We’ve had the first glimpse of sunshine, which means our children are at this very moment ignoring the whiteboard and their exercise books, eyes glued to the window and the playground beyond. Age depending, there may be some exams looming, but it’s the promise of long summer days spent in a haze of sunshine and never-ending playtime that really spells ‘summer’ to our children.
A teacher friend of mine once told me that the first half term back at school after the summer holidays is the worst time of the whole year. Weeks on end of unstructured play with little to keep the academic part of the brain firing makes for restless, impatient children.
But reading – diving into a book and getting lost in the adventures and mishaps and perils in its pages – will not only shape your children’s early development, but it will also keep them attuned to the process of learning while away from the classroom.
This is my pick of the best books for children to read over summer or on your family holiday. Some were my favourites growing up, some are my children’s favourites now, and some very special ones are both.
The Very Hungry Caterpillar
“But he was still hungry!” This 46-year-old book (I’ll give you a moment to recover from that fact…) is a staple in every child’s reading life. It teaches children about nature – it has even been formally endorsed by the Royal Entomological Society! – and about the process of transformation and growing up. It even teaches the importance of needing to hibernate after you over-indulge on chocolate cake, cheese and…leaves?
A tale about a fish who, after learning to share his beautiful scales, find himself surrounded by friends. This book teaches children to play generously, and that goods shared are more valuable than goods kept to oneself. It’s also filled with beautiful, tactile illustrations, perfect for tiny little ones to begin to appreciate books.
A. A. Milne
Adventures with special friends in the forest – these classics are the perfect accompaniment to your summer holiday at Center Parcs. Written in 1926, A. A. Milne’s stories (hand-illustrated by E. H. Shepard) are magical trips to the 100 Acre Wood, with colourful characters and sweet moral messages.
Another classic. This is the first novel in a long series following William Brown and his gang, The Outlaws. It details the boys’ hijinks as they run while around the British countryside. It’s a seminal read for all young boys and girls with a taste for adventure. Just be prepared for them begging to try our Little Outlaws activity on your summer holiday afterwards!
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn
This one crops up of every list of great, important, must-read, classic, do-not-miss works of literature going. It is truly one of the great American novels, and will absorb your little ones in a tale of a time and place they will probably never have come across before. It may even have them offering to paint your fences…
The World of Norm: May Contain Nuts
Norm is an ordinary 12 year old who is nearly, but not quite 13 (an important distinction, as any parent of a 13-year-old knows!). Norm tells an important lesson because he isn’t a hero, he isn’t even the best at anything. But this first-in-the-series is a funny, wry tale of a boy who tries to survive when the whole family has to up sticks and move house.
Goodnight Mr Tom
Published in 1981, this book has quickly become a firm favourite in libraries everywhere. It is the story of a London evacuee who finds happiness and acceptance in the countryside – it speaks about a love of nature and the outdoors. It can be challenging at times, but is a rite of passage for pre-teens.
This memorable adventure story is many children’s first introduction to the complex, beautiful and occasionally cruel reality of the natural world. It instils a respect for nature and the preservation of habitats and ecosystems. The story focuses on a group of rabbits who are forced to adapt and survive when their warren is destroyed.
Keeping up the nature theme, this fantasy series follows various characters through the history of a mythical world called Redwall. The characters are all anthropomorphic animals who become involved in adventures that involve riddles, mysteries, battles and the eventual triumph of good over evil. Plus, there are 22 books in the series, so if your children get hooked, you’re set up with birthday present ideas!
Could there be a story that more wonderfully encourages individuality, strength of character and a love of learning? Matilda is now a smash hit film and musical, but the book has all the charm we know and love Roald Dahl for. An unusual girl comes to terms with her special powers, overcoming her family’s disinterest and scepticism, with the help of great friends and a caring teacher.
I Capture the Castle
Are your teenagers losing their love for books? I Capture the Castle is a great way to reignite it. Detailing the adventures of an eccentric family, the Mortmains, who live in a decaying castle, this book follows teenage daughter Cassandra as she grows into a young woman. It’s a coming-of-age story that sticks.
Winner of both the Whitbread Children’s Book of the Year and the Carnegie Medal, Skellig is the fantastical novel about a boy names Michael who moves to a new house in an unfamiliar town. He finds a strange and, at first, disturbing creature. Casting aside his first impression, Michael goes on to care for the ‘thing’ he finds, which in return teaches him a lesson about caring for others.
So often one of the books which made teenagers fall in love with reading, the Northern Lights trilogy follows Lyra Belacqua and her daemon Pantalaimon on an epic quest through fantasy worlds across multiple dimensions. She meets a host of characters, both good and evil, including Iorek Byrnison, a deposed king who also happens to be a polar bear.
Thirteen Reasons Why
A complicated story of repentance, filled with twists and turns as a group of teenagers come to terms with the sudden death of a school friend. This book contains adult themes and is best suited for children at the upper end of the age range, but it is a valuable read with, at its heart, a story of transformation and strength.
The Saga of Darren Shan
Great for fans of vampire stories – Darren Shan’s saga spans three trilogies for a total of 12 books, so there is plenty to get your teeth into (sorry) if it’s your thing. The title character is a reluctant vampire who is forced to come to terms with his identity, and the murky world of vampirism, while simultaneously navigating the being-a-mixed-up-teenage-boy part of his life.