Alan Garner's The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Tom Pollock

Getting Younglings Reading by Adam Roberts

I’d say Publishers Weekly are due another ‘best-selling children’s book’ list. Their last (compiled by Debbie Hochman Turvey, with Diane Roback and Jason Britton) appeared at the end of 2001; just late enough to catch the first flush of Pottermania, when Harry became the Krishna of kids’ reading. The list is a little distorted by including only hardback sales, which explains I think why it slews towards some older US titles — back in the day when buying hardbacks was more the norm. Indeed, I’ll be honest and admit I’ve never even heard of half of the top ten titles, including the number 1:

Worlds of Tomorrow

  1. The Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey (Golden, 1942) 14,898,341
  2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1902) 9,380,274
  3. Tootle by Gertrude Crampton (Golden, 1945) 8,560,277
  4. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1960) 8,143,088
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine, 2000) 7,913,765
  6. Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt (Golden, 1940) 7,562,710
  7. Saggy Baggy Elephant by Kathryn and Byron Jackson (Golden, 1947) 7,476,395
  8. Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton (Golden, 1955) 7,366,073
  9. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1957) 7,220,982
  10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine, 1999) 6,335,585

I’d guess a 2012 list would see a few more Rowlings rolled-in, and possibly a Twilight or two, but I’m not sure it would otherwise see many changes. Publishing for young readers has certainly expanded since I was a kid; not only many more titles published annually but whole sub-genres invented, catering to all manner of perceived tastes. But it’s hard to shake the sense that children’s books as a mode has become somehow diluted by this process: more choice, but fewer definitive titles. And, Rowling aside, to run one’s finger down the PW top-100 — it’s at the end of this article, if you’re interested — is to be struck by how many of the really big sellers are picture books for very young readers, books (of course) parents buy for kids, with little input from the youngster. When kids get to choose their own books, or indeed to decide whether to spend their own pocket — or paper-round money on books, they, as often as not, don’t.

So the issue, of course, is: how do we encourage children to read?

It’s hard to overstate the importance of that question. Kids who don’t read grow into adults who don’t read, and that’s worse than limblessness (Thomas Macaulay had it right, I think, when he declared: ‘I’d rather be a poor man in a garret with plenty of books than a king who did not love reading’). Now I’m aware that people have been complaining that ‘kids aren’t reading enough’ or ‘… aren’t reading the right things’ since Phoenicia ruled the waves; but it does seem to me that we have reached a pinch-point unique in human history. Children can get at least some of the satisfactions of reading from so many other media nowadays; it is so easy not to pick up the habit. Tabloids fret about the dangers posed to teenagers by the letter ‘e’ when it manifests as an illegal drug; but when ‘e’ manifests as an abbreviation of ‘electronic’, especially before the word ‘book’, it has much larger, though more complicated, implications.

Now, it seems to me that there are three main ways kids do pick up the reading habit. One is that their parents engage them in books as much as possible: reading aloud to them (at bedtime, but not only then); taking them into libraries and bookshops, sharing their joy in the printed word. The personal contact is essential. Slapping a talking book CD in the player and leaving the tucked-up-in-bed kid to it whilst you pad downstairs to pour yourself a large glass of wine and kvetch to your partner about how hard your working day was—this simply isn’t the same. To be clear: I think talking books are great, for kids and adults both; and they certainly have their place in a child’s life. But when parents skip the bedtime reading they are missing the chance to reinforce how special books are: not just background noise but a mode of essential connection with the people you love.

Two, in an extension of this: kids learn to value books by seeing their parents valuing books. I grew up in a house in which my mother read all the time; and because children observe their parents closely and absorb much more from the form than they do from the content of parental communication, from this I learned: books are one of the things adults ‘do’; books are really important and really absorbing and above all books are worth your time. Now, I have two kids — Lily (10) and Dan (4): and they are growing up in a house in which both parents read a lot. I hope that they too will absorb this lesson. But this, it seems to me, is one of the unspoken worries posed by e-books. When a kid sees an adult with a book, that adult is unambiguously absorbed in a book. But a kid sees an adult poring over their iPad, phone or tablet, and they learn that iPads, phones and tablets are really absorbing. Maybe the adult is reading a book; but the kid can imitate the adult behaviour just as well by playing Angry Birds, or watching You Tube clips of Justin Bieber. My point is that a book is more than its textual content; a book is also something we wear—the act of reading a book reflects both inwards and outwards into the world. Now, on the train or tube I don’t care if people aren’t sure whether I’m reading The Brothers Karamazov or playing Smack Gugl, because I’m never going to see these people again. But reading an actual book where your kids can see you is something like the inverse equivalent of smoking where your kids can see you: behaviour they’re liable to imitate.

Destination MoonThree: kids pick up the habit of reading by actually enjoying the habit themselves. Here, I think, the best practice is permissive. Never mock a child for what they love reading (as it might be: ‘how can you enjoy that Twilight rubbish? You should be reading Dickens and Henry James!’)—not because you won’t be able to ‘guilt’ kids into reading other sorts of things, but precisely because you may be able to. A kid wholly absorbed in reading Twilight is learning that reading is one of the greatest pleasures available to the mind and imagination. Pressuring them into picking up a worthier book will tend only to teach them that, sometimes, reading can be a chore. If all your kids never read anything apart from comic books, TV tie-ins and the back of cereal packets, then it may be worth gently suggesting ways to diversify their experience; but there is nothing wrong with enjoying comic books and TV tie-ins and the back of cereal packets. My father, as a child in the 1940s and 1950s, loved Arthur Ransom’s Swallows and Amazons books. When I was a boy he gave me his old set, hoping I would find a similar joy in them. I didn’t: they struck me a catastrophically boring. I preferred Tintin (especially Destination Moon and Explorers on the Moon), but I was at the same time painfully conscious of a low-level parental disappointment that hung about the unopened green-spined hardbacks in my bedroom. This, I’d say, was not a productive guilt.

There are other aspects to this, as well. Many kids (I was one; my daughter is another) derive great pleasure from collecting; and books are a superb vehicle for this. As a lad I read all Enid Blyton’s many Famous Five novels. Even at that age I could see that the adventures were repetitive in a diminishing-returns sort of way, but slowly putting together all the volumes—handily the publisher printed numbers on the bottom of the spines so you could arrange them easily in order—was a pleasure in itself that motivated me to read through the whole lot. My wife sought out many films from an early age, partly because she enjoyed films, but partly because she took pleasure in being able to put a tick next to the title of that film in a big Halliwell’s she’d been given as a Christmas Present. Another thing to encourage in kids is the making of books: if they write out a story, and draw some illustrations, for crying out loud make a big deal of this: praise them, help them arrange and bind together their opus. The joy in telling stories is not only innate in humankind, it is intimately connected to the joy in hearing stories.

BoySo what is the state of reading in Casa Roberts? At 10, Lily is plenty old enough to read by herself, and does so, though not as much as I might like. But I still read her a chapter a night at bedtime from whichever book we’re on. These tend to be recently published works. A few years back I found myself, inadvertently, replicating my own father’s Swallows and Amazons debacle, by pressing upon her some books that had meant a great deal to me as a kid. One was The Hobbit, one of my own childhood holy books, which I read her cover to cover. She endured this, although in the process I was even struck myself by how slow and often diffuse it reads nowadays. When I tried the same thing with A Wizard of Earthsea she rebelled before I had got to end of the (fairly discursive) first chapter. I might think this a shame—since it’s natural to share the things you love with the people you love—if I didn’t also think that books are precisely the ground on which we discover our own tastes—that in a strong sense that is one of the points of books, to set our own imaginations free—and that part of this is reacting against the tastes of your parents. At any rate, Lily has found more pleasure in recently published books: all the Horrible Histories; the whole Diary of a Wimpy Kid run (she read those herself, helped along by copious illustration; something with which I’ve no problem). Barry Hutchison’s The 13th Horseman was a hit; she loved Roald Dahl’s Boy, and — this surprised me — loved its follow-up, Going Solo, even more. A sense of what’s at stake for her may, perhaps, be indicated by the fact though she has read several Jacqueline Wilson titles they haven’t really clicked for her; where The Little Prince captivated her. Clearly for Lily imaginative escape is part of the appeal.

Then there’s 4-year old Dan. He has recently gone from a one-book-at-bedtime fellow to a two-books-at-bedtime-and-I’ll-not-stand-for-any-attempt-to-shortchange-me sort of guy. But, of course, we’re at the picture-book stage, so this isn’t too time consuming. His pleasure is also strongly phased: which is to say, he will insist upon the same book night after night for weeks, and then — mysteriously, abruptly — change. I must have read Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham and Where The Wild Things Are a hundred times each. Those two Seusses (‘Seussi’?) are interesting, actually: because my sense is that what really tickles Dan’s imagination are fantasies of behaviour and misbehaviour, of making mess and tidying it up, of defying and acceding to parental authority — that’s also what the Sendak book is about, of course. This is natural: for a young child being naughty is never mere anarchy: it is always a way of testing the boundaries of behaviour in order to reassure him/herself that there are such boundaries (how miserable a child would be if everything were permitted). And what are those boundaries if not stories that we all tell ourselves about acceptable and unacceptable actions? This has been at the heart of books since Aeschylus, at least.

Little RabbitOne other thing that strikes me about Dan’s enjoyment of books — which, I think, scales more generally — is how strongly and positively ritualistic it is. His current (as of: late May 2012) favourite book is Michael Rosen’s excellent Little Rabbit Foo Foo, another fable about joyous misbehaviour and inevitable punishment. After scores of readings Dan has in effect memorised this text; and this means that if my reading strays in even the smallest way from what is actually printed upon the page he will complain forcefully, and insist I read it properly. It must be just so. Indeed, this is something that goes beyond the printed word. In Rosen’s book, the borderline psychopathic Little Rabbit Foo Foo rides through the forest on a small motorbike, scooping up variously field mice, wriggly worms, tigers and goblins and bopping them on the head with a mallet (the Good Fairy takes a dim view of this, and after repeated warnings punishes him). When I utter the words ‘bopping them on the head’ I am obliged to make a pretend swipe at Dan’s head, upon which he falls back in the bed laughing. This is as much part of the reading ritual as turning the pages in the right order.

And ritual is good. Rituals are the currency of strong magic, of which reading is perhaps the strongest. The magic is strong enough, in fact, that it takes only a little effort on the parental part to enchant children. It’s an effort worth making. Where kids' reading is concerned, we can all be wizards.


Adam Roberts was born two-thirds of the way through the last century. He is a writer of science fiction, and a professor of nineteenth-century literature, and he lives a little way west of London. His most recent novels are By Light Alone (Gollancz 2011) and Jack Glass (Gollancz 2012).

You can be enchanted by this particular wizard on Twitter at @arrroberts.

Worlds of Tomorrow art by Sarah McIntyre


All-Time Bestselling Children’s Books (Publishers Weekly 51 12/17/2001)

  1. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of AzkabanThe Poky Little Puppy by Janette Sebring Lowrey (Golden, 1942) 14,898,341
  2. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1902) 9,380,274
  3. Tootle by Gertrude Crampton (Golden, 1945) 8,560,277
  4. Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1960) 8,143,088
  5. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine, 2000) 7,913,765
  6. Pat the Bunny by Dorothy Kunhardt (Golden, 1940) 7,562,710
  7. Saggy Baggy Elephant by Kathryn and Byron Jackson (Golden, 1947) 7,476,395
  8. Scuffy the Tugboat by Gertrude Crampton (Golden, 1955) 7,366,073
  9. The Cat in the Hat by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1957) 7,220,982
  10. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine, 1999) 6,335,585
  11. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/ Levine, 1999) 6,314,391
  12. Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, 1974) 6,228,042
  13. One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1960) 6,164,454
  14. The Giving Tree by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, 1964) 5,603,187
  15. The Littlest Angel by Charles Tazewell (Children's Press/Ideals, 1946) 5,471,709
  16. Hop on Pop by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1963) 5,420,890
  17. Oh, the Places You'll Go! by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1990) 5,353,426
  18. Dr. Seuss's ABC by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1960) 5,187,656
  19. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone by J.K. Rowling (Scholastic/Levine, 1998) 5,087,304
  20. The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle (Philomel, 1969) 4,849,704
  21. The Children's Bible (Golden, 1965) 4,281,314
  22. A Light in the Attic by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, 1981) 4,269,048
  23. The Tale of Benjamin Bunny by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1904) 4,163,244
  24. Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman (Random House, 1960) 4,135,762
  25. Very Hungry CaterpillarThe Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister (North-South, 1992) 4,082,500
  26. The Cat in the Hat Comes Back by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1958) 4,043,578
  27. Richard Scarry's Best Word Book by Richard Scarry (Golden, 1963) 3,981,291
  28. Disney's the Lion King adapted by Justine Korman (Golden, 1994) 3,900,150
  29. The Tale of Jemina Puddle-Duck by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1908) 3,839,474
  30. The Little Engine That Could by Watty Piper (Platt & Munk, 1930) 3,757,178
  31. Fox in Socks by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1965) 3,680,135
  32. Goodnight Moon (board book) by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. by Clement Hurd (HarperCollins, 1991) 3,613,958
  33. The Real Mother Goose by Blanche F. Wright (Rand McNally, 1916 OP) 3,600,000 (as of 1989)
  34. Go, Dog. Go! by P.D. Eastman (Random House, 1961) 3,482,666
  35. How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1964) 3,446,646
  36. The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1903) 3,172,366
  37. The Tale of Tom Kitten by Beatrix Potter (Frederick Warne, 1907) 3,079,464
  38. Macmillan Dictionary for Children edited by Judith Levy (Macmillan, 1975) 3,054,401
  39. Winnie-the-Pooh by A.A. Milne, illus. by Ernest Shepard (Dutton, 1926) 2,952,331
  40. My Book About Me (by Me, Myself) by Dr. Seuss, illus. by Roy McKie (Random House, 1969) 2,923,826
  41. Where's Waldo? by Martin Handford (Little, Brown, 1987) 2,911,195
  42. Just Imagine (Lyrick, 1992 OP) 2,861,949
  43. The Great Waldo Search by Martin Handford (Little, Brown, 1989) 2,819,598
  44. The Polar Express by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, 1985) 3,544,116
  45. Find Waldo Now by Martin Handford (Little, Brown, 1989) 2,730,622
  46. Cat's Cradle by Anne Akers Johnson, illus. by Sarah Boore (Klutz, 1993) 2,609,201
  47. The Cat in the Hat Beginner Book Dictionary by P.D. Eastman (Random House, 1964) 2,524,642
  48. The Cat in the HatGoodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown, illus. by Clement Hurd (HarperCollins, 1947) 2,441,836
  49. Walt Disney's Storyland by Walt Disney (Golden, 1962) 2,400,904 (figures since 1996 not available)
  50. The Secret of Shadow Ranch (Nancy Drew #5) by Carolyn Keene (Grosset & Dunlap, 1931) 2,347,750
  51. Barney's Favorite Mother Goose Rhymes Vol. 1 (Lyrick, 1993 OP) 2,343,018
  52. Falling Up by Shel Silverstein (HarperCollins, 1996) 2,319,722
  53. The Secret of the Old Clock (Nancy Drew #1) by Carolyn Keene (Grosset & Dunlap, 1930) 2,273,429
  54. Richard Scarry's Best Mother Goose Ever by Richard Scarry (Golden, 1964) 2,241,218
  55. The Tower Treasure (Hardy Boys #1) by Franklin Dixon (Grosset & Dunlap, 1927) 2,209,774
  56. Guess How Much I Love You (board book) (Candlewick, 1996) 2,199,550
  57. Barney's Farm Animals (Lyrick, 1993 OP) 2,174,283
  58. I Can Read with My Eyes Shut by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1978) 2,139,084
  59. Baby Bop's Toys (Lyrick, 1993 OP) 2,136,818
  60. Put Me in the Zoo by Robert Lopshire (Random House, 1960) 2,065,102
  61. The Touch Me Book by Pat and Eve Witte (Golden, 1961) 2,040,125
  62. I Am a Bunny by Ole Risom, illus. by Richard Scarry (Golden, 1963) 2,034,130
  63. Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (HarperCollins, 1964) 1,972,147
  64. Never Talk to Strangers by Irma Joyce (Golden, 1967 OP) 1,934,275
  65. Oh, The Thinks You Can Think! by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1975) 1,896,663
  66. Richard Scarry's Best Storybook Ever by Richard Scarry (Golden, 1968) 1,863,024
  67. When We Were Very Young by A.A. Milne, illus. by Ernest Shepard (Dutton, 1924) 1,856,687
  68. The Hidden Staircase (Nancy Drew #2) by Carolyn Keene (Grosset & Dunlap, 1930) 1,821,457
  69. If You Give a Mouse a Cookie by Laura Numeroff, illus. by Felicia Bond (HarperCollins/Geringer, 1985) 1,786,320
  70. The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (Harcourt, 1943) 1,753,185
  71. 71. Barney's Magical Picnic by Stephen White (Golden, 1993) 1,743,700 (figures since 1996 not available)
  72. The House on the Cliff (Hardy Boys #2) by Franklin Dixon (Grosset & Dunlap, 1927) 1,712,433
  73. Richard's Scarry's Cars and Trucks and Things That Go by Richard Scarry (Golden, 1968) 1,691,855
  74. Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, illus. by Anita Jeram (Candlewick, 1995) 1,630,908
  75. Animalia by Graeme Base (Abrams, 1987) 1,609,000
  76. Charlotte's WebThe Bungalow Mystery (Nancy Drew #3) by Carolyn Keene (Grosset & Dunlap, 1930) 1,548,785
  77. Kay Thompson's Eloise by Kay Thompson, illus. by Hilary Knight (Simon & Schuster, 1955) 1,543,297
  78. Charlotte's Web by E.B. White, illus. by Garth Williams (HarperCollins, 1952) 1,537,560
  79. Moo Baa La La La (board book) by Sandra Boynton (Little Simon, 1982) 1,535,595
  80. Disney's 101 Dalmatians adapted by Ronald Kidd (Golden, 1991) 1,520,900 (figures since 1996 not available)
  81. Barney's Color Surprise (Lyrick, 1993 OP) 1,509,244
  82. Disney's Beauty and the Beast adapted by Ronald Kidd (Golden, 1991) 1,479,350 (figures since 1996 not available)
  83. Scholastic Children's Dictionary (Scholastic Reference, 1996) 1,476,792
  84. Eloise Wilkin's Mother Goose by Eloise Wilkin (Golden, 1961) 1,471,000
  85. Oh Say Can You Say? by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1979) 1,467,944
  86. The Secret of the Old Mill (Hardy Boys #3) by Franklin Dixon (Grosset & Dunlap, 1930) 1,467,645
  87. Disney's The Little Mermaid adapted by Ronald Kidd (Golden, 1991) 1,467,300 (figures since 1996 not available)
  88. Love Is a Special Way of Feeling by Joan Walsh Anglund (Harcourt, 1960) 1,421,064
  89. The Very Quiet Cricket by Eric Carle (Philomel, 1990) 1,403,629
  90. The Magic Locket by Elizabeth Koda-Callan (Workman, 1988) 1,390,000
  91. A Fly Went By by Mike McClintock, illus. by Fritz Siebel (Random House, 1958) 1,375,505
  92. The Going to Bed Book by Sandra Boynton (Little Simon, 1982) 1,371,225
  93. There's a Wocket in My Pocket! by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1974) 1,360,839
  94. 9Big Bird's Color Game (Golden, 1980) 1,354,626 (figures since 1996 not available)
  95. Aladdin adapted by Ronald Kidd (Golden, 1992) 1,354,500 (figures since 1996 not available)
  96. Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (Viking, 1941) 1,352,712
  97. ET: The Extra-Terrestrial Storybook by William Kotzwinkle (Grosset & Dunlap, 1983) 1,342,863
  98. Mr. Brown Can Moo, Can You? (board book) by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1996) 1,339,547
  99. Dr. Seuss's ABC (board book) by Dr. Seuss (Random House, 1996) 1,338,315
  100. The Mystery of Lilac Inn (Nancy Drew #4) by Carolyn Keene (Grosset & Dunlap, 1930) 1,331,991