Increasing numbers of children are starting school without having been read to. But which are the books to get them – and keep them – hooked? Lucy Mangan introduces our guide to the best. So whether it’s to fight the White Witch or snuggle up with the Moomins, make yourself comfy …

When I was about seven, my dad and I – having gambolled happily through innumerable Ladybirds, all of Milly-Molly-Mandy’s adventures (I yield to no one in my love of the little girl in the pink and white striped dress) and a fair proportion of William Brown’s – embarked on the weightier matter of Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword together.

This is the story of the three Balicki children who must fend for themselves in occupied Poland after their parents are taken away by the Nazis. They become friends with an orphan called Jan. Or, as Dad kept calling him, “Yan”. Eventually I had to stop him and explain politely that, actually, “J” was pronounced “jay”, not “wye”. Whereupon he explained, that the vagaries of the Polish language were such that, in fact, a J could be a Y and this is how Jan’s name would have been spoken. I forgot all about that until about 13 years later when a university lecturer was trying to teach me about semiotics. He had been talking about signifiers and signifieds for several minutes and then, suddenly, the memory of Jan/Yan popped up and brought the various fragments of knowledge I was gleaning into focus like a twist on a kaleidoscope tube. Nothing is innately or immutably attached to anything. You only have to have a system. As long as A is different from B and Y is different from J and everybody is aware of this, all works smoothly.

It was a tiny but gratifyingly tangible example of the usually amorphous benefits of reading aloud to a child.

Latest research reveals that increasing numbers of children are starting school without ever having been read to at home. Pie Corbett, educational adviser to the government, says: “This isn’t just an economic thing – it’s across the whole of society. You get a lot of children coming from very privileged backgrounds who’ve spent a lot of time in front of the TV and not enough time with a good book. The TV does the imagining for you – and it doesn’t care whether you’re listening or not.”

There is an argument to be made in favour of TV’s role as a failsafe babysitter, giving frazzled parents restorative breaks, and we should also be wary of characterising the TV as something that injects noxious substances directly into children’s brains, and of books as something that are universally capable of transforming the dustiest mental landscape into a lush and verdant pasture.

But perhaps after the revelation that the average adult in the UK watches nearly four-and-a-half hours’ TV a day, it is time to remind ourselves of some of the best books out there for our young people.

The following – a combination of personal recommendations, enduring classics and currently popular borrowings from school and public libraries – are suggestions and starting points only, of course (and the age ranges attached even more so), but hopefully there will be something, somewhere for everyone.

Best books: 0-2 year-olds

Best books: 2-4 year-olds

Best books: 5-7 year-olds

Best books: 8-12 year-olds

Best books: 12-years-old and over

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