I'm always surprised at how many thousands of people are affected when a celebrity dies. I mean, really, I didn't know Princess Diana or Michael Jackson. Their deaths weren't major events in my life. But a few weeks ago, Dick King-Smith died and I found myself sorry to hear it and glad that he had lived. Over many years of reading aloud to my kids, running book groups for kids and choosing library books for my own kids and my students he had given us many happy hours. I don't know anything about the man other than the this little blurb that always appeared on his book jackets:
Dick-King Smith was a farmer for twenty years before becoming a writer. Most of his books are based on his farming experiences. He lives in Gloucestershire.
He was most famous for having written the book upon which the movie, Babe, was based. He also wrote the book The Water Horse. I hope he never saw the terrible movie that was made from it. The movie actually involved practice bombing in Loch Ness. The world King-Smith created for children was always gentler than that. He wrote dozens of children's books, almost all of them short chapter books of under a hundred pages. Many of his protagonists are animals and while they speak the Queen's English, they retain the real motivations of pigs or mice or hedgehogs. They don't dress up ala Beatrix Potter. He continued writing well into his eighties-- in fact, two of my favorite among his books, Lady Lollipop and Princess Lollipop were among his most recent. (By the way-- Lollipop is a pig-- the titles of these books make them sound "girlie" but the hero is, in fact, a boy.)
The books are memorable, charming, non-commercial and very well written. They are great both for reading aloud and quite accessible to a child reading on a solid 3rd or 4th grade level. Their age appeal is pretty broad, too, so if you have an older child who is reading on a 3rd grade level these would suit quite well. It can be a little tricky to find books for kids like this. The last thing a ten or eleven year old boy wants to read is about the goings on in a first grade classroom. Since I have both boys and girls, I was always looking for books that appealed to both. One of the things I always appreciated about these books was that they weren't focussed exclusively on school. In fact, his child characters generally seem to have their real lives taking place out of school. One of our favorites is The Cuckoo Child, which is about a boy who has a longstanding interest in raising chickens, ducks and geese. On a field trip to the zoo he steals an ostrich egg (which was destined to be fed to snakes) and actually manages to raise the ostrich. (He does apologize and make amends over the theft of the egg by the way.)
There are occasion Britishisms which might require a context guess--but not really too many. If you have ever tried to read Winnie the Pooh aloud to a young child you will have found many more. I think the American publishers have changed the bonnets of cars to hoods, for instance. The books are not tightly controlled for vocabulary, but the occasional word or expression that a kid doesn't know can be guessed from context.
His books are not a series, although there are several sequels. (I think there are three of the Sophie books.) His child characters are believable; not perfect, but not obnoxious either. In the tradition of the best children's books, parents are nearly invisible. (Think of James and the Giant Peach, whose parents are eaten up by a rhinoceros on the very first page. ) The children often make friends with eccentric older people. In a few books, the eccentric older people are actually some of main characters (Mr. Ape and The Invisible Dog.) The Invisible Dog is about a girl who has an invisible harlequin Great Dane. I used it with our second and third grade boys book group a few years ago and the boys loved it.