By Dani Di Placido
I read an article online a couple of years ago, stating that most American parents read to their children for less than 15 minutes a day. I sneered for a second, automatically assuming superiority before I realized that I was most certainly one of those parents, and fifteen minutes might actually be a generous overestimate. Thus, I was shamed into reading regularly to my kids.
I pushed through the drudgery of pastoral rhymes with help of silly voices, shouting, and strong coffee, until I got to the point where I genuinely enjoy reading my kids a good book. But finding a good children’s book is immensely difficult, and considering the fact that you’re likely to read the story more times than you thought physically possible, it better be a damn good one.
I compiled a list of my favourite books to read to young children, specifically children under five.
Alright, this one’s predictable. But there’s a reason why everyone recommends Green Eggs and Ham, and that’s because it is perfect. A genuine literary masterpiece.
I have read this book an obscene amount of times, often multiple times a night. It’s got a beat to it, a rhythm, that somehow makes it not intensely annoying, even after the third reading in a row to a wailing child that won’t learn the freaking message from the book and eat their damn dinner.
I’m convinced that if Dr. Seuss were alive today he’d be a Soundcloud rapper, a good one, the kind that dies in their mid-twenties. His books have a magical, poetic quality to them, they can be chanted infinitely across space and time without ever losing their bounce, their innate enthusiasm.
Count just about any Dr. Seuss book you like at number one on this list (check out The Places You’ll Go and The Sneetches), but especially Green Eggs and Ham.
I recommend it, Sam-I-am.
A deceptively simple story illustrated with dark, detailed imagery; Maurice Sendak’s masterpiece is all about dealing with anger and mastering your demons.
This becomes apparent when you think about it, for after Max is sulking in his bedroom, he retreats into the forest of his imagination and encounters the Wild Things, which are really the embodiment of his rage.
But instead of recoiling in fright at his own emotions, Max stares the creatures down and masters them, going on a three-page, wordless rampage, before dismissing the beasts, exhausting his fury, and returning home to eat his warm supper.
Understanding your emotions, and most importantly, accepting them, even the negative ones, is a wonderful message to teach your kids. It’s ok to get angry; don’t suppress it, embrace it, then chill out and eat dinner.
It’s incredibly deep stuff, and if you can’t be bothered getting all analytical, and Freudian or whatever, the illustrations are simply wonderful. This book doesn’t get old, because it’s a beautiful work of art.
And children always seem intrigued by Max’s bold reaction to the Wild Things; the story is one of the few pieces of children’s fiction where the monsters are terrifying, but pose no threat whatsoever to the protagonist.
In fact, any book written by, or, indeed, simply illustrated by Maurice Sendak tends to be a good one. The man had good taste—trust it.
Grasshopper is a strange one. Read through the book once, and there doesn’t seem to be much of a narrative, so much as a series of odd encounters with insects. But there’s a surprising amount of depth to this story.
Grasshopper is following a road, seeking a purpose. He’s an easygoing fellow, and he meets a variety of eccentric personalities on the road, most of whom are stuck in unhealthy behavioural patterns; the beetles have formed an intolerant fan-club, the housefly is an obsessive-compulsive house-cleaner, the mosquito is determined to be important despite being utterly insignificant, and the butterflies are unwilling to make the slightest change to their dull, daily routine.
It’s almost like a guidebook to living a balanced life, a tale that teaches children to keep following the road ahead, and don’t be drawn into living a life that isn’t yours.
If you enjoy this one, I strongly recommend Frog and Toad, a series also by Arnold Lobel. Their dynamic is a lot like Bert and Ernie, homoerotic undertones and all, but their stories have a great deal more depth.
There’s something oddly compelling about Brown Bear. The book is short and simple, but is one of the few books my kids have been able to sit down and enjoy together, whatever age they happen to be.
Those big, colourful, richly textured animals are incredibly appealing to babies, and the gentle, repetitive rhyming is oddly comforting. Reading the book feels like sitting in a big, squishy armchair, more so if you happen to be sitting in one.
And when you read Brown Bear in a place full of kids, it attracts them. Big or small, they’ll jostle for a space at the front, desperate to see the Purple Cat and White Dog, as though they’ve never seen them before.
There’s a whole series of these books that continues the same theme with different animals. They’re all equally good, visually, but some of the more exotic animals become a mouthful, which kills the simplicity. Who wants to say, “Macaroni penguin, macaroni penguin, what do you see?”
Just sounds weird.
This is an unusual entry, because it’s both a comic book, and a tie-in to a tv series. But if you’re tired of reading the non-adventures of farmyard animals, and looking for something truly refreshing, then give it a go.
You don’t have to have ever watched the series to appreciate these books; they’re strange little one-offs, written and illustrated by a variety of different artists. And some of them are really quite bizarre; my personal favourite involves a mysterious cinnamon-infused cider, which turns out to have been produced from the sweat of a sentient cinnamon bun on a juice cleanse.
The surreal stories are vibrant, colourful and incredibly imaginative. Some of the concepts get much more complicated than kid’s books dare to tread, but that’s alright. Trust your kids to work out what’s going on, or at least appreciate the artwork and silly characters. Children are far more receptive to reading comic books than you’d think; you just have to guide their eye with your finger so they can keep track of the panels.
The quality of the stories vary, depending on the writer and artist, but the better ones are a thousand times more entertaining than reading about Elmo’s latest bowel movement. And if you enjoy reading them, your children will notice; enthusiasm is contagious.