Top 5: Beginner Dahl

Roald Dahl’s books are notoriously violent, scary, rude, gross, full of extremely bad behaviour and insulting language, and above all tremendously funny. Now, there’s nothing wrong with any of this, especially not when the stories are so well-written and inventive, but parents may prefer to start with some of the more ‘benign’ Dahl titles, before working their way up to James and the Giant Peach, or Matilda, or The Witches.

Lately I’ve been working my way through all of Dahl’s children’s books (he also wrote for adult audiences), and while I haven’t quite finished my “Dahl-Readathon”, I have found five titles that are more suitable for younger ages.  (A more complete Roald Dahl Overview to come once I’ve finished all the books.)

Here they are, in order of mildness…

1. Esio Trot (1990) – 62 pp.- Ages 4 +

The gentlest tale of all. No violence, no nastiness whatsoever. The story of how a shy older gentleman wins the lady of his dreams with ingenuity, patience, and a lot of tortoises. (This title on amazon.)

2. The Giraffe and the Pelly and Me (1985) – 80 pp. – Ages 4 +

A boy befriends the new window-washers in town – a rather magical team of Giraffe, Pelican and Monkey. During their first job they capture a burglar, impressing the Duke of Hampshire and securing great success for all. Generally happy and peaceful, except for one incident: burglar shoots off a gun while captured in the Pelican’s beak, creating a hole but not harming anybody. (This title on amazon.)

3. The Magic Finger (1964) – 63 pp. – Ages 4 +

A little girl teaches a family of hunters to see things from another point of view, by having them trade places with the birds they shoot at every day. Very funny. (This title on amazon.)

4. The Enormous Crocodile (1978) – 42 pp. – Ages 4 +

Very short and readable story about a crocodile with “secret plans and clever tricks.” Or so he thinks. The crocodile steals into the town intending to munch on children for lunch but the other jungle animals always call the alarm before he can succeed. In the end the elephant forcibly ejects the crocodile by flinging him all the way to the sun, where he is “sizzled up like sausage!” (The crocodile’s talk about crunching up small children might be too much for some, but it is all talk.)  (This title on amazon.)

5. Danny the Champion of the World (1975) – 196 pp, 22 chapters – Ages 5 +

A lesser known, totally sweet story of a boy with a wonderful single father who teaches him the secrets of poaching. The boy, Danny, devises a fantastic plan for the biggest pheasant heist ever, with unexpected and hilarious results. Unusual topic, yes, with a little class warfare thrown in. Much suspense during the poaching adventures, but without violence or rudeness.  Highly recommended. (This title on amazon.)

(Another) Top 5: First Chapter Books to Read Aloud to Children

I’ve already done a “Top 5” on this topic, but I just keep finding more good titles, so will continue with it.

1. Mr. Popper’s Penguins, by Richard and Florence Atwater – 138 pp – Age 4 +

Never mind the movie – the original book is a charming, old-fashioned story about an ordinary family with some extraordinary pets.  (This title on amazon.)

2. James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl – 119 pp, 39 chapters – Age 5 +

Now this is a ripping yarn! Very short, action packed chapters move the story along at a good clip. I read it myself first, and couldn’t put it down, then read it to my daughter (and my mom too) and it kept everyone on the edge of their seats! Baddies are quickly vanquished at the start – squashed flat by peach – and young James is an excellent model of pluck and smarts. (Excellent for those who love bugs.)  (This title on amazon.)

3. Sarah, Plain and Tall, by Patricia MacLachlan – 58 pp, 9 chapters – Age 5 +

The story of a farm family in the pioneer past who welcome a mail-order bride. Unfortunately though, Sarah misses her home by the sea. Will she stay or will she go back home? Gentle, touching story with vivid descriptions of life on the prairies. A ‘stepmother’ story in which nobody acts badly is novel in itself.  (This title on amazon.)

4. Stuart Little, by E. B. White – 131 pp, 15 chapters – Age 5 +

The famous story of the mouse who lives in a human family. Much interesting detail on his life, from matchbox bed to bent paperclip ice skates. Stuart has many misadventures due to his size – the thrilling sailboat race is one of the best. Rather unsettling ending, a little unresolved, but over-all a great read.  (This title on amazon.)

5. Rabbit Hill, by Robert Lawson – Age 5 +

The Newbery Medal Winner in 1945. The various woodland creatures watch curiously as new people move into the big house. Will they have guns dogs and traps? Will they be planters? Will there be food enough for all? The new inhabitants turn out even better than hoped for. A little wordy with old-fashioned language, but pretty gripping nonetheless. The real dangers the animals face are not side-stepped, but happily nothing too terrible happens in this tale.  (This title on amazon.)

Top 5: Insect Books for Preschoolers

Whether they fear them or love them, what kid isn’t fascinated by insects?


Top 5 Insect Books for Preschoolers:

1. The Very Hungry Caterpillar, by Eric Carle – Age: infants +

The classic book is available as a board book for the very young. Everyone knows this one (or should). The caterpillar eats his way through a ton of food before making his dramatic transformation.

2. Frog Went A-Courtin’, by John Langstaff – Age: 3 +

Old folk song wonderfully illustrated for children. Ostensibly about Froggie and Miss Mouse but there are an awful lot of insects invited to the shindig.

3. Why Mosquitoes Buzz in People’s Ears, by Verna Aardema – Age: 4 +

A traditional African tale about events spiralling out of control as a result of a simple lie.

4. Grasshopper on the Road, by Arnold Lobel – Age: 5 +

Grasshopper hits the open road and meets many interesting insects along the way.

5. James and the Giant Peach, by Roald Dahl – Age: 5 +

James adventures across the ocean on a giant peach, accompanied by several larger-than-life insect friends. A chapter book, perhaps about 9-yr-old reading level, but eminently suitable to read aloud to a five-year-old. Very short chapters, lots of action and humour.

Top 10: Eeek! A Mouse!






Is there any storybook creature who can win our sympathy quicker than the humble mouse? This wee beastie, less objectionable than a rat and more cuddly than an insect, appears in countless stories as a stand-in for the weak and powerless. When a little mouse triumphs over overwhelming adversity, we all cheer.

And yet… the sympathy does not extend to real life, does it? I remember a time many years ago when my days were occupied with writing charming adventures for adorable mice, and my nights were dedicated to exterminating the rather less adorable mice that were running amok in my apartment.

Ah well… let’s just focus on those more charming, storybook rodents for the moment, shall we?

Here are 10 books featuring mice…


1. Frederick, by Leo Lionni

An artist mouse brings sunshine to his brethren during the long, cold winter.

2. The Gruffalo, by Julia Donaldson

Wee mousie outwits many predators, including a ferocious Gruffalo.

3. Amos & Boris, by William Steig

The story of an unusual friendship between a whale and a mouse.

4. Little Mouse’s Big Book of Fears, by Emily Gravett

Little Mouse is afraid of everything. A child’s primer on phobias.

5. The Church Mouse, by Graham Oakley

A church mouse is friends with a peaceable cat; together they foil a thief. First book in the very popular Church Mice series.


1. The Mouse and the Motorcycle, by Beverly Cleary

A mouse befriends a boy and rides about on a toy motorcycle.

2. The School Mouse, by Dick King-Smith

A mouse living in a school decides she’d like to learn how to read too.

3. Stuart Little, by E.B. White

Stuart’s adventures and mishaps in New York City.

4. The Tale of Despereaux: Being the Story of a Mouse, a Princess, Some Soup, and a Spool of Thread, by Kate DiCamillo

The story of a mouse’s quest to rescue a human princess.

5. The Witches, by Roald Dahl

A vast witch conspiracy is undone by a very determined little mouse.

Top 10: Princess Movies

Yes, this week it’s a Top 5 x 2! The princess issue is a controversial one these days, but so many little girls love love love their princesses that it’s hard to avoid the whole genre. If you’re giving in to requests for the Disney Princess franchise, but unsure of which movie to start with, I list them here in order of age appropriateness. (And I include one non-Disney.) Generally the newer films are much scarier than the old ones, more violent and with ever more terrifying villains.

There is a raft of other, mostly live-action “princess-themed” movies out there (Princess Diaries, et al), but I’m sticking to the basic fairy tale and revised fairy tale versions here. (Click on the titles with links to go to full reviews.)

So dig out your tiaras, friends… here we go…

1. Disney Princess Enchanted Tales – Follow Your Dreams (2007) – age 3+

Real entry-level fare. A straight-to-video offering, includes two short stories about the everyday lives of Aurora (Sleeping Beauty) and Jasmine (Aladdin). Mediocre entertainment, but innocuous for even the youngest princesses.

2. Cinderella (1950) – age 4+

The villain here is just a very mean lady, no evil magic or mayhem involved, so this isn’t as scary as many other movies. At the same time, it’s got an overload of lovey dovey romance, which isn’t such a perfect fit for the very young.

3. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) – age 4+

This one started it all, in terms of princess movies, but also in terms of feature-length animation. Still lovely to look at after all these years, this movie has aged beautifully. Snow White predates the sexier Disney princesses, so she’s actually got a somewhat realistic shape for a young girl. And the dwarves are still pretty funny.

4. Thumbelina (1994) – age 4+

Aha, not a Disney movie, I know. This lesser-known Don Bluth film tells another classic princess tale, this time by Hans Christian Anderson, and stays pretty faithful to the original. Teeny tiny heroine is kidnapped by toads, menaced by bugs and almost married off to a mole, while the brave prince of the fairies searches for her.

5. Sleeping Beauty (1959) – age 4+

The reviews at the time were not kind, but I really like this one. It’s elegant and gorgeous, with some dignity and restraint. A fairly straight-ahead presentation of the traditional tale (with a few alterations). The music is sublime. Maleficent is truly spooky, and the dragon at the end is scary but the battle is quite short.

6. Tangled (2010) – age 5+

Even though this was rated PG for mild violence, and all others on this list are rated G, it is much less scary than the titles below. Some bonking with a frying pan, and a stabbing (he recovers).

7. Beauty and the Beast (1991) – age 5+

One of the modern-era Disney flicks, the violence is heightened in this one. The Beast is truly terrifying at the start, but soon becomes nearly cuddly. Lots of slapstick and fighting. Two terrific song sequences.

8. The Little Mermaid (1989) – age 5+

The first modern princess movie from Disney, and the one that revived the entire company. This set the pattern for the Broadway-style musical films that Disney still churns out. Music and characters are good, but villainess Ursula the Sea Witch is very, very scary. And they give the Anderson tale a happy ending.

9. The Princess and the Frog (2009) – age 5+

A total twist and remodelling which bears no real relation to the old Grimms tale. Characters are engaging, voodoo sequences quite frightening, one death near the end makes this more suitable for older preschoolers.

10. Aladdin (1992) – age 6+

Not one of my favourites. The songs zip along so fast I couldn’t keep up, the racial slurs are frequent, Jasmine is plucky but scantily clad at all times, Robin Williams  tells jokes no child will get, and the scary is very.

So which ones are actually great films? My short list…

1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937)

Magical and enchanting. Prince is stiff and Snow White’s voice is annoying, but that’s the worst of it.

2. Sleeping Beauty (1959)

I said it before, I’ll say it again: Elegant and gorgeous.

Hmm. Pretty short list. Both are absolutely beautiful, have just enough loyalty to the original tale to retain a little magic, and just enough of the dark side to have some bite… without beating us over the head with the awesome forces of the powers of evil, yadda yadda. And no A-list actors doing the voices, either – another irritating and distracting trend of late.

Top 5: Ocean Movies






In honour of my own upcoming weekend campout beside the ocean… five family movies about the mysterious and fascinating deep.

1. Fantasia 2000 (1999) – for age 3+  (just the “Pines of Rome”)

Okay, this is just a part of a movie, but the “Pines of Rome” sequence, featuring a pod of soaring whales, is stunning. (This sequence is totally suitable for the very young, though other sequences in the film are significantly scarier, more suited to 5 or 6 year olds.)

2. Ponyo (2009) – age 4+

An entirely different take on the basic “Little Mermaid” fairy tale. Magical forces out of balance cause the ocean to rise and submerge a coastal town… but no one is hurt in this adventure, which all hinges on a little fish striving to become a human girl.  Underwater scenes are breathtaking. (Read full review.)

3. Finding Nemo (2003) – age 4+

Wonderful fish adventure, highlighting many ocean species along the way. Funny and smart, scary moments but plot moves through them quickly. Sure to spark an interest in learning more about sea creatures. (Read full review.)

4. Pinocchio (1940) – age 5+

Underwater scenes only occur in last part of this movie, but Monstro the whale is unforgettable, if a bit scary. (Read full review.)

5. Blue Planet (2001) – age 5+

Okay, this is a BBC series, not a movie, but don’t forget to follow-up fantasy ocean stories with non-fiction and documentaries. And a trip to the aquarium!

Top 5: Books to Puzzle Over

Another summer-inspired list… I give you thought-provoking books, puzzling books, mysterious books… books to pore over on a beach (especially Flotsam), or in a shady hammock, or in a tent on a long rainy afternoon. Three are wordless books, ones you can leave your child alone to ponder, though you will soon be drawn into them too!

1. Zoom, by Istvan Banyai – 4+

Captivating illustrations reveal surprises as we zoom out, and out, and out…

2. Flotsam – David Wiesner – 5+

A mysterious camera found on a beach contains some amazing photographs.

3. Black and White – David Macaulay – 5+

Four independent stories told side by side that intersect in unexplained and mysterious ways.

4. Anno’s Journey – Mitsumasa Anno – 6+

A man journeys through a European landscape on a horse. The inquisitive and patient will examine every carefully detailed page for visual jokes and puzzles.

5. Dragon Quest – Nick Harris – 5+/8-10

A very elaborate, inventive and funny Where’s Waldo for fantasy fans. Each densely illustrated page holds objects to be found and little puzzles to be solved before the quest can move forward. The difficulty level is probably pitched to 8-10 year olds, but even younger children will enjoy the story and can still search out a few of the more easily found items. (Interesting all the way down to age 4, but some of the fantastical creatures and swarming scenes may be too creepy for some.) This book could occupy a child for hours.

a page from Dragon Quest

Top 5: Books about Messing About in Boats





Nothing says summertime to me like ‘messing about in boats’. Preferably without firm destination or deadline of course.

1. Mr. Gumpy’s Outing, by John Burningham – age 2+

2. The Story About Ping, by Marjorie Flack – age 2+

3. The Cow who Fell in the Canal, by Phyllis Krasilovsky – age 3+

4. Time of Wonder, by Robert McCloskey – age 4+

5. The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Graham – age 6+

Top 5: Silent Movies for Preschoolers

It’s often hard to find silent movies on DVD, but the classics are out there, as well as collections of short subjects. Be aware of how your child might react to real knock-down slapstick humour – some may find it a little upsetting. (I tried a few Chaplin shorts on my 3-year-old and they were a little too much for her!)

Of course you’ll have to read the title cards… though a version of The Gold Rush is available that’s narrated by Charlie Chaplin himself!

Here are five brilliant and funny silent movies for the whole family.

1. Sherlock Jr. (1924) – Buster Keaton – 4+

Meek projectionist dreams of being a world-famous detective. Visual effects and stunt tour de force. See full review.

2. Safety Last (1923) – Harold Lloyd – 4+

A department store clerk arranges for a stuntman to climb the building as a publicity stunt, but then finds he must make the daring climb himself. (You all know the famous clock-hanging shot!)

3. The Gold Rush (1925) – Charlie Chaplin – 5+

Charlie’s Tramp goes to the Klondike in search of gold, goes through hard times, falls in love. Some menacing with rifles, a bad guy shoots Mounties, then dies in avalanche. A bear is shot (offscreen) for food.

4. Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928) – Buster Keaton – 6+

Bill Jr., a puny and delicate lad, tries desperately to impress his burly steamboat captain dad.

5. Modern Times (1936) – Charlie Chaplin – 6+

The Tramp struggles to survive in the modern world, undergoes a stint in jail and another in a factory. Some gunplay, usual slapstick stuff, plus smoking, accidental drunkenness, and accidental ingestion of “nose powder”, resulting in crazy behaviour.

Top 5: Movies to Entertain (almost) Every Age

Nothing is harder than selecting one movie that will keep older kids and adults entertained, and yet not terrify or totally baffle the very young. Ever since Walt Disney practically invented the ‘family film’, covering both ends of the age spectrum has become a tightrope-walk for film producers dreaming of huge dividends. Unfortunately the youngest viewers often get the short end of this stick, as too many of these movies are overflowing with clever cultural references that only their parents will appreciate, and scenes of terror and violence aimed squarely at their teenage brothers.

In general, you will always do well with Pixar flicks, as they are all so intelligently done that they are sure to delight everyone. In fact Pixar occupies 3 spots out of my list of 5 below. Some of the Pixar films, however, are a little more violent and aimed a little older – I’ve picked the best titles for youngsters below.

Here are my picks for pleasing every age group. Click on titles to read full reviews.

1. Wall-E (2008) – age 4 to adult

Little ones will adore Wall-E himself; teens will guffaw at the dystopian vision; parents will appreciate the environmental message.

2. Finding Nemo (2003) – age (brave) 4 to adult

Little ones will love the characters and strange sea creatures; teens will like the scares and dentist humour; parents have a message aimed at them – let your child have adventures and don’t worry so much. Plan a trip to an aquarium afterward.

3. Yellow Submarine (1968) – age 5 to adult

Little ones will find it bizarre and funny; teens will pick out the deadpan puns delivered by the way too-cool Beatles and enjoy the music, which still holds up (in my opinion anyway); parents will love the nostalgia factor and 60s art design. Looks and sounds like no other movie.

4. Toy Story (1995) / Toy Story 2 (1999) – age 5 to adult

Little ones will love the walking talking toys; teens will enjoy the smartassed dialogue; parents will find the themes of abandonment and existential dilemmas strangely moving.

5. The Iron Giant (1999) – age 6 to adult

Little ones will love the friendship between boy and robot; teens will love the beatnik, the outsider angle, the bathroom humour, as well as the destruction and battle scenes; parents can ponder the paranoia of the Cold War era and and cry over the ending… no, everyone will cry over the ending and then get a happy surprise at the very, very end.

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