Sixteen Years of Storytime (with Mini Grey)

ago, before I had a child at all, I went to a talk at the Oxford Literary
Festival by author/illustrator Ted Dewan. Ted said that, when you have a child,
you finally see the very beginning of the story, the bit of the story of your
life you can’t remember in your own life: those first months and years of being
a baby.

so the time came (2006) when we had a new-born Herbie and amazingly the
hospital let us take him home and try to look after him on our own.

the first years of storytime we were becalmed in a world of pinky-ponks and
ninky-nonks for quite a while, managing to climb out with Shoe Baby, That
Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown
and Room on the Broom. Before Herbie could talk,
we read him Shoe Baby, fervently hoping his first words would be “How do you
do?” (It was “star.”) 

from Shoe Baby by Polly Dunbar and Joyce Dunbar

Herbie got to be about 4 or 5 we tried mixing in the odd longer book; some
Roald Dahl, some Winnie the Pooh (OK, I was desperate to read Herbie my own
favourite childhood chapter books) -  and
our reading landscape turned from the garden of picture books onto some longer
paths. Picture books weren’t abandoned, and Herbie would grab a stack of them
to commune with when he woke up. And he still has a shelf of picture books in
his room at age 16. Ones that it became important to keep close.


a chapter book is a gift; every story time there’s the thrill of discovering what
happens next, and the chance to carry on communing with characters that you
know. Some of our very favourite early chapter books were the brilliantly
illustrated ‘Man Who Wore All His Clothes’ series by Allan Ahlberg and Katharine
McEwan – with maps and timelines to pore over. And very very funny. Other fabulously generously illustrated early chapter book favourites were Cakes in Space (and anything else) by Philip Reeve and Sarah McIntyre, and the Ottoline (and later, Goth Girl) books by Chris Riddell.


Herbie got to be 5 or 6 he started bringing home a ‘Reading Book’ in his school
bookbag. It would usually be a Biff & Chip Oxford Reading Tree book – and I
do like these…


it was usually not the next one in the series and

Herbie knew that he had to read it to us, and that a sort of test was going on.

that sucked all the fun out of reading.

we discovered the whole of Harry Potter, the books AND the films. When I asked
Herbie if he wanted to read Harry’s bits in The Philosopher’s Stone, he said
“Yes” – and he carried on reading Harry’s part right through to the Deathly
Hallows. And this was brilliant, as I could stop feeling guilty because I was
hearing Herbie read – plus he had to follow the words on the page to know when
to come in when Harry spoke.


Illustrated by Jim Kay: a hearth to gather around

often stop reading to their children when the kids are able to read
independently, which is generally when they start reading chapter books on
their own, at about 7 or 8 or 9. But just because your child can read
independently doesn’t mean they don’t enjoy being read to. I’m a grown-up, and
I love being read to.

are big benefits to be had for reading together with the 11-13 yr olds and the
teenage crowd – especially having something to talk about together, and if
you’re reading non-fiction, shared topics to talk about.

Herbie’s dad also likes reading together, so at story time it would be the
three of us (and the parent who wasn’t reading would often doze off). So we had
the massive advantage of two parents who want to do story time together, and
also the massive advantage of having only the one child – we didn’t have to
negotiate story time with differently aged offspring.

a shelf of a few of our utter favourites

there we went on our journey through picture books to classics (all the books I
loved as a child that I couldn’t wait to read with Herbie) to chapter books to
factual books to grown up books via Dickens and Jane Austen and Dan Brown; to
science fiction and Isaac Asimov; the whole of James Herriott and Gerald Durrell.
We learned the value of reading books you don’t get on with (and the rights of
the Reader to abandon a book) – and we found that thinking about why we didn’t
like a particular book could help us discover why we loved the books that we loved.
We read the things none of us might choose to read just for ourselves.

mined seams of favourites: Andy Stanton, Chris Riddell and Paul Stewart’s Far
Flung Tales
and Muddle Earth books, Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman. We
hung out at the library finding the next place to start drilling.

travelled with our reading book and it was our secret weapon to make time fly –
I remember us reading The Time Machine (retold from the HG Wells) on a
train back from London and having reluctantly to stop to get off the train at

Haddon’s Curious incident of the Dog in the Night-time was interesting:
to read out the swearing or not? (I decided to read it out.) Reading A Monster
by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay – we discovered our faces were wet.


discovered books that I wouldn’t choose usually that are pure wonderfulness,
often on the recommendation of booksellers: for example, Judith Kerr’s How
Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit
. We had big discussions about world-building
reading La Belle Sauvage. I found some things just didn’t work read
aloud: my super-favourite E Nesbit Five children & It – just didn’t
ring right. But Nesbit’s The Story of the Treasure Seekers was still
fresh and funny. Our very last books: were, I think, Peter Godfrey Smith’s Metazoa,
and Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code (read for all the laughs and accents by
Herbie’s Dad.)

Some of our
reading in the last few years

now, at 16 and starting his A level year – for now, maybe for ever, for us daily
story time has stopped.  But if I ever want an opinion on a text, my go-to textpert is Herbie.

I do love to read aloud, and you should hear the terrible accents that I can
do. But not everyone feels like that.

no-one’s ever read to you, reading aloud is not a normal or comfortable thing
to do. A recent article in the Guardian reported that most parents of young children would like to spend more time reading with them, but a third lacked the confidence to do so;
Reading out loud and doing
character voices were cited as reasons for doubting their confidence.”
In the same article SF Said (author of Tyger and much more) says: It’s much better to
read for a little bit than not to read at all. Just 10 minutes a day can be
enough to make the difference.”

can we empower parents to read to their children just for fun? Modelling how to
do it could be useful; could teachers help parents here? Maybe schools could invite parents in to picture book storytimes with their children, maybe when the children start school, where they can experience being read to, and how it feels, and how it's possible to do it? And I wonder if reading to your child just for fun might be a more useful thing to do, than to hear your child read? (Please, opinions about this are very welcome!)

worth remembering why reading to your child, just for fun, is super useful:

1.       Routine saves the
day: it gives you a daily routine that helps the route to bedtime, it’s a sign
that bedtime is coming.

2.      It gives you
something to talk about with your child.

3.       The book does the
entertaining for you, you don’t have to invent it,  just read it – so it’s a
time together that’s low-stress.

4.     The books that you
read together can unlock passions and interests that you share together.


now I want to return to picture books.

 I’m not a great reader: I find it hard to
settle down and read. I read very slowly, at about the speed I’d read it out

think picture books are great way in for those who find reading hard, to get
right into a story and be able to discuss it on a level platform.

We are all expert readers of pictures. Pictures are
open ended.
In pictures
you can say very complex things, things that it would take an enormous number
of words to explain.
Often the illustrator may not realise why
they’ve made the picture how it is – but there will be a reason, even if its
subconscious or accidental…So pictures are open to everyone’s interpretation.

There is no right answer when you’re talking about a
picture: the picture is a world of possibility
. So
books with pictures should be available to all children of all ages.

secret power of picture books – with their words & pictures, is their very
wide span of accessibility. The picture book performance is a collaboration;
the picture book’s audience includes the adults.

The pictures feed the words, and the words the pictures,
in a collaborative relationship, each adding depth to the other.


Here are all the books that I’ve featured, in order:

That Rabbit Belongs to Emily Brown by Cressida Cowell
and Neal Layton, Shoe Baby by Joyce Dunbar and Polly Dunbar, Room on the Broom
by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler, The Cat Who Got Carried Away by Allan
Ahlberg and Katharine McEwen, Cakes in Space by Philip Reeve and Sarah
McIntyre, Winnie the Pooh by AA Milne and Ernest Shepard, Ottoline and the
Yellow Cat
by Chris Riddell, Man on the Moon by Simon Bartram, Pumpkin Soup by
Helen Cooper, Two Frogs by Chris Wormell, Rules of Summer by Shaun Tan, The Day
the Crayons Quit
by Drew Daywalt and Oliver Jeffers,  The Arrival by Shaun Tan, Tatty Ratty by
Helen Cooper, The Snail and the Whale by Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler,
Truckers by Terry Pratchett, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton and David Tazzyman, The
Graveyard Book
by Neil Gaiman and Chris Riddell, The Amazing Maurice and His
Educated Rodents
by Terry Pratchett, Boom! by Mark Haddon, Corby Flood by Paul
Stewart and Chris Riddell, Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce, Varjak Paw by SF Said; Great Expectations
by Charles Dickens, The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, A Monster
by Patrick Ness and Jim Kay, The Garden of the Gods by Gerald Durrell,
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Mark Haddon, Muddle Earth
by Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell, The Song From Somewhere Else by AF Harrold
and Levi Pinfold, The Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman, All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriott, Natural
by Brett Westwood and Stephen Moss, Prisoners of Geography by Tim
Marshall, Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
by Douglas Adams, Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown,
Metazoa by Peter Godfrey-Smith, The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and
by Sidney Padua, The Moomins and the Great Flood by Tove Jansson,
Paradise Sands
by Levi Pinfold, Mammal Takeover by Abby Howard, The Iron Man by
Ted Hughes and Chris Mould, The Hideaway by Pam Smy, Cassandra Darke by Posy

I didn’t have room for the many many more that we’ve

Mini's latest book is The Greatest Show on Earth, published by Puffin.


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