This article originally appeared in the South African Sunday Times 

DragonsitterI’m a firm believer in sending children to the corner – so long as there’s a cosy armchair and a good book involved. There are few things more exciting for a parent than discovering your wild and bewildering offspring curled up with a book, lost to the outside world.

This applies to boys, too. Although everybody knows that boys don’t read, which must be why the children’s section at my local book store is filled with characters called Mandy or Cindy, who do cool and glittery things, while the thin selection of (Dirty) Berties and (Horrible) Henrys seems to specialise in, well, mucus.

“Gross-out” books are one of the ways publishers are trying to encourage young male readers – “fart” may, eventually, have its own sub-genre – although literacy research suggests that what boys really need is less scatological humour and more bedtime stories with Dad. A report from Britain’s National Literacy Trust found that a third of fathers were never seen reading and the same amount (one in three) didn’t encourage their own children to read.

So: if boys are going to become readers, they need male role models, on and off the page. The latter requires possibly fewer bodily functions, and the former more practical interventions from not just publishers but book sellers. As the mother of two boys (and self-appointed Chief Book Buyer), shopping for boys’ fiction is a little like hitting the Woolworths sandwich aisle after the lunchtime rush: the shelves are as bare as if they’d been raided by starving pirates. Even if you do happen to chance upon a suitable series (most of the contemporary boys’ books seem to be written as series these days) it’s almost impossible to find book one; and in my mind there’s nothing worse than starting a story in the middle. I’ve been hunting for the original How to Train Your Dragon for the better part of a year.

One of my time-trusted ways of tackling the dearth of children’s books is to start with a few golden oldies, and the same applies to good reads for young boys: Roald Dahl continues to be a winner, the patrician precursor of what I’d like to think qualifies as “disgusting” rather than just “gross”. In The BFG, the giant’s enthusiasm for whizzpoppers (if you can’t imagine what they are I won’t tell you) reduced all of us to fits of giggles at bedtime. “Whizzpopping is a sign of happiness,” as the giant explains.

Diana Wynne Jones also proved successful – starting with her last children’s novel, Earwig and the Witch (Harper Collins), which was published shortly after her death in 2011. Even though the main character was a girl, my son said the book was “cool” and he liked the picture of the burning mandrake. He read it on his own, so I’ll have to take his word for it.

It was Wynne Jones’s recommendation that prompted me to purchase CJ Busby’s Merlin-esque Frogspell (Templar), a story about a young magician named Max Pendragon, who accidentally invents a spell that turns people into frogs. Aided by a rat called Ferocious, a dragon called Adolphus, and his (sometimes annoying) sister Olivia, Max has to use his spell to outfox archrival Snotty Hogsbottom – and save the kingdom while he’s at it. Like Max’s potion, it’s a book that has all the right ingredients for self-reading or a few weeks’ worth of bedtime stories.

Now before you start thinking I’m some horrid mythical creature-pushing didact, I do occasionally let my children choose their own books. Or, rather, I take note of the ones they discover when (sort of) left to their own devices. Which also, it appears, may involve dragons. I bought two copies of Josh Lacey’s The Dragonsitter (Andersen Press) – a story about a boy who has to babysit his uncle’s dragon, told in a series of e-mail exchanges – intending them to be used as birthday gifts. Only one got wrapped up; the other was quickly appropriated and not just read but reread.

The other book that was smuggled off my desk was a review copy of The Big, Fat South African Kiddies’ Joke Book (Zebra Press). I am now being subjected to endless knock-knock (and other) jokes on the school run. The funny part is that my kids are genuinely surprised when I know the punch lines. But it’s lovely to hear them discover what humour means without having to use the word “bum”.

Finally, my chapter book (more stories less pictures) reader, the one who still rolls his eyes at me when I insist on buying books (not toys) as presents, was delighted to find a pile of Goosebumps at a local second-hand store. The bestselling horror series, created by RL Stine in 1992, has sold something like 300 million copies. No, wait, it’s now 350 million. Readership is evenly split between boys and girls.

There’s no reason little boys’ lives can’t be made of tales, too.


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