In many ways British and American culture is very similar, we watch the same TV shows, see the same movies, and read the same books; but in some areas the differences are as wide as the ocean that separates our two countries. Children’s literature is one of those areas. While we might all be sharing our passion for the newest installment of A Song of Ice and Fire or impatiently awaiting Neil Gaiman’s latest offering, the books we’re reading to our children are often worlds apart.
When I spoke to my fellow GeekMoms about the books that every child in my son’s class (and I mean every single one) owns or has at least heard, I drew the internet equivalent of a roomful of blank stares. These are titles that any British parent can recite immediately on being asked for names of popular preschool lit, but that haven’t become well-known in the States yet, at least outside of the publishing world. So here are seven books that British preschoolers are reading every day and that yours will probably love too.
The Gruffalo – Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler
The Gruffalo is something of a phenomenon over here. It has spawned not only a sequel but mini books, an animated film (starring Helena Bonham Carter, John Hurt and Robbie Coltrane), board games, jigsaws, crockery, fancy dress costumes, and almost anything else you can imagine. The bookshop on my high street has an entire section dedicated to it. Author Julia Donaldson is the current Children’s Laureate and one of those authors who can currently do no wrong. Her bibliography is filled with outstanding stories that parents love as much as their kids.
The Gruffalo is the tale of a mouse who sets off through a deep, dark wood encountering predators along the way. To escape from their hungry clutches he tells them he is on his way to dine with a gruffalo, a fantastic and terrifying creature whom none of his enemies have heard of. This goes well, until the mouse finds himself face-to-face with a real gruffalo and has to figure out how to escape from this final encounter. It’s a story of cunning, ingenuity and using your brain to solve problems, and it is a joy to read aloud.
Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy – Lynley Dodd
Hairy Maclary is a small, scruffy black dog who goes for a walk by himself, gradually gathering up other canine friends as he goes. The mixed group of pooches are happily minding their own business when they spot a terrifying feline hiding in the shadows. The book is gorgeously simple. It has spawned an enormous cast of characters in Hairy Maclary’s universe, including cats Scarface Claw and Slinki Malinki, and duckling Zachary Quack. The book flows well when read aloud, the text repeats and is cumulative thus allowing children to predict and speak along with an adult reader. The illustrations are beautiful and realistic with the various breeds identifiable. This one is as much for adults as it is for kids and an interactive version is also available on the Apple App Store.
The Tiger Who Came to Tea – Judith Kerr
One evening when Sophie and her mummy had just sat down for tea, the doorbell rang. A tiger was there who explained that he was very hungry and asked to join them, and as is the way in children’s books, Sophie’s mummy welcomed him to the table. The tiger spends the rest of the book eating everything in the house including all daddy’s beer(!) and all of the bathwater. He thanks them and leaves, and Sophie’s mummy realizes that there is nothing for them to eat now. This book is so British it is almost painful, from the exceedingly polite manner of the tiger, to the welcoming mother who isn’t at all upset at having a tiger eat every last speck of food in the house, to the father who on coming home from work and hearing this tale simply remarks that they shall have to go to the cafe for tea instead. If you love the traditional British style seen in Mary Poppins and The Famous Five then this is a brilliant introduction for younger children.
Aliens Love Underpants – Claire Freedman and Ben Cort
If Monty Python taught us anything, it’s that there’s always a place for a little nonsense. Aliens Love Underpants is a cautionary tale of extra-terrestrial hi jinks because you see, aliens simply love Earth underpants of all shapes and sizes (don’t worry though, none of the illustrations depict the sort of underwear that has parents of teenaged daughters reaching for the Holy Water). When you’re not looking, these pesky villains are invading your garden and pinching any pants they can find hanging on the line – it’s where all those missing pairs of pants over the years have gone you see. The book has inspired several sequels including the equally ridiculous Dinosaurs Love Underpants which explains the real reason that our favorite lizards went extinct, Aliens in Underpants Save the World and the recently published Pirates Love Underpants. There’s even a Christmas story called Aliens Love Panta Claus. If your child has reached that age where all things toilet related are hysterically funny (my three year old now thinks that “bum” is the funniest word in existence) then these books are a great way to add some “naughty word” humor to your bedtime stories without resorting to anything too crude.
The Jolly Postman (or Other People’s Letters) – Janet and Allan Ahlberg
The Jolly Postman is one of those stories that will stick with you long into adulthood. I remember reading it over and over again as a child. In fact, the copy I have now is the one I read all those years ago. It is a simple story of a postman who delivers letters to the characters from classic nursery rhymes and fairy tales, The Three Bears, the Wicked Witch and Cinderella are among the characters he visits on his rounds. However it is not the story that you will remember but the props. Every piece of mail is contained inside an actual envelope which can be carefully opened and read. The details for each one is incredible, from different postmarks and stamps to appropriate handwriting or typing, to other details such as “Please Do Not Bend” or “Urgent” notices stamped in the corners — and that’s before you even get to the contents. There is a letter of apology from Goldilocks to the bears, a cease and desist letter from Red Riding Hood’s solicitors to the Wolf, all of the items are so well thought out and many include jokes that will have the adults more amused than the children. It’s best to wait until children are out of the “grabbing and snatching” phase before reading this one as it is rather delicate, but it is a book you are almost guaranteed to love. If you do, there are two more in the series including a Christmas story to enjoy as well.
Moo-Cow Kung-Fu-Cow – Nick Sharrat
Another in the realm of brilliant nonsense, Moo-Cow Kung-Fu Cow is an interactive book featuring lift-the-flaps, pop-ups, spinners, and more. Each page features one or more cows in some sort of rhyming silliness; such as the shampoo cow, kangaroo cow, glitter-glue-cow and even a tattoo cow. There’s also some more mild potty humor for children who have reached that joyous stage (needed-the-loo-cow). The pictures are simple, bright, and incredibly engaging for young readers. The simple words clearly linked to the illustrations make it a good book for early readers. Not all children’s books need to be beautifully illustrated long-form stories, and this is a fantastic example of a great book for when your kids just want to laugh instead.
Barry The Fish With Fingers – Sue Hendra
This is one of those books which needs a little more explaining to an American audience than it does the British. Where what Americans call “fish sticks” are instead called “fish fingers”. *waits for the penny to drop* Barry is the only fish in the ocean with fingers. His fingers allow him to do: finger painting, knitting, and tickling. The other fish think he is amazing because of all of the things his fingers can do, except Puffy the puffer fish whose limelight Barry stole. However when Puffy finds himself in trouble, Barry saves him in a way only he could. This is a simple story about acceptance and friendship that doesn’t cram its morality tale down your kids’ throats. Instead, it stays silly and relies on the great story and bright illustrations to make kids want to hear it over and over. The book has also spawned a sequel and a range of other fun stories including Norman the Slug with The Silly Shell and Keith the Cat with The Magic Hat.
Let us know what books your preschoolers are enjoying on our Facebook page, and if you decide to check out any of these British favorites we’d love to know what you think of them.