Summer reading lists, and why we need them

So my two resident Y6s are all set to move on, and this will be the last regular post on the blog for a while now. Their thoughts may turn to the approaching weeks of freedom; mine turn more prosaically to the heaps of new uniform awaiting nametapes. Amongst the many documents sent out with great efficiency by the two schools, I’m glad to say there were two cracking reading lists which I have been able to source from the whizzy new tri-borough library service.

Hammersmith library
(photo courtesy of hammersmithandfulham)

Readers in the W6 area: have you seen our splendid refurbished Hammersmith library? Who’d ha’ thought? The venerable Carnegie building remains, but inside all is bright and open and packed with new stock, easy to navigate (although there are plenty of friendly and knowledgeable library people on hand, should you need help) and with catalogues and loans integrated across Hammersmith and Fulham, Kensington and Chelsea and Westminster so that you can search, reserve, borrow and return books, CDs and DVDs in any of twenty-six libraries, from Fulham to St John’s Wood. Those twenty-six between them give you access to over a million books, and with your library card and PIN you can also manage your account online – highly useful for specific catalogue searches and last-minute renewals from the comfort of your laptop or smartphone.

One urgent reason to visit the library, not just Hammersmith but any local UK library this summer: the Summer Reading Challenge is underway, and this year’s is a corker, irresistibly illustrated by Sarah Macintyre (Oliver and the Seawigs, You Can’t Eat a Princess!). The theme is Mythical Maze, and when you sign up your junior reader they’ll be given a poster to complete with myth-creature stickers – some quite whiffy, be warned – as they borrow and read books over the summer. For every two books, they’ll earn a sticker and some other goodie (in past years, wrist bands and keyrings); for six books, there’s a certificate and presentation ceremony early in the autumn term. Libraries will be promoting myth-related books, and the Summer Reading Challenge website is bursting with book recommendations, book chat, a reading club (look out for Bringing books to life, in which actors and other famous faces read from favourite children’s books old and new), activities and games.

All of this is to recognise that we need to try quite hard, these days, to persuade children to read over the summer: reading isn’t the default rainy-day or remote-holiday-cottage option that it used to be, and for all that we might romanticise the gripping reads of our own childhoods, there are so many screen-based alternatives today that are brighter, noisier, more immediate and more calculatingly “hooky” than print on paper or e-reader can be. How ironic, then, that we should value and worry about print-on-paper reading more than ever: honestly, if you’re not worried about “summer slide” (the perceptible academic lapse between the end of the summer term and the beginning of the autumn), what sort of a pushy parent are you? The good news is that it doesn’t take much to stave off summer slide: a much-quoted piece of Harvard research has it that reading just six books, on topics that interest the reader, and at an appropriate reading level (not to easy, but not so hard as to discourage), can be just as effective as a summer remedial programme. It’s no accident that the Summer Reading Challenge sets six books as its goal; for some children and families, six books won’t be any sort of stretch, but for those who find the whole “what-now?” question a bit daunting, I’m happy to offer some suggestions.

I have avoided plugging the Usborne Reading Programme (to which I have contributed) quite heroically, I think, through forty-nine posts so far, but now is the time to mention: it is well-stocked in libraries and has over three hundred titles at all levels from emerging reader to intelligent adult. These are well-written, well-produced books with generous illustrations, and the huge range of subjects and styles makes it possible to read widely at one level or progress comfortably to the next. Look out for Usborne First Reading (for ages 4+) and Usborne Young Reading (ages 5+, 7+. 9+).

Reception to Year 1
: at this stage, by far the most important thing is learning to enjoy books, not pushing reading skills. Keep enjoying the hundreds of outstanding picture books available – your child doesn’t become “too old” for picture books once he or she can read for themselves, and intelligent picture books build equally valuable skills of imagining, observation, empathy and language awareness. If you are looking for something specifically reading-focused, rather than buying or borrowing school-y reading scheme books, try some gentle phonics support: Usborne’s Phonics Readers (especially the recent series illustrated by Fred Blunt) is a collection of lively stories which build phonemic awareness through rhyming, rhythmic text. Oxford University Press had the inspired idea of commissioning Julia Donaldson for their Songbirds series, and she rose to the challenge as few others could of writing within the straitjacket of focus phonemes: the higher-level titles are the most fun, likely too challenging for YR children to read themselves but also invaluable for developing phonemic awareness. A few, only a very few, are let down by needlessly drab illustrations.

Year 1 to Year 2
: most children at this stage will have mastered the essentials of reading, but will need plenty of support and have limited stamina. Allan Ahlberg’s Gaskitt storiesseries is perfectly pitched, with engaging stories, manageable text and charming quirky illustration from Katharine McEwen. This is also a good stage for Usborne’s Beginners series of Key Stage 1 non-fiction: over 50 titles offer topics to suit most interests, and it can be easier to dip in and out of non-fiction than tackle a start-to-finish fiction title. For reading aloud and enjoying together, look out Joan Aiken’s A Necklace of Raindrops and The Kingdom Under the Sea, beautifully-written fairytales old and new, with exquisite silhouette illustrations by Jan Pienkowski.

Year 2 to Year 3
: most children will be becoming confident in their reading but in need of building stamina. For the history-minded, Terry Deary’s various Tales (Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Knight, Pirate and Victorian have recently been joined by First World War) are highly readable and just right in length. Geraldine McCaughrean’s Greek and Roman myths (if you can find them) and Andrew Matthews’ Shakespeare Stories are similarly manageable, retold with verve and with irrepressible illustrations by Tony Ross. Chris Riddell’s Ottoline is deliciously, defiantly eccentric: light on text, the books allow ample room for exquisite line illustration packed with quirky details. There is a little more text in Sally Gardner’s Magical Children series, but so warmly and accessibly written that it’s easy to zip through them.

Year 3 to Year 4
: if you’ve not yet encountered Sally Gardner’s Magical Children, now is your moment; and if you have, you might well enjoy her new Wings and Co series. There are some lovely Philip Pullman books for younger readers, especially The Firework-Maker’s Daughter and postmodern fairytale I Was a Rat! Cressida Cowell’s How to Train your Dragon is a winning combination of zippy writing, expressive illustration, an unlikely hero to root for and a series of pretzel plots (impossibly contorted yet all neatly joined up). If your child tends to the blackly humorous in their magic and fantasy, now is the time to seek out Marcus Sedgwick’s delicious Raven Mysteries. Now might also be the time to embark on Harry Potter, especially books 1 and 2.

Year 4 to Year 5
: Harry Potter 3 is generally seen as a step change in the series, and for many is one of the best, introducing new layers of complexity and moral ambiguity (nicely reflected in Alfonso Cuarón’s moody film). Harry Potters 4-6 represent another step change in their vast accumulation of detail (not to mention length); aficionados will come to them in their own time. Cornelia Funke‘s Inkheart trilogy is a superb extended fable of the power of reading and imagination. For more revisionist magic (teenage master criminals, feisty fairies and flatulent tunnelling dwarves –plenty of gags, of every sort), look out Eoin Colfer’s Artemis Fowl series. Philip Reeve’s Goblins trilogy is also a treat. For brilliantly observed, bittersweet child-centred comedy, try Frank Cottrell Boyce’s Millions, Framed and Cosmic.

Year 5 to Year 6
: how did I not find occasion, these last two years, to put out a banner for Rick Riordan? The Percy Jackson series combines a brilliant premise (Greek gods, demigods and heroes emerge in contemporary teenagers’ America) with turn-on-a-dime plotting, cracking dialogue and legendary chapter titles: for instance chapter 9, “In Which Everyone Hates Me, Including the Horse.” Those who have read their way through Harry Potter and are in need of a new immersive experience might well look to Angie Sage’s Magyk series, similarly rich in characters and vividly-imagined world. Year 5-Year 6 is also a good stage to discover Morris Gleitzman: the haunting Felix books, the indomitable Too Small to Fail; as well as some of Michael Morpurgo’s finest; War Horse, Kensuke’s Kingdom, The Astonishing Story of Adolphus Tips.

Year 6+:
I am tempted just to give the excellent school reading lists referred to above, but the total is over 70 titles and it’s possible that I’ve presumed enough on your interest and patience by now. Titles that I was particularly pleased to see included Kevin Crossley Holland’s The Seeing Stone; Paul Dowswell’s Powder Monkey; Neil Gaiman’s Graveyard Book; Eva Ibbotson’s Journey to the River Sea; Philip Pullman’s Ruby in the Smoke; R J Palacio’s Wonder. There is also a peppering of classics: A Little Princess; Anne of Green Gables; Five Children and It; Ballet Shoes; The Hobbit; Huckleberry Finn.

You’ll find many more suggestions – themed lists, latest titles and what-to-read-next – in the excellent Ultimate Book Guide (most libraries have copies for reference), or websites such as Booktrust, Books for Keeps or LoveReading4Kids.

I wish you all a long fine summer, and plenty of excellent reading.


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