With news of the launch of Bookshop.org in the UK, even during lockdown there is little reason not to treat yourself to a book from your favourite independent book shop.
I have to admit that I probably spend more than average on books. Be they for myself, my daughter, or as as gifts, I rarely get through a month without investing in a book (or two). This habit was slightly curbed by our weekly trips to the library, when we would leave with armfuls of stories to enjoy. But with the libraries closed, and since we have been spending a lot more time at home with only our own collection to draw upon, for everyone’s sanity, a few additional purchases have been made.
Before having my daughter, I can’t profess that I knew very much about kids books. I work in publishing, so I know something about how they are made, but if you had asked me five years ago who Emma Dodd or Rachel Bright were I would have struggled to answer. Now, however, I class these, and many other children’s book authors, among my closest companions (in the same way as I class Daphne du Maurier and Nora Ephron among my closest companions).
With Christmas on the horizon, I wanted to share some of my favourite children’s books with you in the hope that they might offer some gift inspiration.
At the moment I’m ‘specialising’ in the 0-3 years category, because that’s what we’re reading. I’ve included some really obvious classics as well as some perhaps less well known choices and a mix of boardbooks for younger readers as well as larger hardbacks and paperbacks.
All pictures are of our own copies, which I fear are quite well-thumbed!
Board books for brand new readers
The gorgeous Emma Dodd series of Me, When and Sometimes are the perfect First Christmas gift. We still read these tiny books and can all cite them by heart. The writing is so beautiful and elegant, almost like haiku poetry and the message: when I grow up I want to be, all the things that make me, me.
Giraffes Can’t Dance is a gentle story of self acceptance and finding the rhythm of your own song. The illustrations are bright and fun, with rhinos rock and rolling and the tigers dancing a tango. There is lots to spot on each page and a positive message to end on.
Every home library should include these board book classics. Despite having been written in the 1980s, Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Peepo! is gorgeously 1930s in style. Each Peach Pear Plum offers lots of opportunities to find little hidden figures on the page. Owl Babies is still evoked by Florence every time we go to nursery: ‘you will come back, like the owl mother comes back’. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes unites babies from across the globe by their commonalities, no matter their differences.
We absolutely love the ‘Little People, Big Dreams’ series. I think Florence took a fellow bookshop customer by surprise when she piped up that she was looking for ‘Frida Kahlo or Rosa Parks’. I’ve included the larger hardback editions below, which are great as they include a bit more detail as well as photographs and a timeline in the back, but we also love the board book versions, which while more concise are great at conveying complex stories and ideas to toddlers. Florence’s favourites of the boardbooks are Frida Kahlo, Coco Chanel and Amelia Earhart.
Feminist Baby ‘will be heard’! This is a lighthearted, rhyming book about a feminist baby and her friends seeking ‘equal rights and toys for all!’
Julia Donaldson needs no introduction, I’m sure. But while her book with Axel Scheffler illustrations are easy to spot, she also has a number of titles with other illustrators than may pass you by. Of these, we love Night Monkey, Day Monkey, illustrated by Lucy Richards. It is a story of two monkey friends who teach each other about the different sides of their world – night and day.
The Snail and the Whale is a dreamy addition to any bookshelf. The tiny snail with the ‘itchy foot’ hitches a ride on the tail of a humpback whale to enable her to explore the world. She goes on to save the life of the whale when he becomes beached on the shore. If nothing else the images of beaches and coral caves will transport you!
Tales form the Acorn Wood Treasury, including Fox’s Socks, Hide and Seek Pig, Rabbits Nap and Postman Bear are perfect short, lift-the-flap stories. They all have a nice rhythm to them and are great from an early age.
The discovery of Rob Biddulph was something of a revelation to me. We started with Sunk! – a tale of Penguin Blue and his companions discovering a sunken pirate ship and rescuing the captain – and almost immediately followed it up by buying Blown Away. This was the original Penguin Blue story, the story of an accidental adventure via a kite. Grrr! May the Best Bear Win (possibly my favourite of the four) is a great story of competition, friendship and the importance of not cheating. And Odd Dog Out is a heartwarming tale of embracing difference. I would strongly recommend them all and I love reading them as much as Florence loves listening to them. Plus they have some great illustrations.
I would describe this collection, Julian is a Mermaid, Lost and Found and Belonging as ‘quiet’ books. They are gentle and thought provoking in their narrative and rhythm. Julian has very little text and Belonging has none, but they are both gorgeous books to explore and discuss together. All of these are perfect late afternoon, wind down reading and all with beautiful illustrations.
The Girls is a charming story of friendship and of growing up. The four girls are ‘as different as they are the same’ and yet the ‘best of friends’. The story follows them through childhood, hard times and good, marriage, careers and parenthood.
Yoga Babies is cute and simple, and has really encouraged Florence to do and enjoy yoga. This has obviously been precipitated by her witnessing my daily practice, but yoga babies offers her some positions she can easily imitate, as well as relatable little characters to copy.
As I mentioned in my introduction, I now hold Rachel Bright close to my heart. Her books, illustrated by Jim Field, read like poetry and both Florence and I love them. Whether it’s in the ‘towering forest, where summer had been. [Where] the cool air bit fresh and the mosses grew green’ or in ‘a wonderful place, at the breaking of dawn. Where the breezes were soft and the sunshine was warm’, we love to follow the adventures of the squabbling squirrels and the cautious Kevin the Koala. We sympathise with the ‘tinyful’ mouse in search of his roar and worry for the wolfling Wilf as he tries to find his way back home. Buy any of these books and you won’t be disappointed.
Snowflake in My Pocket is another Rachel Bright, but this time illustrated by Yu Rong. It is a lovely seasonal tale of an unlikely couple – a squirrel and a bear – who live together in a tree and share their life experiences. When Squirrel experiences snow for the first time he wants to take it back to Bear to enjoy. He seeks the most perfect snowflake he can find to take as a souvenir and puts it in his pocket…
The Supertato series, with the Evil Pea thwarting our hero at every turn, are family favourites. The humour is dry and the illustrations bright. If you want to make sure your child knows their aubergine from their asparagus then these are the books for you!
We have so many books from the ‘Little People, Big Dreams’ collection, from Jane Austin to Stephen Hawking, and David Attenborough to Rosa Parks. They are quite complex and often quite simply illustrated (Agatha Christie, which is a favourite here, is in monochrome) so we were a little surprised by how popular they are with Florence, but she absolutely loves them. Maya Angelou is one of the favourites, as is Marie Curie. I love that she enjoys these books so much and we are both learning from them. We now even have a robot which Florence chose to call ‘Charles Babbage’ having read Ada Lovelace so many times!
Some more classic choices, but ones I feel like everyone should own and enjoy. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt has not only been a great book to read at home, but also one that is often recited whenever we are on walks in the ‘swishy swashy grass’ or stumble tripping around a forest.
Peace at Last and Five Minutes Peace have become our regular Saturday morning in bed reads. There is a cruel irony which sees Florence insisting that I read Five Minutes Peace over and over rather than resting my eyes, but I love both books so much I don’t mind; they both have a nostalgic place in my heart as I remember reading them as a child with my parents. I can’t wait until Florence is old enough for Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch to enter into her reading canon too.
Some more from Jules and some obvious choices. The Paper Dolls, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, is one of my favourite of Julia Donaldson’s books and one I love to give as a gift. There is something so charming and loveable about Ticky and Tacky and Jacky the Backie and Jim with Two Noses and Jo with the Bow. But a word of warning: for the sleep-deprived, hormonal parent, this may cause you to shed a tear or two!
I couldn’t write a summary of our favourite children’s books without mentioning the Gruffalo! We really love the Gruffalo’s Child, and Stick Man and Zog are also on our favourite Julia Donaldson/Axel Scheffler list. We can all cite these by heart and the appearance of Santa in Stick Man still fills Florence with a disproportionate degree of joy!
For slightly older readers
We have just started on the Usborne Illustrated Classics. I’ve really loved introducing Florence to the Railway Children, The Secret Garden and The Wizard of Oz and she still has Little Women, Black Beauty and Heidi to discover!
This gorgeous edition of The Night Before Christmas from Walker Books was a gift for Florence’s first Christmas. We have read and reread it many times out of season and she loves it so much. The elegant cut out illustrations and the pop-up flying sleigh at the end make for a perfect, luxury gift for children of all ages, or indeed adults.