Neil Gaiman has thought about stories more than most. Whether reinventing old myths for modern audiences, plucking fully-formed tales from his head or putting his spin on beloved household-name characters, he takes storytelling extremely seriously. He’s written novels, picture books, short stories, comics, films, TV shows, poems, songs – you name it, he’s done it.
As parents, we know reading with our kids is beneficial for everyone involved. It helps language skills, improves behaviour and strengthens the bonds we have with them. But it’s not always easy – and some parents do struggle. Whether due to anxiety of “performing”, uncertainty about the book, or just not knowing where to start when telling a story, some mums and dads avoid the activity altogether. So both as a dad-of-four and, arguably, the world’s greatest storyteller, who better to get bedtime story advice from?
“The biggest thing I can tell any parent is, do the voices,” says Gaiman. “That’s the reason I wrote my book Fortunately The Milk – it exists for parents to read to their kids and do the voices. The book has done all the work for you: you’ve got vampires, you’ve got pirates – and all you have to do is do the voices.”
Staying sane while reading a picture book for the 12th time in a row is a challenge for any tired parent, Gaiman acknowledges. “35 years ago, my eldest son’s favourite book was called Catch The Red Bus, where a family of bears went, using a variety of modes of transport, to the beach and back,” he tells me. “I read that 12 times a day and it was awful.”
The experience spurred him on to go out and find more enjoyable books for his kids. Currently, his three-year-old son loves Meg and Mog books. “They just work for kids, with simple plots, simple lines and lovely colourful pictures.” There are other modern books he rates – “everything illustrated by Jon Klassen should be compulsory; and everything by Oliver Jeffers, I enthusiastically endorse”.
Gaiman comes with plenty of recommendations. Levi Pinfold is also an amazing author, he says. He wrote a book called Greenling which Gaiman thought was going to be “too weird” for his son – but he fell in love with it. “And I love what Julia Donaldson does,” he adds. “There’s so much bad poetry for kids, written by people that don’t understand scansion or rhythm or anything like that. Julia Donaldson makes it seem simple, but all of the words are in exactly the right place. That means a ridiculous amount.”
“There’s so much bad poetry for kids, written by people that don’t understand scansion or rhythm or anything like that."”
As children get older, being a parent lets you revisit classics you grew up on. Among the authors Gaiman re-read with his daughter are Diana Wynne Jones, Eva Ibbotson, CS Lewis and PL Travers. Some parents are reluctant to explore certain themes with their children, he says, or feel cautious about allowing them access to ‘older’ books, due to worrying about things like violence, sex or swearing. This is not a concern for Gaiman. “I tend to trust kids to be incredibly effective self-censors,” he says. “If you talk to librarians or teachers, you know that kids tend to have a fairly good idea of what they’re ready for and what they like.”
Currently, Gaiman’s son’s favourite film is The Wizard of Oz, in which the flying monkeys – which scare a lot of adults – are his favourite feature. “It’s not occurred to him that the witch is someone to be scared of,” says Gaiman. “On the other hand, we tried showing him Willy Wonka And The Chocolate Factory, and he found the credit sequence of sweets being made too scary. I put it away – I think you have to respect what kids find scary.”
Scariness, salaciousness, offensiveness are all contextual, he says, particularly with reading – and putting our adult perspective on things can make them seem more extreme than they come across to a child. “The point of written fiction that people forget is that it is a collaborative action between the author and the reader,” says Gaiman. “I run into parents who read Stardust [Gaiman’s 1997 novel, made into a film in 2007] and said ‘How can you let a child read this, when it starts with a hardcore porn scene?’ The thing is, that parent is my collaborator, and knows how sex goes.
“I was very careful in my use of words, and there’s nothing in those words about Tab A going into Slot B – you need to have brought that along with you to find what’s written in that book embarrassing or pornographic. If you do, it’s not wrong, but you built that fantastic sex scene in your head. If a child reads it on the page there’s some kissing and moving and later a baby shows up.”
As children get older and learn to read themselves, finding time to enjoy a book together can feel less necessary – and a hard thing to pack into busy schedules. But as his kids grew up, Gaiman found a novel – look, a pun, sort of – approach to long-distance shared reading: two copies. “With my daughter, who is now 24, we had a thing where I would read to her every night. Sometimes I was on tour or away in the world, so I would make sure we both had a copy of whatever book she was on.
“I’d phone her at bedtime or late in the afternoon, and we’d do 15 minutes or half an hour with her turning the pages and reading along as I read to her. I still remember the absolute tragedy of being halfway through The Golden Compass, when she was pushing 13, and her saying ‘You know, Dad, I think I’ll read this myself’. It wasn’t that she didn’t read books on her own, but this was a thing we did. That was the last day of that, and it felt like an era was over.”
Moral of the story? Enjoy reading with your kids while you can.
Gaiman’s latest project is Good Omens, an adaptation of the 1990 novel about the apocalypse he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett. Good Omens launched on Amazon Prime Video in the UK and around the world on Friday 31 May.
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