Of course, good parents would have already compiled a reading list ready for the day when they are holed up for an unspecified number of weeks with their beloved offspring in the face of a global pandemic unprecedented in modern times. The rest of us, however, will need to play a little catch-up once we’ve finished setting up our makeshift home offices, explaining to aged parents that now is the time to keep calm but not carry on, shopping for immunocompromised neighbours, preparing slipshod lesson plans and secretly sobbing in abject terror under the stairs every two hours or so. So – blow your nose, wipe your eyes, wash your hands and let’s get to work!
The suggestions and lists that have proliferated with adult readers in mind have so far tended to fall into two broad categories. There is apocalyptic fare those for people who want to lean in to the situation (everything from Camus’s The Plague to Steven King’s The Stand, usually via a few more contemporary takes such as Ling Ma’s Severance and Emily St John Mandel’s Station Eleven), and there is escapism (generally meaning either crime fiction that brings the comfort of neat resolution, or books rooted firmly in pre-Covid-19 reality, rather than fantasy worlds).
Children being almost like people, the resonant/escapist divide makes an equally good starting point for their lists, too. In the former category, readers old enough to be aware of the current situation but not of an age or temperament to be frightened by it have plenty of dystopian fiction to devour. Beyond the primarily action-based likes of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games series there are more thoughtful, nuanced portrayals of life under altered circumstances such as Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now, Polly Ho-Yen’s Boy in the Tower or Gillian Cross’s overlooked After Tomorrow.
The escapist list encompasses so much else that of course you’ll be able to construct it to cater as minutely to your own children’s tastes as you wish – though if ever there was a time to make sure The Lost Book of Adventure, with its mixture of stories and survival tips, was included, it’s now, and I would further note that Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series also functions very well as a juvenile prepper manual.
But one often overlooked provision must be made – funny books. Comic material for children has historically been rare (one of the reasons the now alas withdrawn Roald Dahl Funny prize was set up) but things are improving. BJ Novak’s The Book With No Pictures and The Day the Crayons Quit (plus sequel) will withstand multiple rereadings at multiple ages with no diminution of laughter, as will Daddy’s Sandwich by Pip Jones and Laura Hughes. Elys Dolan has been a failsafe in this house from picture book age – our favourite is Weasels, in which certain members of the family Mustelidae are bent on world domination – up to about eight or nine, well-served by the (Wizarding/Knighthood/Royalty) For Beginners trio. The Dave Pigeon series by Swapna Haddow is a winner with that age group, too. Once children are into double figures I would be almost as frightened to recommend something to them collectively as “funny” as I would to an adult audience, but I must note that in this house Maz Evans’s Who Let the Gods Out? series can do no wrong, and that a book that has kept me laughing from the age of 10 and throughout the three and a half decades since, Private – Keep Out by Gwen Grant, was republished last year by Vintage Children’s Classics. I’m grinning as I type. A special shout out must be given, however, to Frank Cottrell Boyce’s The Astounding Broccoli Boy, which is a funny book … about a pandemic! It may yet become the Covid generation’s Decameron.
It would also be sensible, of course, to sneak in a few books that approach the subject of anxiety and how to cope with it. Standout titles for the very young include Ruby’s Worry (part of Tom Percival’s Big Bright Feelings series), After the Fall by Dan Santat (with the irresistible subtitle How Humpty Dumpty Got Back Up Again), The Koala Who Could by Rachel Bright and Jim Field (about Kevin, my spirit animal, who cannot cope with change and prefers to keep clinging to his tree). Those a little older have the Sam Wu Is Not Afraid of … collection by Katie and Kevin Tsang to work through (the comfort of having a series, in any genre, to immerse yourself in is a particular bonus in stressful times). Charlie Changes Into a Chicken by Sam Copeland and illustrated by Sarah Horne falls under the “funny as heck” heading too.
For children a little older than that there is the stunning wordless graphic novel Small Things by the late Mel Tregonning, about a small boy whose self is being eaten away by strange shapes. It was completed, after Tregonning died, by Shaun Tan, whose own book, The Arrival, about the dislocation felt by a refugee coming to a strange land, offers its own pertinent message. For the YA crowd, Am I Normal Yet? by Holly Bourne has a protagonist who lives her life with OCD and Boys Don’t Cry by Malorie Blackman has a valuable subplot about his brother having to grapple with anxiety.
This is also a chance to encourage children to try new things, broaden their tastes, venture out of their comfort zones. And of course, reading aloud means that you can introduce them to more sophisticated books than they would be able to handle independently, which is both a pleasure in itself and a useful way of planting seeds of interest for the future. You could read them complex, evocative narratives such as Frances Hardinge’s The Lie Tree, or introduce them to the childhood books that shaped you, both classics and glorious oddities.
In the midst of chaos, reading to a child can create a small oasis of calm, for both of you, so try not to think of it as just another task. It’s not about powering through the book as quickly as possible. It’s about exploring the highways and byways as you go. If the one thing this awful crisis has given us, it’s time. Books and children respond well to that. So let’s all take a breath, crack a spine and try to read through these very strangest of days together.