Monday 22 November 2010

The Book Aunt

One of the best bits of Christmas for me is the bit where I get to buy books for children. At the moment there are six on my Christmas list, but I could do with dozens. As soon as anyone I knew had babies, I jumped at the opportunity to fill their shelves with books. Up until then, I'd only been able to buy children's books for myself, and, even though I'm in that line of work, buying children's books still felt rather like something I had to make excuses for. So I determined that the instant I had children to buy for, I'd become the Book Aunt, the one who searches for the very newest thing you've never even heard of, or a fabulous old book  everyone's forgotten about, the book exactly suited to each child.

I've had moments of doubt, it has to be said, particularly as the boys I've bought for have grown older and during the times when some of them have been reluctant readers. I don't often get strong enough feedback to show if I'm hitting the mark or not. I do check though, when I see these kids: 'do you like to read?' 'what are you reading?', and one has dropped by the wayside now because he claims he never reads (what on earth will I get him this year?). Occasionally, thrillingly, I get a response which is truly overwhelming. Once, as I sat at the table with my brother-in-law and his family, the boys brought piles of books to the table and showed me all the books they loved: books I'd bought them, books they'd bought inspired by things I'd bought them and books they thought I should know about. One nephew, aged 13, travelling alone by train across half of France said he hardly noticed the journey because he was engrossed in Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines trilogy, which I'd bought him for his birthday.

So this year I have six children to buy for. First, there are my three girls. For them, I have to restrain myself a little. I could buy each of them a whole pile of books, but we already have more books than they could possibly read in a childhood, so I restrict myself to one each.

Elspeth is 13. She's on the verge of reading adult books, but I think she still finds them rather taxing. I Capture the Castle  went down at great speed, but she ground to a halt with Jane Eyre (at the bit when Jane goes to live with her cousins and works in a school; I'm not surprised). The great joy with Els is that I know whatever I buy for her I'm probably going to read and enjoy too. The teen market seems to be dominated by fantasy and what they call 'dark romance' at the moment, but much as I'd like to indulge I have to tread carefully with fantasy for Els. She didn't really go for either Philip Reeve or Philip Pullman, and I don't think she'd like Terry Pratchett either. Having said that, she loved the Twilight books, she's a big Buffy fan, and she enjoyed the R J Anderson fairy books. So I think perhaps I'm looking for something  with a supernatural element in it, but set fairly solidly in the real world.

Daughter number 2, Marianne, aged 10, likes animal books and non-fiction. The latter is not difficult, as this is my field, but animal stories are a trickier proposition as this is not an area I find particularly appealing. However, there are hundreds of animal books out there, and fortunately this year a friend has recommended one that was read to her daughter's class and they all raved about, a book I'd never heard of. I do always love to pick up a new author. Of course, I can't reveal what this book is at the moment, because you never know who'll be reading these words, but if anyone's interested, I'll let you have the complete list after Christmas.

So on to daughter number 3, Livia, aged 7. Here the problem is that we already have so many books bought for the others and gathered over time that finding something new can be a challenge. A couple of years ago she was still at the picture book stage and that was easy as there are always so many fabulous new picture books. For her, I will probably look in 1001 Children's Books, or I might just browse through some lists on Amazon. Liv's at the stage where she will read absolutely anything; it almost seems that the act of reading itself gives her as much pleasure as the story does. She doesn't seem to have any particular book preferences at all.

Two nephews to cater for next, 13 and 11. They get two books each. I tend to go for the new unless something old has struck me as a must-read for them. First, I'll refer to Books For Keeps, the now online children's book magazine. This is really invaluable in keeping up with what's out there. Going to a general bookshop will only give you what is already popular, books and authors children have already come across. A specific children's bookshop would be more useful, but those are few and far between (though I dream of opening my own...). BFK is not always right up to the minute, but is guaranteed to come up with something that will be new to kids and worth reading.

Dan, the younger boy, used not to be very keen on reading, so I went through a period of buying shorter books, non-fiction and funny books to try to draw him in. In case you're wondering, I've been keeping a notebook for years, writing down what I've bought everyone, so it's easy for me to look back and see. Now though, Dan's been won over. I'm not saying reading is his favourite thing to do in the world, but he knows how to engage with a book and enjoys it while he's doing it. For him, I will get the book I'm buying for Marianne and also something else with the help of BFK. I'm thinking adventure, probably, but avoiding the Charlie Higson sort or the superhero stuff and going for a more classic type of adventure.

For Kieran, who is nearly 14, it's the same problem as with Els. He's a sufficiently mature reader to tackle adult books, but will they appeal? I'm thinking horror might do the job here, or maybe extending a theme I know has been successful with him in the past. With Kieran, I'm beginning to wonder if I'm going to have to stop soon, start sending him other presents, ordinary presents, as I now have to with my other nephew.

But as you lose them at the top end, in come more at the bottom. This year I'm back to picture books again as we have a new godson. I think it'll be one of my old favourites for Mac, aged 1, with the promise of many more to come.

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