I’ve just had my daughter and her two children over for a few days over Christmas and, while they were here, it set me thinking a bit more about a programme I’d been listening to recently on Radio 4 about Ladybird books, which you can look at here.
As I have a small collection of the Ladybird series, I read my grandson, who is still only three, the story The Discontented Pony (1951). He has a story read to him most evenings before he goes to sleep, is well used to listening to stories and is therefore happy to ‘snuggle up’ and enjoy them as they unfold. Because, too, his parents talk to him a lot and he has a very chatty older sister, his receptive language is already fairly extensive.
For the above reasons, stories like The Discontented Pony are absolutely ideal for furthering the development of his vocabulary, whilst also extending his exposure to grammatical forms less likely to be encountered in everyday spoken language, such as, for example, embedded relative clauses. The story was just a little above his current ability to comprehend everything on his own and, with a book such as this, the job of the adult/parent/carer is to mediate the occasional word the child doesn’t understand. So, the purpose of the story was not to teach him to decode. We will begin to teach him how to decode and read for himself in due course and this tuition will run alongside of the kind of thing we were doing in reading The Discontented Pony.
Of course, as the programme made clear, having been written so long ago, the books reflect pretty much life as it was at the time and gender roles were highly stereotypical. However, in another important respect, the books are dissimilar from many produced today: they are far more challenging.
Here are a couple of paragraphs from page 8 of the book to give you a flavour of how much more demanding these books were than many of those offered for reading to children today.
So, Merrylegs became more and more discontented, and grumbled when he had to deliver the milk, or take the farmer to market, or the farmer’s wife out visiting.One fine day the farmer harnessed Merrylegs to the little cart, and got ready to go to the market. In the cart he put new-laid eggs, butter and cheese, and red roses out of his garden. The brown pony grumbled to himself as usual, and fidgeted so much that the farmer had to call his son to hold the reins until he was ready.The opposite page contained a picture of the farmer, the farmer’s son, the pony and cart, as well as all the things the farmer was intending to take to market. So, it was easy to talk about them and explain the meaning of ‘grumbled’ and ‘fidgeted’.
There are fifty pages in the book, twenty-five relating the story and twenty-five accompanying illustrations. Each page of text contains around eighty-five to ninety words. The book is meant for reading for pleasure to a child who, as yet, is unable to read. For child who has reached a reasonable proficiency in reading, the book can be shared with help being given for the odd word here and there.
Is it a knock-your-socks-off story that will be remembered forever? Probably not, although I can still remember two similar titles from my childhood that I’ve never forgotten! The story contains a neat little twist that results in the ‘discontented’ pony becoming contented. However, the point is that it was enjoyable: my grandson liked it; we talked about it; and, it served other (bonding) purposes. Over the years, the cumulative effect of first being read stories and then reading for oneself pleasurable stories is likely to inspire a lifelong love of reading.