My five-year-old son cares for nothing except The Lion King at the moment. It's all he reads, watches and listens to. He has the full-length book, various abridged versions of the book, the video, the CD, the CD-ROM and the DVD. And, yes, we have tickets to the musical. Every night I ask him what story he would like me to read to him. Every night he asks for the same thing. The Lion King. Again.
But last month, all he cared for was Green Eggs and Ham. His imagination and sense of fun, like so many children before him, was captured by the ridiculous rhyming ramblings of that wonderful book by Dr Seuss. I read it to him so many times he could recite the entire 62 pages of the book by heart. When I tried to serve him broccoli for dinner one night, he announced "I do not like it in a house, I do not like it with a mouse".
So what does my son's particular obsession of the month have to do with the question of what the best books are for children to read? I would argue that it has everything to do with it. Children, like adults, have their own individual tastes, interests and preferences. In my experience, they are also extremely fickle - today's literary delight is tomorrow's doorstop. So what are the best books for our children to read? The ones they want to read, right now.
This is not to say there are not great books and less-great books. And of course we adults - parents and teachers in particular - play an important role in exposing children to the vast range of literary options available to them. But with minds that move as fast as the average five-year-olds, it is pretty hard to see how we sluggish adults are going to keep up with the pace.
Which brings me to the main point I would like to make. It is a wonderful experience, for both adults and children, to read to children. But the world of books really opens up for children when they can read for themselves. They can then indulge their particular interests, whenever they like, wherever they like, and as often as they like. So I would argue that the answer to the question posed here is not that we should favour any particular book over another one, but that we should give children the tools and skills to be able to choose their favourite books for themselves.
What exactly are the skills that children need to do this? I have been conducting research in the field of reading development and dyslexia for the past 15 years and belong to a large and active network of Australian reading researchers from education, psychology and linguistics. Members of our group have recently written to the Minister for Education, Brendan Nelson, on the issue of reading instruction in Australian schools. We have argued that the teaching of reading in Australia is based largely on the whole-language approach, which makes the assumption that learning to read is like learning to speak, and requires only exposure to a rich language environment without any specific teaching of the alphabetic system and letter-sound relationships. However, research on reading development has provided strong evidence that this is not the case, and that the ability to read is a complex learned skill that requires specific teaching. To put this another way, learning to read is not like learning to speak - it is more like learning to play the piano or to drive a car. It doesn't come naturally, and it needs to be taught.
The specific teaching of alphabetic skills, or the relationships between letters and sounds, gives children the tools to sound out new words for themselves. Children are encountering new written words all the time, so this is a very important process for them. But even as adults, there are times when we need to fall back on this skill: the first time I read aloud The Lion King to my son, the words Mufasa, Timon and Simba would have been somewhat of a challenge had I not been able to use my alphabetic skills!
Of course, children won't always get words exactly right by using this strategy - there are too many words in English that don't strictly follow the rules (just try sounding out yacht, for example). But they will probably be able to make a pretty good guess, especially if they already know the word in its spoken form. And research suggests that the very process of breaking words down into their component parts and then putting them together again may help children to remember those words better the next time they encounter them.
So let me make my point clear. Buying books and reading them aloud to children is a wonderful and rewarding activity for a whole range of reasons: it increases children's vocabularies, their general knowledge (about the wildlife of the Savannah at least!) and their interest in reading. But it does not necessarily teach them to read. It is only when children have the skills to read independently that they can take the reins in their own hands and be free to choose whatever takes their fickle fancy.
And I, for one, am all in favour of that. Because, much as I love reading to my son, if I have to read The Lion King one more time this month … well, I'd rather be trampled by a herd of wildebeest.