In the three and a half years since Minnie was born, I have been exposed to quite a lot of children’s literature. It is fair to say the books available vary significantly in quality.
When buying books for Minnie or Baxter, it is quite easy to maintain some sort of quality control. None of those targeted at the three-and-under demographic are exactly War & Peace, so it’s usually possible to take the three minutes involved in reading the whole thing to make sure it’s half decent before buying.
We’re also lucky enough to have sufficiently discerning friends who have consistently introduced Minnie to some brilliantly imaginative works. Her bulging shelves have some books that would have a chance of making it onto my own desert island list, never mind hers.
‘Halibut Jackson‘, ‘Not Now, Bernard‘ and ‘Stuck‘ are just three of the genuine classics that I would not have discovered without having had Minnie to read them to. And already, through Baxter, I have found Jon Klassen’s brilliant ‘I want my hat back?‘ and equally ingenious sequel, ‘This is not my hat‘. I would recommend any adult to find a child to read to just so you can have an excuse to read them yourself.
There are some black spots in Minnie’s library, books that make my heart sink whenever she requests them at bedtime. Having got to my late 30s without having read any Beatrix Potter, I find myself staggered by how terrible it all is. How the clunkily written, anthropomorphic guff got published in the first place is beyond me, never mind that kids are still apparently lapping it up 100-plus years later.
She also has the entire Miffy set. While Miffy may be a cute image for a student’s ironic t-shirt, the most generous thing I can say about the rhymes in the actual books is that they may have been better in the original Dutch. There is one book in the series, Miffy’s Dream, that I can’t even say that for. The whole thing has no words, just a series of vaguely psychedelic images of Miffy going on an adventure involving clouds, shooting stars and rainbows.
It’s like the episode of neighbours where Bouncer (a labrador) had a dream sequence. It may be slightly amusing but the lack of words presents quite a challenge when you have to read it as a bedtime story. Narrating fairly simple drawings of rabbits gets pretty repetitive, even when those rabbits are floating in space.
Anyway, the good outweighs the bad and most bedtimes keep me entertained as well as the kids. However, since Minnie began at nursery, a new dimension has been introduced which threatens the standard of story; every day, she gets a book to borrow overnight. Minnie gets to pick this book herself and is usually quite unwavering once she has chosen, however much I try to dissuade her from something I can see is going to be terrible.
Lowlights include a book abut a jungle dance, which revolves around a series of magnetic animals that the reader can position within each of the scenes. A lovely idea, but, having been loaned to a different three or four-year-old every day for the past decade or so, not one of the magnets survives. So I spent one memorable night trying to inject some excitement into a story illustrated entirely with pictures of trees and plains. However engaging the accompanying rhymes were – and however dexterous the rhyming of ‘snake’ and ‘shake’, ‘monkey’ and ‘funky’ – with no sign of the animals they referenced, a children’s book without pictures proved a hard sell.
Another time, she picked the ‘Baby’s catalogue’, some simple lists of items related to babies. No story, just pages and pages of pictures of baths, rattles and daddies. I think even Minnie gave up during that one, her usually attentive veneer slipping to reveal a pure bafflement as to why anyone would want to write, publish or buy such a book.
Whatever we’re reading has to be really terrible to get this reaction. She even managed to maintain a level of interest for more than one reading of a factual book about tractors that she brought home a couple of weeks ago. I have successfully dissuaded her from choosing it again since, although she has tried.
Anyway, what’s scaring me now is that in two days’, time I am going back to work full time and the professional childcare will kick in. Dani the nanny will be dropping Minnie off in the mornings and, at the same time, choosing the book with her. I will have no influence. In a month or so’s time, after repeated reading, I will probably know as much about tractors as the most informed three-year-old.