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Kiss Goodnight, Sam

It was a dark and stormy night on Plum Street

The wind is howling outside the little white house on Plum Street as Sam goes to bed.  Mrs Bear is putting him down for the night and asks him if he is ready to sleep.  “Oh no,” is always his answer, “I’m waiting!”  He has a story, a glass of milk, has his blanket tucked round him and all his toy friends popped in with him, but still he is not ready.  Mrs Bear is (or pretends to be) confused, until she finally remembers.  “Oh I know.  Kiss goodnight Sam.”

This is a story about security, safety, love and ritual at bedtime.  The noises of the rain and the wind outside serve to heighten the sense of warmth inside the little house, and Anita Jeram’s rich illustrations in cosy gold, red and brown complement that perfectly.  The text, by Amy Hest, is lyrical without rhyming, and its undulating rhythm captures the tenderness of Mrs Bear.

Mrs Bear poured milk in two glasses and they both drank milk and it was warm sliding down.”

When she finally remembers what he is waiting for the story becomes almost interactive.

And she bent way down, kissing Sam once, and twice, and then twice more.

“Again!” cried Sam.

And she bent way down, kissing Sam once, and twice, and then twice more.”

It is almost impossible not to suit the action to the word at this point, and for children who are reluctant to go to bed this walk-through of the process may be especially effective.  And nearly all toddlers will love being kissed in kind as they hear the words!

As a bedtime story this is ideal: short, gentle, on topic, and ending with a kiss.  Nothing fancy or clever, but perfect for its purpose.

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Why books?

I’m assuming if you are reading this you are already someone who reads with your child.  So in a way, this post may be redundant.  But it does no harm to remind ourselves why reading is so important.  When the days are busy, particularly when you have more than one child at home, reading can be sidelined.  If you’re not asked, sometimes it’s difficult to be the one who takes the book off the shelf and makes that suggestion.

So, why should we read with our children?  Here are lots of good reasons:

1. Bonding

Note the use of ‘with’, not ‘to’.  Reading is a bonding activity which two (or more!) people do together.  When you read with someone, you are sharing an experience.  If nothing else, reading is an excuse (as if one were needed!) to cuddle up on a chair and do something productive.  Some children are not naturally cuddly, in which case a book can be a great excuse for getting close together.  Snuggling up also helps to associate positive feelings with books and reading – you could even have a special ‘story chair’ or cushion!

2. Learning ‘book’ rules

Children don’t arrive in this world with an innate knowledge of how books work.  Reading helps teach them which bit is the cover, where to find a title, how to read from left to right, how to turn pages… This may be the era of Kindles and iPads and the internet but books are still going to have a place in the world, the classroom and the workplace for a while to come.

3. Have experiences of the wider world in your own home

Unless you are rich and blessed with infinite amounts of free time, you cannot regularly take children to the city, the countryside, the farm, the zoo, the beach, and on holiday.  But by reading about them you can give children at least a taste of what’s out there, giving them the vocabulary and a sense of what to expect.

4. Vocabulary

The more words children are exposed to at a young age, the larger their vocabulary as they grow – fairly obvious, really!  But it’s not always easy to vary your own language on a day-to-day basis.  Reading exposes children (and you) to more words than you might otherwise use.  (Read Click Clack Moo and your toddler may even drop ‘ultimatum’ into casual conversation!)

5. Exposing them to written language

To write well, children have to learn the difference between spoken and written language rules.  Literacy teaching these days tries to explain this (which is frankly pretty difficult, even at secondary level, and should really be left well alone) but the easiest way is to make sure that children get just as much exposure to the written word as they do to the spoken.

6. Narrative structure

Even books without words can teach children about narrative structure and understanding the basics of organising a text.  Readers learn about beginnings, middles and endings, about what makes something full of suspense, and when something seems unfinished.

7. Cultural heritage

Language and culture are closely interlinked.  Through reading children can learn about their own culture and about cultures different from their own.  They can also form a new culture based on the books you’ve shared as a family.  This will become something you refer back to in years to come, so be prepared for “Mum, do you remember that book? What was it called?” Many fond memories are based in books.

8. Logical thinking skills

Even picture books for very young children require interpretation and consideration.  Reading helps to develop  these logical thinking skills and through asking the right questions you can take this even further.  Instead of asking closed (yes or no, or ‘point-to-the-object’ questions), ask open questions: “how do you think this character feels?” or “what do you think will happen next?”

9. You can comment and interact

Children’s television often shows stories, and you can buy plenty of audio books, but nothing beats reading ‘live’.  The reason is that televisions can’t listen.  They can’t vary their pace to suit your child.  They won’t stop and explain the difficult words, or repeat things that sound interesting.   Even if you think your reading voice is awful, it is better than anything else because it is yours.

10. Show them that books are important

Giving books a place in your life shows your child that you respect books and that they are valued.  When you give books a special home like a shelf, or a box, when you treat them carefully and look after them, and of course when you read them, you are demonstrating that these strange cardboad things are important.

11. Learning lifeskills

Books are a great way to teach specific skills or to prepare for particular experiences.  There are lots of books about potty-training, eating, going to bed, going to the zoo, going to the dentist, seeing the doctor, losing a pet, etc.  They can be really effective at helping children deal with new situations or difficulties.

12. Concentration

Learning to sit quietly and listen is great preparation for school.  Enjoying and concentrating on pictures whilst listening to the words is a good antidote to the frenetic busy life that most toddlers lead – and to the lively television that they watch!  That said, don’t push it.  Don’t force a child to sit still and listen or you will just put them off. Always make reading pleasurable, and if they won’t sit still, try another day.

13. Bedtime routine

Reading a story at bedtime is a great way to wind-down before bed.  Most children sleep better with a consistent bedtime routine; a book is a lovely way to end the day and to calm them down.  Choose your books wisely, however.  For the sensitive, books about monsters or scary happenings are best avoided, and for the excitable, read something sedate. For some suggestions, have a look at the books listed under the ‘bedtime’ category.

14. Speech, language and communication skills

Books both model good communication skills and develop them by allowing you to interact as you read together.  And it’s no surprise that children who are read to tend to develop better speech skills that those that aren’t.  The exposure to language makes a real difference to how children express themselves.

15. Word recognition

Reading begins as a passive activity – with being read to.  Listening to you read a book, children start to recognise the visual image of the words.  Although most teaching of reading is now based on phonics, most children read at least some words by recognising the outline of the word on the page.

16. Phonological awareness

Reading together helps children understand the sounds that make up language.  And the more clearly you read the better.  It doesn’t matter what your accent is, but slowing down and making each sound as clear as possible will help children when they come to learning how to spell.

17. Appreciating good writing

The best way of learning the difference between good and bad writing, and, as importantly, what kinds of writing they do and don’t like, is for children to experience as much of it as possible.  It doesn’t matter how many reports, information texts and leaflets about tourism in the Maldives they are told to produce at school, what will shape their knowledge – and hopefully love – of literature is the books they have read.  From Julia Donaldson to Jane Austen or Jack Kerouac.  From Eric Carle to Charles Dickens – via Roald Dahl.

DON’T STOP DOING IT.

When your child learns to read, it is not a sign that you should stop reading to them.  Hearing you read will improve their own confidence and skills and allow them to appreciate more difficult texts.  It will encourage them to get better at reading and will continue the enjoyment of that shared experience with you.  Even teenagers in school enjoy having books read to them, so don’t stop until you have to – perhaps when they leave for college!

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Peepo!

“Here’s a little baby

One, two, three,

Stands in his cot,

What can he see?”

First published in 1981 this classic book is told from the perspective of a baby watching the world.  Peepo! trips along in a lilting rhythm, a simple description of what the baby sees throughout his day, but its unique feature is the hole on every other page, which allows the reader to peep through onto the next picture.  These are beautifully detailed and help to extend the potential for discussion beyond the text.  You could even echo Each Peach Pear Plum and play a finding game – there are lots of little tiny items that children could search for.  Younger ones will love simply poking their fingers through the holes. The text is fluent and a pleasure to read aloud.

He sees a bonfire smoking,

Pigeons in the sky

His mother cleaning windows

A dog going by”

Some may find the old-fashioned nature of the illustrations rather strange. The book is clearly set in wartime Britain, which does seem peculiar for something written in the early 80s, but it was a shrewd move on behalf of the Ahlbergs as thirty years later it still doesn’t look dated – or at least, it appears as old-fashioned as the day it was published!  Furthermore there is a poignant undercurrent that runs throughout, from the bombed house near the park, to the pair of warbirds flying past as the baby eats his teddy, to the father in uniform putting his son to bed.

Despite the ‘peepo’ game with the pages the tone of the book is actually fairly calm, and because it goes through the child’s whole day, it ends on a note that makes it wholly appropriate for bedtime, with the baby ‘fast asleep and dreaming’.

This is a classic for a reason.  It is a pleasure to read aloud and could be enjoyed by most readers from a very young age.

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Ten in the Bed

“There were ten in the bed and the little one said ‘Roll over, roll over…”

This simple little book is based on the traditional song.  The ‘little one’ is a small child and the other nine are the toys he shares his (fairly large) bed with.

“So they all rolled over and Croc fell out – Thud!”

Each time another animal falls out with a different sound, until finally they are all on the floor and there is only one in the bed…

“…and the little one said – ‘I’m cold! I miss you!’  So they all came back and jumped into bed: Hedgehog, Mouse, Nellie, Zebra, Ted, the little one, Croc, Bear and Sheep – ten in the bed, all fast asleep.”

The ending makes this an obvious choice for a bedtime story, and it is a good book for those who need something shorter or simpler; ideal for older babies and younger toddlers just starting to need a book at bedtime.  Great fun can be had doing the different falling noises (thud, thump, plop, crash, bang etc) and children will enjoy the repetitive structure in the same way as they tend to like the song.

Short and sweet, Ten in the Bed has sold over a million copies, and there are a couple of others in the series too – Ten Out of Bed and Ten Play Hide and Seek.

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Goodnight Harry

Poor Harry the cuddly elephant.  He has his bath and gets himself all ready for bed.  His friends Lulu and Ted are snuggled up with him, but while they drift off to sleep Harry finds he can’t.   He tries all sorts of things: reading a story, tidying up, jumping up and down – but when he gets back into bed he still can’t sleep.  Then he starts to worry and fret about not sleeping, and fidgets so much that he wakes up his friends. Fortunately, they have a way to help him.

This story is beautifully illustrated and all three toy characters are very sweet, especially Harry, whose brown fur looks virtually strokeable.  The story will be a familiar one to many – who hasn’t felt the frustration of lying awake, desperate to nod off? – and the comforting, reassuring ending should give children confidence that when they do suffer from insomnia they will eventually be able to go back to sleep.  The language is gentle and lilting and the falling cadences over the last few pages are calm and relaxing, making this an ideal bedtime story.

Kim Lewis’ book is a sweet, simple story that deals with a real-life problem in a charming way.   Good for bedtime with younger children.

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Down in the Woods At Sleepytime

Cover of: Down in the Woods at Sleepytime by Carole Lexa Schaefer

This is a book that might be easily passed over in a bookshop.  The cover is sweet but a bit bland, the illustrations inside are pretty but a bit twee, the text is well set-out but a bit short.  However this would repay an investment as it is an excellent bedtime story for the very young.

It has a simple premise: the young animals of the forest are refusing to go to bed, until wise Grandma Owl swoops by and tells them all a story.  She talks them all into bed – “baby hedgehogs are curling into tight warm balls, and toadlets settle softly in the goo glup mud” – and wishes them all sweet dreams.

There is really very little to it, which is off-putting from an adult perspective, but it works beautifully as a bedtime story.  The text is short and repetive and the natural flow of the story is calm and lilting, even when the animals are refusing to go to sleep.  Although bedtime stories in which children/animals/aliens/monsters refuse to go to sleep have always seemed rather illogical to me, here it does not even register.  After Grandma Owl tells her story the book ends quietly and calmly with ” ‘Whoo-hoooo,’ hoots wise Grandma Owl. ‘Sweet dreams.’ ”

A short, easy to read, calmly-paced bedtime story that actually ends with the words ‘sweet dreams’.  What more could you ask for? Tuck your toddler into bed and read them to sleep with this surprising little gem.