DEAR JOHN: TRAINS, TOUGH GIRLS & KILLING JOY
John McIntyre from The Children’s Bookshop in Wellington is a top children’s bookseller. He's here once a month to answer your child-related reading questions.
Stock image (Pixabay)
My four-year-old son is obsessed with trains, and if I have to read another Thomas the Tank Engine book I’ll explode. We have all of the Usborne books too, and I’m running out of steam. His other reading interests include Shirley Hughes’ cozy home stories – anything directly relatable to the reality of his life – and Marmaduke Duck. Can you recommend me some really great picture books about trains – perhaps with a side-helping of real life? I’d also love some insight on what trains have that nothing else can compare with!
from Sienna H
I have to agree with you about Thomas the Tank Engine. The stories are banal, but worse is the nastiness in the way they interact with each other. They are forever telling on each other, bossing each other around and the Fat Controller is finding fault with the engines – I'm no fan of the series.
My experience with obsessed boys is that you can change one obsession for another. Try shipwrecks, volcanoes, Star Wars, fire-engines, outer space – anything big or noisy or with an engine, whatever: just don't stop them reading. Non-fiction is just as valid reading as fiction, and boys do tend to be curious about their world, interested in how things work and why things happen.
The other thing I'm keen to emphasise is to read to your children even after they reach an age when they can read for themselves. Not just is it a nice quiet time together, but reading is one of the easiest and least visible things to drop when their lives become busy with school, sport, after-school activities, etc. Better still, getting their dads reading is creating role models.
For a fiction title to read aloud try Lucy Willow by Sally Gardner – it's a beautiful story about a girl who lives on a train with her pet snail.
My seven-year-old daughter is a great reader, and her favourite so far has been the Magic Faraway Tree series. Can you suggest some more modern series, perhaps by New Zealand authors, which are targeted at the right age for her to read to herself? Even stand-alone books would be great, just something that will be accessible at libraries and bookshops.
from Helen K
There are very few New Zealand book series full-stop. Our market isn't big enough to sustain the idea, which is why it such a thrill to see the four Frankie Potts books by emerging author Juliet Jacka. They are about a girl detective; sassy, strong-willed and clever. The setting is not specifically New Zealand but that is obviously deliberate, to seek overseas markets.
The Pony Club Secrets series by Stacy Gregg were similar in the lack of a recognisable setting and they are internationally successful. If you ever want to see an author 'rock star' go a Stacy Gregg signing – her fans are often star-struck.
There are plenty of series available though – Judy Moody by Megan McDonald; Jacqueline Harvey has two series – Alice Miranda is aimed at a little older than Clementine Rose; and the Ivy and Bean books by Annie Barrows are always popular. We like our girl characters to be smart and brave, cheeky, occasionally wrong-headed, and seldom demure.
Gecko Press has a New Zealand title that may appeal – The Wild West Gang by Joy Cowley is a collection of eight stories in one book about the madness of growing up in a big family. And if you can find copies of The Good Fortunes Gang by Margaret Mahy in your library, they cover a similar theme.
Frankie Potts and her skateboarding dog, Sparkplug
Ever since he has started to have to analyse books for NCEA English, my son no longer reads for pleasure. He has gone through phases in the past of being massive fans of series – he liked Brian Falkner’s Recon Team Angel series while it was going – but now he’s being forced to analyse what he's reading, he prefers to spend his spare time playing computer games. Should I be worried that he won’t come back to books? Are there any books you’d recommend to act as circuit-breakers, perhaps?
from Peter S
Deconstructing books for study is a sure-fire killer of the joy of reading. As a 19-year-old at Teacher's College, for me it was Tess of the d'Urbevilles; for my son when he was 17 at high school, it was The Handmaid’s Tale. Even good readers who find all their energies going into studying books start to lose their passion for reading, so it isn't uncommon.
I got mine back by reading Tom Sharpe, so a modern equivalent would be the Spud series by John van der Ruit, funny, rude, and very boy-centred, or the work of Don Calame (Swim the Fly, Beat the Band, Call the Shots, Dan vs Nature).
But here's an anecdote. Some 10 years ago I was approached by a woman who had been told by her son's teacher that he was too 'one-dimensional' – he only read non-fiction and his 'lack of richness' would affect him later in life (or words to that effect). The mother was particularly worried.
My response was derisory – and unprintable. I've heard this all before, so many times. I told her to let him read what he wanted to read, and enjoy the fact that she had raised a reader.
She came back in to the shop several year ago to remind me of the conversation, and to say her well-balanced boy had a Masters in Engineering and was working in the US. He may not be reading much fiction still, but at least he can. You can teach a reader to change genre, but you can seldom get a non-reader to read anything.
Ever wish you could Dear John your home's reading challenges? Now you can!
Tell us about your kid. What do they like reading? Or are they not reading? Do they need books to help them cope with a challenge in their life? Or are they running out of things to read?
Email your queries to email@example.com and we'll ask John.
John McIntyre is the owner, with his wife Ruth, of The Children's Bookshop in Kilbirnie, Wellington (since 1992). He is a leading voice in children's literature in New Zealand, and he and Ruth are ardent supporter of our local authors, illustrators and publishers. Their store has hosted numerous launches, seminars, speeches, workshops and book related events over the years.
John has been the children's book reviewer on Nine to Noon on Radio NZ for 15 years, and has twice judged the New Zealand Children's Book Awards. He regularly speaks to ante-natal and Plunket groups about the value of reading, libraries and books – and bookshops.