Time to speak up;Children's books

26th June 1998 at 01:00
Mary Hoffman chooses books that can be read aloud to pupils of all ages.

While teachers are stocking up on throat pastilles in preparation for the arrival of both the literacy hour and the Year of Reading "Story Month" this September, publishers are busy checking that their most popular picture-book titles are available in big-book versions.

Reading aloud will be necessary for all primary school classes, not just infants. How do you choose from the 7,000 or so new children's books published each year? Will the classics make for fusty reading in the Nineties? And do you have to be an extrovert, a trained actor, or just a masochist to read aloud to 10-year-olds?

First, let's look at what makes a picture book read well aloud: * Repetition - The staple of nursery rhymes and songs, but also to be found in books such as My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes by Eve Sutton and Lynley Dodd (Puffin pound;4.99). This allows for the dramatic pause before the repeated phrase ("The cat from Norway got stuck in the doorway, but . . .") which encourages children to join in.

* Inspired lunacy - Found in most of Dr Seuss (Green Eggs and Ham, The Lorax and The Cat in the Hat are among the books in the Collins Classic Collection, pound;4.99 each).

Also see Quentin Blake's Mister Magnolia who has only one boot and a lot of things that rhyme with it, like "Two lovely sisters who play on the flute". Jonathan Cape is considering a reprint next year.

* Memorable words and phrases - "Wake me up at half past May" in Arnold Lobel's Frog and Toad are Friends (Mammoth pound;4.99); "Schnitzel Von Krumm with a very low tum" in Lynley Dodd's Hairy Maclary series (Puffin pound;4.99 each).

* Vivid characters - Such as Frances the badger in Russell Hoban's tales, including Bedtime for Frances and Bread and Jam for Frances (Jonathan Cape pound;9.99 each).

* A world to explore - Such as the detailed island setting in the Katie Morag series by Mairi Hedderwick (Bodley Head, pound;4.50, pound;9.99 each).

* A happy marriage of words and pictures - As found in the work of Janet and Allan Ahlberg and of Quentin Blake and Roald Dahl. Sometimes you find it in one inspired authorartist, such as Arnold Lobel or Maurice Sendak (Where the Wild Things Are, Bodley Head pound;9.99).

* A satisfying ending - There are wonderful closures in the Ahlbergs' Each Peach Pear Plum (Puffin pound;4.99) and The Tiger who came to Tea by Judith Kerr (Collins pound;4.99).

Two recent picture-books score highly on several of these factors. You can't lose with Margaret Mahy's A Summery Saturday Morning (Hamish Hamilton pound;10.99), in which the pressure of the verse ("Bad dogs, bad dogs chase the cat Chase the cat, chase the cat. One dog's thin and the other dog's fat On a summery Saturday morning") makes you read it the way it needs to be read. Just Dog by Hiawyn Oram (Orchard pound;9.99), is a beautifully structured story of a dog looking for a name, and is splendidly complemented by Lisa Flather's affectionate, daft dog pictures.

Look for similar qualities when choosing books split into chapters to read aloud to older primary pupils, although you'll want less repetition, fewer pictures and more characters.

Plot is crucial: preferably, each chapter should end with a cliffhanger. Classic authors such as E Nesbit are good at this (Puffin publishes her novels, including Five Children and It, pound;3.99, and The RailwayChildren, pound;2.99), but you do need to read ahead of yourself. Nesbit delivers incomparable plots, but you don't want to be confronted in mid-sentence with sentiments such as "servants can't be trusted".

Mary Hoffman has written 70 books for children and read aloud in many schools. Her latest book is Virtual Friend, Barrington Stoke pound;3.99. A big-book version of Amazing Grace, illustrated by Caroline Binch, will be published by Frances Lincoln in the autumn.

Tips for reading aloud:

* Read the book through to yourself first. This sounds obvious, but many don't do it. Picture-books take very little time to read.

* Listen to the book on audiotape if you can. You don't have to read as well as Martin Jarvis, but it does help to hear someone else do it.

* Read the book (or chapter) straight through without stopping the first time. You can pause for questions and discussion on the second reading, but children really need to "hear the tune" of a story first.

* Don't always choose fiction. Non-fiction is harder to read aloud, and the "expanded caption" type text in Dorling Kindersley's Eyewitness series, for example, can sound disjointed. But readers need to know the conventions and linguistic patterns of non-narrative texts too.

* Let the children choose. Not always, but let some choices reflect the enthusiasm of an individual. This might even introduce you to new books, which is part of what literacy is about.

Mary Hoffman's top five read-alouds

In ascending order

Where's My Teddy? by Jez Alborough (Walker pound;8.99; big book pound;11.99)

Hairy Maclary from Donaldson's Dairy by Lynley Dodd (Puffin pound;4.99)

Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg (Mammoth pound;4.99)

Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf by Catherine Storr (Puffin pound;3.99)

The Sheep-Pig by Dick King-Smith (Puffin pound;3.99)

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