BEL MOONEY: Read your child a Christmas story this holiday!

The greatest gift for a child this Christmas? Read them a story! BEL MOONEY on the ultimate way to boost your kids’ concentration and leave them with a lifetime of memories

Once upon a time… are there any words in the world more enticing?

What about: ‘Here is Edward Bear, coming downstairs now, bump, bump, bump…’

Or this: ‘All children, except one, grow up.’

Or: ‘There was once a velveteen rabbit and in the beginning he was really splendid.’

Or this: ‘High above the city, on a tall column, stood the statue…’

Or: ‘The Mole had been working very hard all the morning, spring-cleaning his little house.’

Or: ‘Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.’

Do you recognise those beginnings? They’re all favourite books I shared again and again with my two children — so I hope you recognise them (the answers are at the end).

Children’s books welcome young readers into classic, enchanting tales that transport them into the magical world of Storyland (file image)

Each one welcomes readers into classic tales that have enchanted young people for years — and which, when read aloud, transport parents too into the magical world of Storyland.

In this world anything can happen, animals and trains can talk, fairies are real (but so are trolls), people are transformed by adventures and adversity, and good usually triumphs in the end. What’s more, it’s always Christmas Day and never winter, because each story — especially if shared, to double the joy — is a gift that continues to give.

I was reminded of the enduring pleasure of stories in June, when my husband and I were staying in a hotel near Solihull.

One of the waitresses approached me hesitantly — a tough-looking young woman with multiple piercings, tattoos and a half-shaven hairstyle.

‘I saw your name on the list — are you a children’s writer?’ she asked. When I nodded, her face lit up, as if the sun had come out. ‘I used to love your Kitty books!’ she exclaimed.

‘They were all I’d read. I was rubbish at school but I loved all them books!’

The Daily Mail will be carrying special pullouts of some of the most magical Christmas stories for children including Winnie the Pooh and The Snowman

It made my day — and I told her so. Although I’m not writing for young readers at the moment (waiting for inspiration from grandchildren!) I look back on my years of visiting schools, libraries and children’s festivals with deep pride and affection. Few things in my long career can beat the precious experience of reading my stories aloud to a class of rapt children, then waiting for their eager questions.

I know most children’s authors recognise what a privilege it is. Most parents, too. That’s why I’m so thrilled that, all next week, The Daily Mail will be carrying special pullouts of some of the most magical Christmas stories for children — perfect for parents and grandparents to read to their little ones over the festive period, and for older children to pore over at bedtime.

From classics such as The Polar Express and Winnie the Pooh to a magical reworking of The Snowman by Michael Morpurgo and a wickedly funny Christmas caper from Horrid Henry, they will be loved by children of all ages (and their grown-ups too!)

Reading aloud to children forms a vital part of their development — and can enthuse in them a love of reading that will last a lifetime. I can still remember the delight I took in one story my mother read to me: Maurice The Mouse by Nancy Catford, first published in 1937.

It is the story of a brave doctor mouse captured by big, bad robber rats but rescued by all the little creatures (like Cuthbert the Caterpillar) he had helped.

Then — goodness rewarded — he marries his sweet Molly Mouse and their wedding cake is ‘three-quarters icing and only a quarter cake’. The copy I still treasure dates from 1943 (before I was born) and its battered state testifies to much love.

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Stories can become a means of escape. If you were a lonely child like me, books gave instant access to friends within other worlds. A city child, living in a council flat and at a large primary school, I had an unlikely passion for girls’ boarding school stories (all prefects and pillow fights) as well as classics such as The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

What was a manor house? It didn’t matter that the story was remote from my own experience. After all, that’s partly the point, isn’t it? I want to remind some right-on children’s writers and publishers nowadays that children in council flats don’t actually need to read about children in council flats.

Stretch their imaginations instead. If there is trouble at home, set them free! The Famous Five, Swallows And Amazons, Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild, Just William, Billy Bunter . . . you name it, I read it.

But although a keen reader, I still loved those times in class when the teacher would read us Andersen’s Fairy Tales or Greek myths. Her voice would transport us to snowy landscapes and silver seas as the inky smell of school drifted away . . .

What is the allure of reading aloud? It’s the sharing: that intimacy of settling down — adult and child — with a book, to enter the story together.

If a child is keen they may prefer to read to themselves, but if they find it a struggle, you can give no greater gift than your time and attention as you look at the pictures together and turn the pages. (Put that smartphone down now!) My son Dan wasn’t very keen on school (and indeed dropped out of higher education with my blessing) but at the age of nine or ten he listened attentively as I read the whole seven volumes of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles Of Narnia to him — twice — doing all the characters’ voices.

The paper will also include children’s classic The Polar Express – perfect for parents and grandparents to read to their little ones over the festive period, and for older children to pore over at bedtime

He still remembers the special time when his little sister was in bed and it was just us in the quiet of his bedroom — with the treasured Puffin paperbacks.

It makes me desperately sad that fewer parents these days read to their children. Oh, I know lack of time is always an excuse. But did we have more time? Of course not!

When technology and TV replace loving contact a whole generation of children is missing out on the unique combination of words, voice, pictures and human touch — which together create the mysterious magic of story-time.

‘Don’t fidget’, I tell my grandchildren, because concentration is key — and it builds up the more they are read to and the more you chat about the story. But you have to value the habit that’s an absolutely vital part of a child’s psychological growth. They listen, they laugh, they learn, they love — all at once. Reading aloud isn’t just for children. Since men and women first gathered in caves, gathering around the comforting fire at night, stories have been a part of the human soul.

Each Christmas I read a touching Russell Hoban story called The Mole Family’s Christmas to my husband, and love the way his face softens into expectation as he hears about those short-sighted moles yet again. We both love it. Many times I have read aloud part of A Child’s Christmas In Wales (an excerpt of which will appear in our pullouts) or a touching festive section from Winifred Foley’s A Child In The Forest to audiences of adults — and love to see their faces relax as they become engrossed.

I’m patron of a brilliant charity called Read Around Bath, which sends volunteers into care homes and homeless shelters to read aloud to people who have very little. No such thing as an age limit to the spell of a spoken story.

When I’d finished reading to my children I always left them listening to the story cassettes which gradually helped them drift off.

Nowadays audiobook CDs — like the David Walliams one you can pick up free with this paper today — do the same job . . . another branch of storytime which exercises the imagination, feeding the vital inner world. Fairy tales, myths, stories of wizards and gangster grannies and naughty children, accounts of daring exploits, frightening fables, scary monsters, brave mice, awesome lions, Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future . . . all this is waiting on the library and bookshop shelves — and in The Daily Mail next week.

So as the nights grow colder, please do gather around the warmth of a story or a poem, experience the humour and wisdom that has delighted generations — and enjoy the love within the words.

n I gave you the opening words of Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne; Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie; The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams; The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde; The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame; The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

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