Tuesday 22 October 2019

Fantastic flights of fantasy - how to introduce books to children

Start them early - from tasty treats like nursery rhymes to feasts of exciting adventures, reading gives very young children the gift of curiosity and a vital escape from the humdrum

Sophie White and her children, Rufus (4) and Arlo (1), both book lovers. Photo; Damien Eagers
Sophie White and her children, Rufus (4) and Arlo (1), both book lovers. Photo; Damien Eagers

Sophie White

It's hard to remember the first time I became aware of books. I suppose it's a bit like trying to decide when it was that I first noticed breathing. There was no first for me, books like oxygen, were things that were simply necessary.

The characters from my early book-loves exist in my mind with the same vivid corporeality as the memories I have of the real people and places that populated my early life. Some days I opened the door to play on the green and on others I opened a page and snuck down the lane to play in Mr McGregor's garden with a bold little bunny, stealing radishes and lettuces.

I dutifully served the Tiger Who Came To Tea and explored Dream Country with The BFG. Lines between reality and story were not so much blurred as utterly irrelevant to my child mind.

As I got older, books have continued to be a constant. I still don't have a Kindle because I cannot let go of the turning of the pages and the mere presence of books in a room is as exciting to me as the presence of a big fat chocolate cake.

The only room in my house that does not contain books is the hall and I suppose that's only because we're not in the habit of lounging in a drafty corridor.

My parents' house was the same, shelf after shelf packed with possibilities, stories, biographies, all calling to me with a siren call, a promise of delicious escape.

I suspect this is the key to giving our children a love of books, surrounding them with books, plying them with stories like little tasty treats. Perhaps it's no coincidence that my four-year-old's favourite book is Oliver Jeffers' gorgeous The Incredible Book Eating Boy, a beautiful red hardback with a giant chunk bitten out of it, presumably by the overzealous protagonist of that gorgeous tale.

I began reading to my own babies when they were still tiny tenants inside me. It seemed odd not to as I was already using the bump as a shelf for my snacks and a place to prop my book on lazy afternoons in bed.

I called these glorious hours my 'bump nap' and felt they were more essential to nurturing new life than any vitamin supplements or pregnancy Pilates.

I didn't go in for trying to hothouse the bump with Baby Einstein, nor did I even choose anything age-appropriate - if that's even possible? However, if any questions on Marian Keyes ever come up in a pub quiz, my womb fruit are set.

Post-birth, I began my book-pushing in earnest. Luckily there are hardly any activities that are not compatible with reading to babies.

I read to them while they smeared pureed food around their heads in some approximation of eating. Mercifully, around then, I discovered bath books that could be washed along with the dishes in the sink, and thus our reading spread to bath time also.

In the chaotic early days of parenthood, the bedtime routine was like a life raft in a storm. It was a protracted operation involving bathing and unguents and umpteen books, an operation that had, at some point, led to a reasonably good night's sleep for the baby and so we endeavoured, night after night, to replicate it, in the vain hope that one day soon the baby might sleep again.

He didn't. But he does, as a result, love books.

Now we read every night in bed and it is my favourite part of the day.

The stories are a mix of my childhood classics - the tiger is still coming to tea and Peter Rabbit cannot stay out of Mr McGregor's forbidden garden and we're devoted to the Alfie books.

We also devour everything by Axel Scheffler and Julia Donaldson. Of course, in the contrarian way of all children, the elder has at times become inexplicably wedded to profoundly irritating books that have sadly had to go 'missing' for the sake of preserving parental sanity. Peppa Pig met this fate after I decided that Daddy Pig looked too much like a scrotum and no one should have to endure looking at that night after night.

My four-year-old has keen ears and never lets me get away with so much as a single wrong word. He can recite many of these books from memory. When he wakes me by jumping on my face in the morning, I can usually wrangle a few more minutes of relaxing in bed by asking him to tell me a story.

The little one, who doesn't talk yet, storms up to anyone who comes into the house with a book nearly the size of himself under his arm and he will forcibly sit them down and demand a story.

Many mornings I've walked into his room to find him sitting, patiently waiting to be liberated from his cot, leafing through his books. I guess he's already cottoned on to the fact that books are the ultimate escape hatch.

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