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Holiday reading for kids: are classics worth the bother?

(Published by The Malay Mail 7 August 2014)

I found sorting this list of classic books for kids trickier than anticipated: what is a “classic”? Are we only talking 19th century authors? What’s so special about them anyway?

I like what the French literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve had to say back in 1850:

“A true classic, as I should like to hear it defined, is an author who has enriched the human mind, increased its treasure, and caused it to advance a step…”

But does anyone, let alone kids, bother with these dusty tomes in an age when so many are brought to life on the big screen? I for one am looking forward to the release of the last Hobbit movie…

A classic? Kids these days want easy, instant entertainment. They opt for the flashy covers of The Adventures of Tintin, the Harry Potter series, David Walliams (admittedly, I do love Mr. Stink) or the Septimus Heap series; the stuff kids talk about in school. Illustrations, large type and plenty of blank space between lines — they all pave the way for happy, effortless reading.

But, as your parents or grandparents or your kid’s English teacher might harp on about, classics are definitely worth the effort. Reading them to your child is a great way of tickling young book-tastebuds. The classics we have read to the kids are rich in language and thoughtful in their storytelling — invariably requiring all of us to concentrate and ask questions about the words and the events unfolding; no spoon-feeding of the plot within the couple of chapters.

The holidays are a great, relaxed time for this. A chapter a night (when I’m in full swing).

My own list started off at 10, and grew to 20. And in no particular order:

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien

Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame


Classic books make demands on children and the rewards are commensurate with these demands; they are of perennial interest and do not patronise kids.’

Little Women by Louisa May Alcott

The Selfish Giant by Oscar Wilde

The Hound of the Baskervilles by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers

King Solomon’s Mines by H. Rider Haggard

The Carey novels by Ronald Welch

Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Grimm’s Fairy Tales by Arthur Rackham

Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales

Tanglewood Tales by Nathaniel Hawthorne

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland & Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe

The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

The Adventures of Tom Sawyer & Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis

It’s tricky to be specific about age-appropriateness particularly if you are going to read them to your child, but a good time to start this is 8 years and upwards.

Check online, libraries and bookstores to see which editions might appeal to your child. There are some brilliant new all-singing-and-dancing-to-be-read editions of the old classics. Just dig a little.

And, for those times when you are wondering why you are bothering at all:

“Ancient works are classical not because they are old, but because they are powerful, fresh, and healthy.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

SUGGESTED WEBSITES does free world wide postage or .com to see what editions are available

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