15 free or cheap kids' book tricks
With the summer holidays stretching out ahead of us, we've rounded up 15 free and cheap ways to turn your little ones into bookworms.
If you or your Little Women (or men) have any more tricks to get books at Gruffa-low prices, I'd love to see them. Please Poppins them in the comments below (last pun, I promise).
Most libraries allow access to a vast catalogue of kids' (as well as adults') e-books and digital audiobooks for free via an online service using your library membership info.
As an example, our local library in Essex uses a brilliant app called Borrow Box. I especially love the audiobook service, as you can often borrow the same book with the same narrator as you'd find on Audible. My little ones have listened to tons of these, especially on car journeys. Top kids' titles on ours include The Naughtiest Unicorn, Captain Underpants, and Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
It's worth seeing if your library offers this – every one we checked did, so it's widespread. Your library subscribes to a service which hosts an online or app-based version of a library where you can borrow/check out titles digitally.
All you need is a login, then you can borrow several audiobooks and e-books at a time from a selection of hundreds – exact borrowing limits differ per library. You may need to wait a month or so to 'borrow' popular books if there's a queue, but often there's not.
How it generally works
- You'll need to first be a member of your local library. If you haven't already registered, you can usually do it just by giving them a call.
- Check to see if your library is signed up to an online service – see Gov.uk to find your library's website and it should tell you on there. Each library's online service differs by local authority – with some of the popular services being Borrow Box and Overdrive/Libby.
- The next step is to download the free app for the service your library uses. Once you've opened the app, search for your library and register – you'll need your library membership info for this.
- You can then search for titles or browse, and start borrowing.
It's worth noting you can't usually read library e-books on a Kindle (except for the Kindle Fire tablet, as you can download apps on to it). You'll need a compatible device such as an iPhone, iPad or Android phone/tablet.
The number of e-books and audiobooks you can check out at one time, and for how long, is determined by your library. For example, mine lets you borrow up to seven titles at a time. It's best to check your local service's site to see what's on offer.
Discover FREE must-read kids' Kindle books you'd normally pay for, eg, Tudor Spy Boy and The Disappearing Diva
If you know where to look, there's a treasure trove of amazing free Kindle kids' books to be found. It's worth noting you don't actually need a Kindle to read these – you can get them to read on your phone, tablet etc with the free Kindle Reading app*.
You probably already know Amazon is heaving with classic Kindle books that are permanently free, from Black Beauty to The Jungle Book. Most are out of copyright – see Amazon's list of free classics.
Yet if those don't quite match your child's virtual to-read pile, I've noticed that hundreds of normally paid-for Kindle books have been made free since schools closed.
Top freebies include Bearded, Dinosaur Jokes and Honey in Shimmer Island. There's also A Little Bit Different, A Little Bit the Same, Katie Watson and the Painter's Plot and Beast Quest and Sea Quest: An Unexpected Adventure.
For kids worried about coronavirus, there are some lovely free titles to help: Everybody Worries, Stuck Inside and The Princess in Black and the Case of the Coronavirus.
The easiest way to locate the freebies is to go to Amazon's kids' Kindle books section, filter by age or genre, then sort by 'Price: low to high'. For example, see free books in Animals, Comics or for Ages six to eight.
Sift through charity shops for second-hand bargains
Charity shops are an Aladdin's cave of cheap children's books. We've bought armfuls of books from our local Save the Children at 50p each.
Your money goes to a good cause, plus it's green and teaches kids to recycle and reuse. Some charities even have specialist book shops in some areas, including the British Red Cross and National Trust.
To take home the best tomes, establish a rapport with your local charity shop volunteers. If you're looking for a specific author, it's worth asking if they've any new donations out back. See our Charity shop bargain-hunting tips blog for more ideas.
Other top sources of used books include eBay, Facebook Marketplace and Freecycle.
Read and listen to hidden free kids' books on your iPhone/iPad, eg, Dora the Explorer and The New Avengers
Know where to look and it's possible to nab selected kids' e-books and audiobooks for free by downloading the Apple Books app to your iPhone, iPad or Mac. To see what's up for grabs, go to the Book Store and scroll down to 'Free Books' or search for 'free kids books'.
At the time of writing, free books for young readers included various Sesame Street books, as well as graphic novels for older kids such as The New Avengers. Free listens included Broken the Dog, Winnie the Pooh and The Secret Garden.
It's worth checking back regularly because freebies change, and once downloaded they're yours to keep.
The charity the Reading Agency's Summer Reading Challenge 2021 hopes to inspire children aged four to 11 to read six books over the summer holidays.
This year's theme is 'Wild World Heroes', celebrating books about nature. Take part by signing up for free at your local library. Each time they finish a book, they'll get a sticker to pop on their special collector map. The challenge runs until mid-September, but it does depend on your library, so check when you sign up.
You can also take part online. Each time kids finish a book, they add it to their profile, give it a rating and leave a review. At the end, there's a certificate to download.
Virtually flick through 150 free Oxford Owl e-books, including Winnie the Witch
Recommended for kids aged three to 11, the Oxford Owl online library has a collection of 150 free e-books which are designed to help develop reading skills at home. Books include kid-favourite characters such as Biff, Chip and Kipper as well as Winnie the Witch.
To get stuck in, you'll need to register at Oxford Owl. It says its e-books are best viewed on a computer, laptop or tablet, as they're not optimised for phones.
Children with vision impairment can access 1,600 titles online thanks to RNIB's online library
The Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB) has an online library featuring 1,600 children's audiobooks. Kids can choose from authors such as Roald Dahl, Chris Riddell and Angie Thomas.
Its library also includes Braille and giant print books, as well as audiobooks on CD and USB stick. These items are delivered free by post.
To join, call its helpline on 0303 123 9999 or you can print and post a registration form.
Snuggle up with a storytelling session from the likes of David Tennant or Meghan Markle
For a bit of calm, why not let David Tennant, Reese Witherspoon or Lupita Nyong'o read your kids a bedtime story?
A-list storytellers have been making good use of their spare time during lockdown by filming clips of themselves narrating favourite storybooks. It's all part of Save the Children's Save with Stories campaign, which is supporting kids throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Watch on Save the Children's US Instagram account.
We also like Storyline Online YouTube channel, where you can listen to a host of famous faces reading storybooks, from Rami Malek to Oprah Winfrey, but most importantly, "ANNA FROM FROZEN!!!"
Pick up cut-price collections, eg, 10 books for £13, including P&P
Online booksellers The Works and Scholastic do cheap bundles where the price is much less than if you bought copies individually. These can make a fab alternative to plastic-filled party bags, or even sweets at Halloween.
For example, Scholastic has 10 Little People, Big Dreams books for £25.99 with free delivery (£2.60/book). The books are normally £5ish each when bought separately elsewhere (it also gives a donation to your chosen school). Alternatively, The Works has 10 'sleephead tales' for £10 (delivery's £2.99).
If you're lucky enough to live in an area where this generous scheme runs, it's well worth signing up to the Imagination Library.
Dolly Parton's Dollywood Foundation charity sends all children who live in those regions a free book by post every month until they turn five, including The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
The scheme runs in 200 districts across the UK, including Aberdeen, North Lincolnshire and Southwark. Enter your postcode online and if eligible, you'll be asked to give your details to sign up. If your child's already a member, we'd love to hear what you think.
Buy bundles of second-hand comics, eg, 50 Beanos for £7.50 (15p each)
Magazine subscriptions are brilliant, but the cost can add up if your kid whizzes through them. So head over to eBay, where you can often pick up huge bundles of pre-loved comics for a few quid.
I bought 50 copies of the previous year's Beano for £7.50 (15p each, see photo). The papergirl 'delivers' an old comic to our house at the same time as the weekend paper, which makes it all the more exciting.
We've also recently seen 28 issues of Horrible Science magazine sell for 1p (yes, 1p) and 39 issues of Jacqueline Wilson Magazine for 99p (3p an issue).
Make use of free 'bookish activities', including free personalised storybooks
If you've got a printer, the internet is a treasure trove of free literary activity pages to print off online. For tons of fun options, check out Usborne Books, National Literacy Trust and Lonely Planet Kids. Many authors have their own pages with activities, eg, Sarah McIntyre and Nick Sharratt.
If you've got an Alexa-enabled device, such as an Echo smart speaker or Fire TV stick, you can listen to selected audiobooks each month completely free – just say 'Alexa, what's free from Audible?' to hear what's available. You don't need to have an Audible subscription or give it any payment details.
Past free titles have included Aladdin, Harry Potter, Oliver Twist, Pinocchio, Treasure Island, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.
Free short stories – though you can only pick the genre, eg, mystery, sci-fi, kids
It's very easy to listen to short stories narrated by the likes of Stephen Fry, David Jason, Juliet Stevenson and more on your Alexa-enabled device.
To get it to work, say 'Alexa, open Audible Stories'. You'll then be asked to choose a genre, eg, mystery, sci-fi, kids – Alexa will then randomly select a short story for you to listen to, eg, The Tale of Peter Rabbit.
Access hundreds of kids' e-books for free with Epic, including CatNinja and A Girl Like Me
Epic is an app that's essentially Netflix for kids' e-books. Sign up for a free 'basic account', and you can access hundreds of titles for free from a wide selection of fiction and non-fiction titles aimed at under-12s.
The catch is, with the free basic account kids are limited to one book a day. Free titles include A Girl Like Me, Baby Sloths and CatNinja. There's also a host of non-fiction books, covering everything from coding to police dogs.
To read as much as possible, you need to sign up for an 'unlimited' account, which costs $9.99 a month (£7.17 at today's exchange rate) and gives you access to a full range of 40,000 titles. If you do decide to pay for Epic, consider a specialist travel card to avoid fees when making your payments, as it's a US site. Some schools provide pupils with a login to access the site for free, so check with yours before paying.
Borrow from a 'Little Free Library'
The Little Free Library project is run by volunteers across the globe. It's a community book exchange where anyone can leave a book or borrow a book – and children's titles often pop up.
There are now 50 of the tiny hutch-sized libraries in front gardens, playgrounds, phone boxes and bus shelters across the UK. For more details, see MSE Rhiannon's Little Free Library blog.
My friend Krystyna runs a tiny cheery yellow library from her front garden:
We love our Little Free Library. As well as doing our bit to promote literacy, it's a great conversation starter with neighbours! My kids love to excitedly tell me when they spot someone having a rummage or donating a book. It's such a lovely community initiative.
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