Dragon Pox by Julia Donaldson in part, says her mother Anya, because her own brother had chicken pox. “And for the past few days she's been asking for Ella Bella Ballerina and the Nutcracker Suite by James Mayhew. I asked her tonight why she liked it and she said “Because Ella Bella finds a friend.” She obviously relates to Ella Bella as she is just starting out at preschool making new friends so it's a subject on her mind!”
That’s not to say that a bit of escapism doesn’t go amiss. Four-year-old Zane LOVES The Dinosaur That Pooped A Planet (and others in the series by Tom Fletcher and Dougie Poynter) his father Paul tells me. “He gets so excited as the story builds and we get to the page in the middle where he gets to shout to POOOOO! His other favourite is Gigantosaurus by Jonny Duddle because it rhymes, but even more because he likes the fact pages at the back where he can always remember far more of the dinosaur names than Daddy and Papa!”
And the classics will always endure of course. “My son, James (6) has just been reading Alice in Wonderland and loves it - can't beat some of the classics,” says Becca Batchelor. “They both (James -6, Eddie - 3) particularly like the Oliver Jeffers picture books, and have done for ages. The Snorgh and the Sailor by Will Buckingham is also great.”
The last word must go to four-year-old Isabella Maya Iserles McLaren who finds it hard to decide on a clear favourite, though. "I don't know what my favourites are because I have so many! I like Mog because it's a cat book. I think it's funny when she jumps on a flower that has prickles because normally cats don't do that. I like Winnie the Pooh because he's funny and eats too much honey and then Christopher Robin has to fix his tummy. I like The Gruffalo's Child and The Gruffalo. I just like them. I don't know why Mummy, I just told you I like them!"
As for me, when I tuck Benjy in with Puffin Peter, Where The Wild Things Are and Christopher Nibble – he insists on keeping his books in a lumpy and rather uncomfortable pile in bed with him at night – it feels like the beginning of a wonderful adventure. I can’t wait to get him started on some of my own childhood favourites for bigger children once he grows up a little: Danny The Champion Of The World, Stig of the Dump, Little House On The Prairie, The Hobbit...
They do say that having a child makes you experience things the second time around as if it were your first time too. I’d definitely say that was true for re-reading!
So do let me know - what were your favourite reads as a child? And what do your children like reading now?