There has been much cursing of World Book Day/Book Week on my social media from friends rolling eyes at having to dress their children as a book character. Not from me. I was thrilled. (Mind you, I was not – this year – dressing a boy, and most of the complaints seemed to be about small boys only wanting to be superheroes.) Books to me are as essential as oxygen. They are pillars of civilisation (note that only really bad characters – fictional or otherwise – burn books).
Here’s what we – and our minis – are reading right now…
I never have just one book on the go. I need a book to suit my mood and who knows what that might be? So, right now, I am – finally – thoroughly entrenched in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (I know, not before time. But I bought the hardback so it’s impossible to tote around.) Yes, it’s slow, but my goodness, the pages glimmer with Mantel’s genius. Her Cromwell is a man made real not by his brilliance but by his flaws. No hagiography this, but I admit I am rooting for him. (Even though we all know how this ends…)
I picked up Rhidian Brook’s The Aftermath on a whim, and I’m so glad I did. Post-war Hamburg is a bleak, blasted heath. Colonel Lewis Morgan, a truly decent man and soldier who views Germans not as the enemy but as a people crushed, is brought in to oversee the reconstruction of the British zone. He brings a wife, the beautiful Rachel, and son, Edmund (their other son was killed in a German bombing raid). They are billeted in one of the city’s finest remaining houses – but Lewis’s compassion is such he allows its owner, Herr Lubert, and his teenage daughter Freda to remain, living in a flat on the top floor. Tensions and issues aplenty. It is deeply atmospheric, tense and moving.
For comic relief, I am dipping in and out of the wonderful The Most of Nora Ephron. Warm, witty, wise – suffice to say she is the author of one of my all-time-favourite quotes: “Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim”. A gift from my almost-as-wonderful husband. (!)
Next up? Two books to look out for. My friend and fellow book fiend Helen Whitaker sent me Villa America (published in April) because she knows I loved Klaussman’s debut Tigers in Red Weather as much as she did. This one looks so wonderful I have been delaying starting it in the manner of a child leaving the best part of tea til last. It’s the story of Sara Wilborg and Gerald Murphy – the glittering, golden, charmed but doomed couple who were the inspiration for F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is in the Night. And Sophie and the Sibyl – another reimagining of the literary past, this time starring George Eliot.
My four-year-old develops passions for books, so – even though she has oodles – we read the same ones over and over until the ardour cools. When her books were considerably shorter, we made the error of reading three per night. Try and break that tradition. She is currently all about Shirley’s Hughes’ delightful Alfie. Alfie Wins a Prize is a relatively new acquisition to our Hughes canon which has proved hugely popular. My husband noted – after reading it for approximately the 146th time – that ‘it takes a long time to get going’, but that’s the joy of Hughes’ writing: she understands how children think, what matters to them (the smallest, most insignificant of details) and the rhythm of her writing reflects how children speak – and how they view grown-ups. We particularly enjoy Alfie Gets in First and Alfie Gives a Hand (featuring the shockingly naughty Bernard: he blows into his jelly with a straw! Throws crayons in the air at his own birthday party! Puts on a tiger mask and terrifies his guests! I fear there is rather too much amused admiration for Bernard at bedtime…)
For book day she was either going as Alfie or My Naughty Little Sister – but the latter won out, as it meant she could wear “the dress mummy wore in the olden days” (yes, this made me feel ancient). I loved her as a Naughty Little Sister (not such a stretch at times) even more than I love Dorothy Edwards’ charming, funny tales. MNLS is a joy: feisty, funny and oh-so-delightfully-naughty. (I am noticing a theme emerging. Somewhat concerning.)
She also adores Charlie and Lola, Paper Dolls (do not attempt to read when emotional. The kind granny gets me every time.) by the ever-terrific Julia Donaldson with illustrations by Rebecca Cobb – who also wrote and illustrated another favourite, Aunt Amelia, a subversive tale in which the eponymous aunt (a crocodile) comes to babysit – and uses mum and dad’s ‘helpful’ list of rules to, well, do the opposite. Lost and Found by wunder-illustrator Oliver Jeffers is part of our regular evening literary rotation – as is The Way Back Home. In fact, anything he writes is fine by us. (And Alex’s boys, it would appear.) It’s not a storybook per se, but the Atlas of Adventures is perfect for bedtime travellers (also good for brushing up on your geography. A friend came for tea and my daughter insisted on showing her this book. When I was next at said friend’s house, I spotted the book and commented that she had bought it for her baby daughter. Err no, for me, came the answer. Fair enough.)
The blue-eyed boy may only be six months, but he has a book before his lunchtime nap and one before bed. Before bed it is always Goodnight Moon – which, the peculiarity of bidding goodnight to ‘a bowlful of mush’ aside, is the perfect pre-bed book. Charming, old-fashioned and comforting. He so adores Where is Maisy that he jigs up and down on my lap and grins his widest when I produce it. We also adore the Little Miss and Master books – try Little Master Carroll – The Wizard of Oz; Little Master Kipling – The Jungle Book and, of course, Little Miss Austen – Pride and Prejudice.
I may not be as voracious a reader as Natasha, but I do love a good book. Over the years, my attention span and tastes have changed. I no longer commute, so the only time I read is just before bed and I’m usually so ready to hit the hay that not many pages get turned. Saying that when I get into a book, I really want to read it. My all-time favourite author is William Boyd. If you haven’t read any of his books or have only sampled his most famous ones (Restless and Any Human Heart), dive in and read the rest. They are universally wonderful. Brazzaville Beach will stay with you a long time after you finish it. Currently, I am having a bit of a ‘thriller’ moment. Not the slasher/super-hero cop variety, but more the psychological kind – think Before I go to Sleep, Gone Girl (so much better than the film), Apple Tree Yard (loved) and The Girl on the Train, which I’ve just this minute finished. Ready and waiting on my bedside table I have The Miniaturist (hey, it’s not a thriller, but I need to expand my remit) and The Book of You, which I picked up purely on the premise that it’s ‘a terrifying psychological thriller about obsession and power,’ (they had me at ‘thriller). Also on my bedside table I have a half-finished copy of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Stranger’s Child, which is so beautiful I don’t know why I haven’t finished it and Sebastian Faulkes’ A Week in December, which again I loved, so have no idea why I didn’t get to the end – err children, that’d be it.
On the subject of children, my three boys all love a book. The youngest at 14 months (where has the time gone?) is at the pulling pages stage, so we’re sticking with board books – Guess how much I love you, Hairy Maclary and Julia Donaldson’s Acorn Wood series are all much loved. Having put the littlie to bed, it’s time to read to the older two. Or, now that my eldest has learned to read, his turn to read to me. I can’t say the Oxford Reading Tree produce the most scintillating books, but the very fact that he is reading blows my mind, so I love them for that. Once he’s practiced, it’s my turn. Like Natasha’s daughter, and I think, most children, my boys get a book obsession and we end up reading the same one every night for ages. My personal favourite is Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale, while the boys also love It’s a Secret, the Winnie the Witch series, anything by Oliver Jeffers (This Moose Belongs to Me is just brilliant) and – our current favourite – The Adventures of Mr Toad, a retelling of The Wind in the Willows by Tom Moorhouse. Which brings us on to World Book Day. I’m afraid I sit in the ‘oh bugger’ camp when it comes to dressing up for WBD. Not because I don’t think it’s important for children to love books, more because I’m a lazy so-so and having to come up with two costumes is basically a pain in the arse. But it’s not about me! I have to remind myself, and so, the eldest is going as Toad or Ratty (we haven’t decided yet) and the younger one as Mog from Mog and Bunny (I’m thinking a few whiskers on the face will suffice (told you I’m lazy).