Summer reading - book reviews

June 18

It is my mission in this issue of Salad Days to encourage you to put in front of your children some of the glorious stories which form part of our cultural heritage before they become books they ‘have to read for school’. How much better if the stories are already well-loved when they are encountered in the classroom, where their complexities can be explored in greater depth?

I’m not, however, an advocate of introducing Shakespeare on the page too early. I think he is much better watched or listened to – when the poetry and drama are so much more accessible. So, despite the existence of some superb Shakespeare for children, he isn’t in this list of recommendations.

I’m conscious that this is the summer holiday issue of Salad Days. Space and weight are at a premium for those travelling so, with this in mind, I have chosen a few collections of stories – only one set of book covers for lots of delights. 

To start at the beginning, and putting both of my themes into practice, is The Orchard Book of First Greek Myths by Saviour Pirotta and Jan Lewis. This is a perfect introduction to a whole cast of larger-than-life characters engaged in a series of extraordinary adventures. There’s Pandora, the Minotaur, Pegasus, Icarus and plenty more. Their stories are retold here with great energy, warmth and humour – and there are bright engaging illustrations to go with them. The advantage of this being a collection of stories is the total immersion in the bonkers world of the Greek gods.

There’s nothing quite as human as a Greek god, in my view, and these unforgettable figures can’t fail to capture children’s imaginations. They will spring back to life when the school project on ‘The Ancient Greeks’ starts. I like King Midas’ poor daughter, for example, who is pleased that her father has so much gold but wishes he would spend less time counting it and spend more time playing with her.

If the collection above (which I’d say is for 5+ year olds) does the trick and your children want more, or if they are slightly older, you could put the Usborne Illustrated Odyssey in front of them, as retold by Anna Milbourne and illustrated by Sebastiaan van Donnick. The story openswith clouds darkening and thunder rumbling over Mount Olympus. ‘Zeus, the king of the gods was having a grumble. “Men are fools,” he complained. “They blame the gods for their misfortunes, even after ignoring our advice. They don’t accept that their own foolish actions lead to their downfall.”’

‘What about Odysseus?’ says his daughter, Athena, ’He hasn’t ignored our advice and he’s certainly no fool … But he’s down there trapped on Calypso’s island. Every time he tries to leave, she brings him back.’ To which Zeus replies, ‘It’s your uncle, Poseidon’s doing. He detests him … I myself have nothing against seeing Odysseus get home.’ With this, we have the plot launched; the tension between the gods outlined; the relations between men and the gods established; and the personality of four major players in the story. It’s hard not to be hooked. 

While this is partly due to Anna Milbourne’s excellent adaptation of the story, it is testament to the extraordinary quality of the old myths. Once embedded in children’s imaginations, they’ll recognise and be enriched by these cultural references for the rest of their lives.

I was going to include an edition of stories from the Bible in this context but instead, I spotted Usborne Books’ See Inside World Religions by Alex Frith and Barry Ablett. It’s a lift-the-flap book but one for slightly older children (say 7+). What I like about it are the comparative studies of the different world religions’ treatments of particular themes – gods and goddesses, festivals, worship and prayer, stories and death. It would take a long while for a curious child to work their way through all the flaps, which contain sufficiently detailed bite-sized pieces of information not only to whet the appetite for more and allow valid comparisons to be drawn, but also to embed these stories, names, and traditions in children’s minds ready to be returned to in future years.

Classic stories of a different kind make up Usborne’s Illustrated Classics series. Again, perfect for summer holiday travel, each volume in this series includes a number of classics carefully adapted for children aged 6-10 years. I’ve selected the volume with ‘action and adventure’ stories – Robinson Crusoe, Around the World in Eighty Days, Moonfleet, Gulliver’s Travels and others, precisely because the originals are simply too wordy for young children today. Appreciation of the language can come in time: let’s get the adventures in front of children and plant the seeds for a lifelong love affair with great literature. I like, for example, the start of this version of Robinson Crusoe: ‘Long ago there lived a boy called Robinson Crusoe. He wasn’t at all interested in school, or books. All he could think about was being a sailor’. What a good way to engage immediately with reluctant readers!

Revisiting a classic through the medium of a modern ‘sequel’ is another fruitful way of introducing our cultural heritage to children. There are plenty of excellent examples of this and I’ve spotted a new one destined to go to the top of the list. It’s Lou Kuenzler’s The Return of the Railway Children. With wartime bombs falling on London, Edie is sent to the safety of the countryside and her aunt Roberta’s house beside the railway at Three Chimneys. 

Edie is the daughter of the original scatty, unconventional Phyllis, who is an unmarried mother and a pilot. She sends Edie off to Roberta (with whom she has fallen out), because she is heading back to the Air Auxiliary to fly planes between aerodromes for the RAF. I have to admit that one chapter in, I needed to turn to the final pages for reassurance that there was going to be a ‘Daddy, oh my daddy’ moment and all would end well. Not a spoiler to tell you that it does! There are plenty of other lump-in-the-throat moments to deal with through the novel. This is a wonderful read for children of maybe 8+. Lots of references to the original through Roberta and Peter’s reminiscences and plenty of plot echoes ensure that it will be a pleasure for nostalgic parents to read as a bedtime story. Just have a box of tissues handy!

Kuenzler’s fondness for EE Nesbit’s original Railway Children shines through. In her Acknowledgements she thanks ‘everyone at the [Keighley and Worth Valley] railway for answering all my questions … and keeping those magnificent steam trains running, so that any of us can still hop aboard and imagine we might be ‘Railway Children’ too!’ She specialises in sequels – she has also written Finding Black Beauty – and I’m very pleased that, at the end of the novels, the publishers steer readers towards matching editions of the originals.

Not yet a part of our cultural heritage but destined to be a classic – and another excellent summer holiday adventure story – is Katherine Rundell’s The Explorer. This is a novel for children of 10+ about four children stranded in the Amazon jungle after a plane crash. A fairly standard start to an adventure story but it is the characters of the children which immediately capture your attention. I particularly like the feisty Con (‘it’s short for Constantia, but if you call me that, I’ll kill you’), whose first comment to Fred, one of the other children to survive the crash, in response to his ‘You survived!’ is ‘Obviously we did … or we’d be less talkative, wouldn’t we?’

This is not just an adventure story. Not only is it funny but there are profound moments which stop you in your tracks, though they are passed over with the lightest of touches. For example, when the children are travelling with the Explorer (whom they have discovered hiding out) he says ‘You don’t have to be in a jungle to be an explorer. Exploring is nothing more than the paying of attention, writ large. Attention. That’s what the world asks of you.’

After a pause, he adds, ‘Speaking of attention, Lila, your sloth is trying to eat your hair. It will give it indigestion if it succeeds.’

You might find you want to borrow this for yourself once your child has read it – saving more space and weight in the suitcase!

To finish off, I thought I would include a book to allow children to tell their own stories drawing on the cultural heritage they have already absorbed. It’s a sticker book – Usborne’s Houses Through Time by Giulia Lombardo and includes all sorts of different houses built during the last 500 years, and waiting to be furnished with chairs, tables, clocks, beds, cookers -  and lives.

All these books and more are available from Hart’s Books in Saffron Walden ( Max and his colleagues will be delighted to help direct your browsing – one of the pleasures of heading off on holiday is surely choosing the books you’ll take with you.

Books suggested by Jo Burch, Founder of Words in Walden




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