I have always loved and revelled in books. I own lots of them and a bookshelf is one of the things I always look for when I walk into someone’s home for the first time.
As well as hoping to find some new treasure, I think that a glance at a row of books reveals many clues to the identity of their owner.
A house without books can be equally revealing. It may be an indicator of parental apathy, which all too frequently is handed down to the next generation. I’ve met many kids who have never come across the idea of books as objects of pleasure or entertainment, and who would consider the concept of reading as a joy, not a chore, to be plain bonkers.
Perhaps the parents of kids like these think that the combined power of cinema, television, games consoles and social media means that books just can’t compete. The result, I believe, is to stifle children’s imaginations. CGI does it all for them: it hands them someone’s vision of a particular world on a plate, but the vision is that of the director or game developer, not of the viewer.
This is a tragedy. The written word can prompt the reader’s imagination to produce their own ideas of characters and their worlds, and in the process give the reader the vocabulary to communicate their own images and feelings.
So, what can we do to instil the message that books are absolutely not ‘boring’ – something that I’m sure we’ve all heard countless times over the years?
I suppose that the simplest thing is to communicate our own enthusiasm for reading and to introduce children to other people who live and breathe books. I’m not touting for business here but in my experience, authors who visit schools to talk about their own books and those of other writers create a real buzz, and that can be drawn on long after they’ve left. Librarians, either school ones or public ones, are a fount of knowledge and can frequently come up with just the right book to spark an interest in the written word.
In my experience, authors who visit schools to talk about their own books and those of other writers create a real buzz, and that can be drawn on long after they’ve left
A book for everyone
Speaking of finding the book that floats a child’s boat, here’s a story about my son, Harry. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy books – he’d always had access to a wide range of them, and we read to him from a very early age, but like Mr Gradgrind in Hard Times, he felt more comfortable with facts, and this was reflected in his reading matter. Now factual books are great, as far as they go, but they preclude the whole wide, wonderful world of imaginative fiction.
One of the few exceptions to Harry’s rule was that he loved Greek and Roman mythology, so when he was about 7, I set out to find a fun, fictional work that might coax him away from his predilection for non-fiction. The book that did the trick was Helping Hercules by Francesca Simon.
It took the mythology he was familiar with and turned it on its head. He loved that, especially as it was funny, too. From there he was encouraged to read Paul Shipton’s mythologically-based comedy, The Pig Scrolls (which, incidentally, I love too). Having enjoyed that (I used to love hear him giggling in his bedroom, as he read it) it was a short step into related historical fiction, like Caroline Lawrence’s Roman Mysteries. From there, he started reading Terry Pratchett’s children’s books. By this time, he was making his own reading choices. From Pratchett he went to Tolkein, Derek Landy, Conn Iggulden, Bernard Cornwell, Antony Horowitz – I couldn’t keep up with him.
This was evidence that for every child there is a book, perhaps a whole genre, that will work for them. I never worry if a child reaches for a book that’s considered too young for them. The important thing is that they’re enjoying what they’re reading. There’s a lot of competition for a child’s attention; better to encourage their enjoyment of a book for an hour, rather than remove it on the grounds that it isn’t challenging enough. Let kids find their own way with books and, in my experience – and I’ve worked with kids and in schools for decades – they’ll be encouraged to seek out others.
I have never been a fan of forcing a child to read a book that they’re not enjoying. There are so many fantastic books out there that I can’t see any mileage in making them trudge on with one they don’t like. It is ultimately more productive, I think, to put that book to one side and reach for another one.
Classics. Hmm. I admit that they instil an understanding of morality that can’t go amiss in these challenging times, but perhaps there are modern classics that do the job without alienating the less-than-enthusiastic reader. Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy springs to mind as brilliantly-written modern ‘classics’ with a strong, if rather controversial, moral compass. When I was a young reader, I hated Beatrix Potter, The Water Babies and the Narnia books. But I carried on reading and I found things that I did enjoy. My reluctance to engage with many children’s classics hasn’t ruined my life. I have a first-class degree in English and Creative Writing, a Master’s in English Literature and I’m published in three languages. Reading helped me to achieve those things. Reading all sorts of things, including my brothers’ Victor and horror comics and my big brother’s copy of Jaws, which my parents tried to hide from me on the grounds that I’d find it disturbing. If a kid finds a classic that floats their boat, that’s brilliant. If they don’t, there are countless other amazing, imaginative, (sometimes) well-written books out there, and if they’re not all of those things, that doesn’t make them worthless as reading material.
What I’m saying I suppose, is that a bit of leeway and flexibility can go a long way when it comes to encouraging reading. Losing oneself in a book is a huge pleasure. It also encourages imagination, planning skills and our ability to express ourselves as we wish to. You know it and I know it. We just need to ensure that kids know it, too.