A few weeks ago, I finished reading Brendon Chase to my ten-year-old son, Tom. It is a charming book, written by Denys Watkins-Pitchford under the pen name "BB." The book was first published in 1944, although the edition we have is a reprint from 1980. The pages are slightly yellowed, perhaps with damp or perhaps just with age, and the spine is a little tattered, although no more than you'd expect for a children's book that's nearly forty years old.
I must have been around Tom's age—certainly no more than a year or two older—when I crept into my brother's bedroom and slid Brendon Chase out from the bookshelves. My brother was in his early teens and had an excellent library that I borrowed from more than was reasonable—my first encounters with Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys and the wondrous worlds of Terry Pratchett all came courtesy of his collection. But BB's Brendon Chase is the only one that I removed and never returned. For all these years it has sat on my own shelves, arousing a combination of pleasure and guilt every time I've caught sight of it.
The book's cover image depicts three young men in furs, a promotional shot from the early '80s television adaptation. On the back, there is a bright orange border, a small publisher's logo shaped like a horseshoe magnet, and a tantalising blurb that reads as follows:
Three brothers, John, Robin and Harold run away from home to live like outlaws in a wild and beautiful English forest. They make their camp in an ancient oak tree in the middle of Brendon Chase, where they soon adapt to living with the dangers and excitements of their wild surroundings. And, most important of all, nobody will ever find them…
The book is every bit as wonderful as it sounds. A joyful celebration of freedom, adventure, and being a boy. An enchanting depiction of the English countryside and all the creatures that live within it: herons, badgers, honey buzzards, and purple emperor butterflies. There are one or two problematic paragraphs—the theft of eggs from nests, disparaging remarks about the women of the Dower House, and so much trapping and shooting and snaring that Tom sat bolt upright in bed a few times and glared at me as I read.
"They're not going to kill ANOTHER animal, surely?" he'd say in despair.
But for the most part, I got as much enjoyment from reading the book this time round as I did the first time, and to my delight Tom seemed fully engaged with it too. What I didn't know—couldn't have known—as I read the closing sentences of the book and tried to keep the tremor of emotion from my voice, was that Brendon Chase would be the last book I'd ever read to him aloud.
For the last ten-and-a-bit years, I've read to my son almost every single night. There have been occasional evenings when I've been away—and they really have been occasional—but for all the others, which by now will number in the thousands, a bedtime book has been as much a part of our routine as cleaning his teeth and turning out the light.
In the very earliest days, when the boundaries between day and night were so blurred, the books we looked at had no words. Sometime between 4 and 6 p.m., depending on how difficult the day had been, my son would be bathed, fed, and wrapped in his soft, fleecy swaddling cloth. I would pull across the shutters, lie back on the double bed that was crammed into our makeshift nursery, and tuck him into the crook of my elbow. For just a few minutes, we'd sit together in silence, slowly turning the fat cloth pages of his beginner books. We would gaze together at the geometric shapes and simple smiling faces. And then I would lay him down to sleep.
From there, we progressed to great towering stacks of toddler favorites, our own collection topped up by the books we borrowed from the library each week. We read Dear Zoo and Dig Dig Digging; we read Where's Spot?, the Maisy books, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar; we read Peepo!, Goodnight Moon, and Each Peach Pear Plum. We read these books so often that I knew the words by heart and barely had to look at the pages. But any potential boredom was offset by the fact that my son now pointed to his favorite pictures, sounded out some of the words with me, and laughed in all the right places.
Slowly, as Tom's instinct to reach out and rip diminished, we graduated from board books to paperbacks. When he was four, we moved from the UK to Australia, and though our entire, enormous book collection would eventually join us, we had to pack enough in the suitcase to last those initial few weeks. I was grateful for the thin, lightweight favorites we could return to often without tiring: the Katie Morag series, The Lighthouse Keeper's Lunch, and anything by Richard Scarry. We became obsessed, for a while, with Oliver Jeffers. But, just when we were in danger of reaching saturation point with the lost penguins and the quitting crayons, we found our new local library. There, in a corner, we discovered the Australian children's laureate Alison Lester and transferred our affections to a whole new love.
The first ever chapter book I read to my son was Dixie O' Day: In the Fast Lane, a collaboration between Shirley Hughes and her daughter Clara Vulliamy. The series is an ideal introduction for readers at that level—seven short chapters so you can read one each night for a week, and a perfectly balanced combination of text and pictures.
Once the door to the chapter book kingdom had been opened, it was impossible to close it again. Tom still loved picture books, but he was now able to read those by himself. For our reading—bedtime reading—he was ready for more. Ready for stories that could develop night by night, a few pages at a time. He was ready for cliff-hangers and character development, for first person narrators and not-so-happy endings. And so, we started to work our way through Henry Huggins, The Worst Witch, and Ramona Quimby, Age 8. We read The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, and Pippi Longstocking series. We read everything by Roald Dahl except The Witches, which we agreed was a little too scary for last thing at night.
Much to my disappointment, there were many of my own childhood favorites that Tom had no interest in. Winnie the Pooh, The Wombles, and The Borrowers were complete nonstarters. We made it through one Paddington before he asked for no more. But that is the nature of reading. It's such a personal thing, and there's no joy to be found in telling a story to someone who doesn't want it.
Other attempts to indulge my own nostalgia were more successful. Late last year we read So Far From Skye, a book about the Highland Clearances that follows two young children on the boat from Scotland to Australia. I had read it at primary school and still had my original copy signed by the author, Judith O'Neill. I realized as I was reading it to Tom that it was probably the first book I'd ever read about Australia, and—having just finished a unit at school on colonization—he had learned about the history contained within it from entirely the opposite perspective.
Over the last ten years of bedtime reading with Tom, there has been a gradual reversal of roles. As a toddler, he always wanted me to stay longer, always begged me to read "just one more story." I would inevitably be the one to close the book—called away to fix dinner, catch up on work emails, or head out to an evening event.
But over the last year or so, no matter how engaging the book, I could never get through more than two or three pages before he'd decide that was enough. Brendon Chase, with its small, dense text and many unfamiliar words took us almost four months to finish.
That change gave me an inkling that our era of bedtime books was nearly over. I suspect we lasted longer than a lot of families, and I'm grateful for that. I've often felt like the calm time of connection benefitted me as much as it did Tom. At the same time, I've always encouraged him to tell me when he felt ready to stop. He knew it was a tradition he was under no pressure to continue.
When we finished Brendon Chase, the book Tom chose for us to read together next was Chris Hadfield's memoir, An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth, and I wondered quietly if this would be our last one. The writer in me almost hoped so. What a flawlessly appropriate metaphor it would be: the years of Commander Hadfield's training mirroring our years of reading; the eventual celebration of a rocket launch reflecting our own excitement and pride as Tom became a fully autonomous reader, casting off the comfort of his mother's stories.
Of course, that wasn't at all how things turned out. Instead, over the course of a few weeks, we made our way slowly, painfully, a few paragraphs at a time to page 40—less than a fifth of the way through the book. We sometimes went two or three nights without any reading at all, and on the nights when I did pick the book up—before I'd even opened it—Tom would say quietly, "not too much, okay?"
I reminded him every night that I didn't mind if he would prefer to finish the book himself. Eventually, with evident relief, he said yes.
Tom doesn't read in the same way that I read, and, if I'm honest, some of his habits appall me. He doesn't use bookmarks: he leaves novels propped on pillows and tables and floors all around our house, the spines cracking and the corners curled. He spills food on them. He reads in the bathroom. Sometimes—and I can't believe I'm writing this—he even turns to the last page first.
He also reads several books at a time. As I'm writing this essay, I ask how many he has on the go, and the answer is seven. One downstairs, one at school, four on his bedside table, and an audiobook that he's partway through. I don't know how he keeps track of them all. But that he reads at all—not reluctantly, but with enormous happiness and enthusiasm—is one of the things I am proudest of as a parent. By instilling in Tom a love of reading, I feel like I've given him a gift that will last for life.
There are books still sitting on our shelves that I had imagined reading out loud to him: Island of the Blue Dolphins, Goodnight Mister Tom, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind... Instead he will discover the pleasures of those texts alone. Like the boys of Brendon Chase, my son is ready to embrace independence, and after ten lovely years, our bedtime books are done.