Regular readers will know that I am a voracious reader. I always have been. I grew up in a small village during the Seventies. We did not even have a shop to go and buy sweets at to while away the interminable hours young children have at their disposal. We played outside a lot. We read. A LOT.
I grew up in a house full of books. We went to the library at least once a week. Even when times were hard there was always money for books. Rummage sales were my great joy. You could buy a lot of second hand books for a very little. I read everything. By the age of eleven I was reading Agatha Christie, Alistair McLean and Ian Fleming. By the age of twelve I was devouring the carrier bags full of Mills and Boon books my friend’s mum used to bring home from her job as a nurse on a women’s ward. By thirteen I was puzzling over Kafka as well as reading Judy Blume and sniggering.
A series of fantastic English teachers; Mr. Ferguson and Mrs. Boulter in particular sealed my fate, instilling in me a love of books that was already the bedrock of my childhood. They widened my interests to the poetry of Wilfred Owen and John Keats, the novels of Thomas Hardy and Emily Bronte, and a great and deepening passion for Shakespeare.
As well as buying books, at this point I spent every spare penny on theatre, poetry readings, anything that would connect me to the world of words and bring them to life.
I still do.
I went to university and met brilliant people like George Walter and Edmund Cusick, whose literary passions for fantasy, and horror and the exploration of madness in the novel showed me new avenues to explore. They encouraged me to be inclusive, to look outside of the accepted canon, to see that everything you read can tell you something new about your life and your experience of the world.
Reading was my gateway to understanding my life and the wider world outside of myself. It gave me shelter when I was a bullied child. It gave me comfort when I was a disturbed teenager. It gave me hope when I was struggling with being an adult. It allowed me to escape. It gave me solace. It gave me freedom when life seemed too constricting. It still does.
I kept going back to it. A master’s diploma in women’s fiction. A series of OU courses on everything I fancied, including an utterly self indulgent level 3 course on children’s fiction. It kept me hungry for more.
Then there was the utter joy of introducing my own children to books I loved and cherished, and finding new books to share with them that they would love and cherish.
I’ve just given up my second voluntary role in school, helping to rebuild a children’s library, sourcing new books, stocking old favourites, hearing children read, talking to children about books, reading the books they recommend, creating events that celebrate words. I am sad about this. I love helping children get passionate about books, about reading, but I have a book of my own to write now.
I still read and review hundreds of children’s books a year, some of which I get sent straight from the publishers now, much to my delight. Hundreds is not an exaggeration by the way. I read across all genres, all age ranges and all formats from graphic novels to board books, from comics to novels distinguishable from adult material only by their place on the library shelves. I still go to the library every week. I still have a house full of books. I still think that the joy of reading is the greatest gift you can give to a child.
I write about that stuff here.
And I’m writing this why?
Because I despair at things like The Apprentice this week, where adults think that children’s books are ‘simple’ and ‘easy’ and ‘how hard can it be?’ and patronise children and adults with their simplistic, ignorant twaddle and expect children to lap this shit up and be grateful.
Because I despair at dull reading schemes and targets in school that totally ignore the passion that should be ignited in favour of repetitive, stupid stories that must be read three times regardless of how dull they are. Books that are full of improving ideas and high frequency words and targets, rather than great characters and brilliant plots and stories that just make you want to keep turning the page.
Because I despair that in schools, fluency takes over from comprehension and nobody bothers to check whether children actually understand what they read as long as they can read it ‘fluently’, when what they actually mean is ‘fast and with no mistakes.’
Because I despair at people like Nicky Morgan, who suck the life out of everything that should be joyous and turn everything into a hurdle that has to be overcome.
Because I despair that I have met librarians who don’t actually read books, and in particular don’t read children’s books, and yet who are ‘experts’ who are qualified to discuss what should go on the shelves in children’s libraries.
How can you be an expert if you haven’t spoken to your customers about what they want (the children, not the budget holders) and you haven’t read the books you are advocating someone should buy?
You may have a degree in librarianship. You may know the Dewey Decimal system. You may think it appropriate to spend the majority of your hard won budget on a flimsy shelf in the shape of a rocket ship. That doesn’t make you an expert in my opinion.
Because I despair at teachers who do not read the books they exhort their children to read and fall back on the same tired old classics because it is easy and untaxing and they don’t have to think because all the ideas and lesson plans are out there on the web and they can just churn them out without engaging with what they’re doing.
The WHO have done a study that shows that children who are surrounded by books, who are introduced to books from birth and who live with families who read for pleasure do measurably better in life than those that don’t. Further studies show that literacy is the one factor that is head and shoulders above anything else in determining whether a child can move from poverty to a life of plenty.
In a world where everything is cut and slashed to the bone, where everything is being taken away from people, where poverty is a reality for people in a way it hasn’t been for generations in this country, I do not understand why we are hell bent on taking away the one thing that can really make a difference, not because we’re not giving it to people, we are. What’s worse is that we are forcing children to endure literacy. We are taking all the joy and pleasure out of it. We are taking away their ability to browse, to explore, to connect, to savour books.
We are taking children’s literacy and we are making it so that instead of it being an open door to a world of possibilities, it is a cell door that shuts children into a mean, sterile, joyless environment in which reading is a punishment.
And what really gets my goat?
The people who are doing this are, and I would put money on this, people who do not read books themselves because a) they don’t have time, b) it’s boring, c) it’s hard work, d) other things are more important.
And they wonder why they can’t get children to read. What example are they setting? Children learn by mimicking what they see adults do. Go figure. Disinterested adults who don’t read and couldn’t really give a rat’s ass what children are reading? They turn the children into their care into disinterested children who don’t want to read and don’t care about the things they are forced to read.
They wonder why the books they buy sit on the shelves in pristine condition, and yes, some of them actually think that’s good, because you know, you don’t want books to get tatty do you?
Except that tatty books are the treasured books, are the ones that get passed around from hand to hand, mind to mind, that are loved and cherished and stay in people’s hearts. All shelves should have tatty books that have been read until they are falling apart. That’s the point of books. You should read them until they climb under your skin, until they clamour to be read, until you have memorised them so you don’t even really need the page in front of you, but you have it there for comfort, because that book is your friend, your ally, your solace, your joy.
All houses, all schools, should have so many books they drift in piles in the corridor. They should have books to hand for every eventuality. They should show children how to reach for a book for everything they need and want to know from how the earth hangs in space to how grief feels. They should immerse children in books, and celebrate them at every opportunity. Not for ten minutes to keep them quiet after lunch, or to fit in with OFSTED regulations so they can tick another box.
They should refer to stories like they refer to television programmes. They should live in books and books will live in them, and if they have a school library they should cherish it, and nurture it, and use it, and teach the children to use it as a resource like they use air to breath. They should count themselves lucky.
It makes me unbearably sad that this does not happen as standard.