Received from Author
Switching on the light for young readers
Do you have a light bulb-book? The book that switched you on to the magic of reading for the first time? I do. It’s ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ and I read it at secondary school for ‘O’ Level English. For the first time, out of the print and pages, characters such as the headstrong Bathsheba and the vainglorious Troy in his dazzling red coat sprang to life in my imagination, living out their romance in a Dorset of some hundred or so years before. The book was a revelation to me, because here were fictional people who seemed real, whose troubles were mine, who I cared about, whose secrets captivated. So thank you Thomas Hardy, because primary school had switched me off reading for years.
Image from Goodreads
It was the mid-seventies when I was at primary school and we were taught by a funky, patchwork waistcoat-wearing teacher whose wacky side unfortunately deserted him when it came to reading. Hobbits and snooty children lived on our classroom bookshelves, which meant that when we weren’t being read to about grubby creatures with hairy feet doing things we weren’t interested in, we listened to adventure stories about children, whose feet probably weren’t hairy at all, but who didn’t do anything more interesting and with whom we seemed to have even less in common. One of these novels, a homework reader for the class, about some children trapped in an avalanche, haunts me to this day. Trapped by the snow, those children left me equally cold, and I can still vividly recollect standing at my bedroom windowsill one grey Sunday afternoon and forcing myself to read the allotted pages, one by one, until I finally reached the target page that had been set, refusing to let myself sit down until I got there. Igniting a love of reading? Hardly.
Over recent years children’s publishing has blossomed, and there are now so many talented children’s authors, so much choice and cartloads of fun on the shelves, that we should be seeing a real boom in children’s love of books. However, for many children, some of the old problems still remain. Or rather one problem in particular: The sorts of books adults like to choose for young readers.
With the best of intentions, parents, relatives and teachers continue to seek out that appropriate book, a book that might in actual fact captivate a different child altogether, or perhaps the child their choosing for at a different time in his or her life, but isn’t what that child wants now. As a children’s author, I’ve often witnessed the familiar scene in a bookshop or library: a child pulls a book from the shelf, proudly waves it about and asks for it. It’s then plucked from their hand by a well-meaning adult with a brisk, “That’s too old for you,” or, “That’s all pictures,” or, “You read one like that before,” and the chosen book is re-shelved whilst a “better” one is selected on the child’s behalf. Of course there are times when this is absolutely the right thing to do – there are books that are too old, with themes that are too adult or dark, that wouldn’t be appropriate – but losing our preconceived notions about what children “ought” to be reading is a big step in the right direction.
And that applies to the type of book too.
Boys, in particular, seem not to see “the point” in reading fiction. They are often more fascinated by the real world around them – dinosaurs, diggers, deadly spiders – and are frustrated by stories. Even now, I’m still pleased that as a primary school teacher I was the first in our school to allow boys, and some of the girls, to take non-fiction books from the library. Suddenly choosing from the library wasn’t an excuse to mess about around the tables any more, but a chance to take something exciting home, to share it with parents and siblings, to become an expert.
Reading the instructions for computer games, or a recipe book, are equally valid ways to get children into reading, and for many children, seeing that reading has a purpose, opens the doors into other worlds of reading.
And finally, don’t forget the funny reads.
Image from Goodreads
As a teacher, I sought out the books that would really entertain the children. Whilst some teachers looked at the fun covers of the books on my desk with wrinkled-noses, I was well-aware that at Year Four, a number of children still dreaded reading to the teacher, or being pinned behind one of their own books for twenty minutes in class reading time. And so, as someone with a strong sense of humour myself, I ferreted out the funny. My class readers included Jeremy Strong’s ‘The Hundred-Mile-an-Hour Dog’ and amongst other Jiggy McCue titles, ‘The Poltergoose’ by Michael Lawrence. Result? A class of thirty-three children laughing their heads off as the hapless Jiggy is attacked by a ghost goose that jabs at the toilet seat when he is in there, flipping the seat up, down, up, down, before chasing Jiggy down the stairs to peck him some more under the dining room table, where Stallone, the family cat, now frightened out of his wits, sets about attacking him too. In the end, I was laughing so much I had to stop reading too. Hilarious books, you see, tend to pay dividends on every page. They lead to rooms full of delighted children and, for those to whom the printed page is a barrier, the realisation, finally, that, “hey, books can be fun!”
Image from Goodreads
So in conclusion, it’s my opinion that that there is no obvious way to find that light-bulb book for a child and each reader is thoroughly individual in their own likes and dislikes. But, I think it’s worth trying a few light switches to see if they might work: the letting them choose what appeals to them switch – whether it’s the book with too many pictures, or the non-fiction one (because dinosaurs are pretty awesome, you know); the being pleased when they read instructions switch; and, my own personal favourite, the chuckle-switch.
Of course, there were no pterodactyls, recipes or laugh-out-loud moments in ‘Far From the Madding Crowd’. But then, luckily for me, there were no annoying hobbits, irksome children or avalanches either.