Tag Archives: children’s literacy

Reality Check

I’ve written before on this blog of my passion for encouraging literacy, particularly among children; if I had my way, every child on this planet would be exposed to books at as early an age as possible. If there was one thing I could do – given unlimited power and funds – it would be to equip every child in the world with their own mini-library, and with the skills to read it. I truly feel that one of the most useful things we can do for our future generations is to ensure they can read as well as they are able, and that they read as widely as possible.

Of course, there are children who just don’t like to read – that’s sad, but it’s a fact. However, they should, at least, be given the opportunity to read, and encouraged to try, and exposed to as many different types of book as possible, just in case something might engage their imagination and spark off their interest. I have a belief – and it may be a naive and silly belief, but it’s mine just the same – that there is a book for every child.

A sight that gladdens my heart... Image: shannonbrown.typepad.com

A sight that gladdens my heart…
Image: shannonbrown.typepad.com

Yesterday, I had an opportunity to put this belief into practice. I was in a bookshop – one with which I’m long familiar, and which I can never resist dipping into if I’m close enough to visit it – and I was, of course, browsing intently in the children’s section. A young mother approached me, her six-year-old daughter in tow, and asked me my opinion on what she should purchase for her little girl to read.

I’m not sure if she thought I was a staff member, or if it was a case of ‘once a bookseller, always a bookseller’ and she caught the whiff of enthusiastic knowledge from me, but whatever the reason for her question, I was happy to help. I learned this lady was the mother of a ten-year-old, the six-year-old I had the pleasure of meeting, and a four-year-old, all girls. The eldest child was a strong and enthusiastic reader, she told me, but the others struggled. They found it hard to emulate their sister, and found themselves bored by a lot of the books they’d tried in the past. They liked ‘funny’ books, and were growing tired of the princessy-type, pink and glitter books that they had once loved.

I threw my eyes around the shelves, and came up with a few ideas. Andy Stanton’s ‘Mr Gum’ books were my first suggestion, followed by Francesca Simon’s ‘Horrid Henry’ series (enthusiastically grabbed by the six-year-old); for the older girls, I thought of Jeremy Strong’s ‘There’s a Viking in my Bed!’ and the wonderful books of David Walliams, which are funny but also sweet and uplifting, with a comforting focus on love and friendship and family, so important to young readers. I think the lady was touched by my efforts and glad of the suggestions, and I certainly appreciated being asked for help.

Image: waterstones.com

Image: waterstones.com

However, as pleased as I was to have helped these young readers to find something good to exercise their brains, there was one aspect of the situation that has been on my mind ever since, and it centres on the fact that the bookshop we happened to be in was one that deals exclusively in second-hand books. The reason I like to go there so often is because I always find new authors to follow and new series to start collecting, and it’s fantastic to dig around in the piles of books and uncover some lost classics and rarities. It’s also wonderful to be able to pick up a book for less money than it would be if I bought it new – but with a view, always, to purchasing the writer’s back catalogue in a ‘proper’ bookshop if I like what I buy second-hand. I discovered Catherine Fisher this way; I got heavily into Kate Thompson by browsing the shelves of this very shop. The same thing applies to Jenny Nimmo, who I adore, and most of whose books I have subsequently purchased new. Sometimes, I don’t mind buying books second-hand if the author is deceased, or if their work is out of copyright – then, I don’t feel like I’m dipping my hand into a fellow writer’s pocket and taking their earnings from them – but normally I try to purchase books new as often as I can. Not everyone feels this way, for a variety of reasons – some of them excellent, unassailably logical reasons.

The mother of these young readers, for instance, was enthusiastic about second-hand books not because they were a gateway to new writers and their back catalogues, but because of their cheapness and relative ‘disposability’; it’s always easier to give a book away, or not to mind if it gets wet or torn or dirty, if you didn’t buy it ‘new’. I can’t blame the lady for thinking this way – as important as it is for children to read, it’s also important for them to have shoes and clothes and school uniforms and food, of course, and I can completely understand why new books would slide down a parent’s list of priorities. But, as an aspiring writer, I couldn’t help but feel a pang of pain at the thought.

Every book bought second-hand benefits, in financial terms, nobody but the person selling it; the author gets nothing. If a book is borrowed in a library, at least the author gets a tiny fraction of a payment for it. It’s tough, realising that something which benefits readers so much (i.e. second-hand book purchasing) can be such a bad thing from a writer’s point of view, but that is the reality of the world we live in. I do not judge the lady I helped for her choice, particularly because I also frequent second-hand bookshops (though I do try to support the authors I love as much as I can); I just hope that, perhaps, encouraging children to read when they’re young will turn them into not only enthusiastic consumers of books, but also enthusiastic supporters of writers when they grow older, thereby ensuring there will always be a flow of new books to read. I also hate reducing the whole ‘book creation-book consumption’ thing to crass economic terms, but that’s a reality, too. Writers need to earn a living, however meagre, and that’s becoming harder and harder with every passing year.

It’s important to clearly state that of course I believe it’s more important to encourage children to read than it is to ensure they only read from brand-new books – literacy concerns trump all else – but thoughts of ‘what will become of writers?’ have been playing on my mind since my encounter with this lady, nonetheless. I’d love to hear your opinions on this, if you have any. If you buy your books in hard copy, do you like to browse in second-hand shops? What’s your thinking on the economic issues I’ve laid out here? Do tell.

Happy Tuesday! And, naturally, I hope you’re reading, no matter where you bought your book.

Shall We Do a Book Review?

It’s Saturday, and it’s a wonderfully sunny day, and I’m feeling mellow. It’s the perfect day to write about some of the books I’ve read recently, I think. I haven’t managed to read as many as I’d like, but every word read is better than nothing, of course.

The other day, I read ‘The London Eye Mystery’ by the wonderful, and much missed, Siobhan Dowd. Her early death in 2007 truly robbed the world of children’s literature of one of its most talented writers. I’ve read and loved her other books (‘A Swift Pure Cry’ and ‘Bog Child’), and also ‘A Monster Calls’, written by Patrick Ness, based on an idea which Ms. Dowd had developed just before her death. I bought this latter book in hardback the second it was published, because I couldn’t possibly expect myself to wait for the paperback, and I’m so glad I made that decision. As well as being an amazing piece of writing, the book itself is a work of art.I thoroughly recommend all of Siobhan Dowd’s books, and perhaps I’ll come back to talk about them all in a future blog post.

Image: trappedbymonsters.com

Image: trappedbymonsters.com

‘The London Eye Mystery’ was a wonderful piece of storytelling. It introduces us to Ted and his sister Kat, who live in London with their parents. Kat is older than Ted, and tends to be bossy and sarcastic (as older sisters are – I am one, so I know!), but underneath all that she cares deeply about her brother and when he needs her, she’s behind him all the way. Ted, a young boy obsessed with the weather, who wants to be a meteorologist when he grows up and who listens to the shipping forecast on the radio at night when he can’t sleep, is a deeply engaging character. He is compulsive, he has rituals and routines, he thinks extremely logically, he (touchingly) describes how he can’t read facial expressions and how he struggles to understand body language and non-direct speech, and throughout he mentions his ‘syndrome’ without ever telling us exactly what it is. Of course, we don’t need to know exactly what it is; Ted is Ted, and I loved him just as he is. The family is depicted realistically, with all the stresses and strains that come with modern living; they love one another and are closely united, but their home is not always tranquil. The London in which they live is no idealised wonderland, either – the author shows us, in a clear but age-appropriate way, the issues of poverty, drug abuse, mental illness and crime that blight any big city, and in fact these themes have a central (if, perhaps, oblique) role to play in the book.

The story begins with Ted and Kat’s aunt Gloria, and her son Salim, coming to stay with the family for a few days before they emigrate to New York for Aunt Gloria’s work. Salim, who has grown up in Manchester and who has a fascination with tall buildings, has never ridden on the London Eye before, and so the family decide to bring him there to give him that opportunity. All the way through the trip to the Eye, Ted notices things that he thinks are strange, including the frequency of the phone calls Salim receives, and the secrecy with which he conducts his conversations, but he’s not sure what it all means. While the children are in the queue to buy tickets for the London Eye, they’re approached by a man who offers them one free ticket, and they decide Salim should have it. So, at just after 11.30 a.m. Salim boards the London Eye – but he doesn’t get off when the ride is over.

Using photographs, deduction and Ted’s brilliantly logical thinking, the children try to work out what happened to Salim. Ted comes up with eight (later, nine) theories, which they systematically work through, discounting them one at a time after experimentation has shown them to be false. Ted quotes Sherlock Holmes at one point: if, when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth; using this logic, he eventually works out what must have happened. The author skilfully throws us a few ‘red herrings’, and even near the end when it seems as though the mystery has been unravelled, it takes Ted and another inspired leap of logic to finally bring the story to a close. I thoroughly enjoyed this tale, despite the fact that I’d worked out where Salim was before it was unveiled. Despite this, I would never have worked out how he managed to go up the London Eye and not come down again – Ted left me in the shade on that score! The means Ted uses to find his cousin, the insights into his thinking process, the descriptions of the family and their interactions – particularly between Gloria and her sister Faith, who is the mother of Kat and Ted – and the growing sense of desperation as time keeps ticking by without Salim being found, mean this is a tense, tightly plotted, dynamic and exciting story with a deep emotional heart. So, it’s just like all of Dowd’s work, really. If you’ve never read Siobhan Dowd, I think you really should. Not only are the stories excellent, but the royalties from sales go towards the Siobhan Dowd Trust, which she set up in the months before her death to aid literacy among underprivileged children. What could be more meaningful than that?

So, typically, I’ve gone on so long that I have no room left to talk about the other books I’ve recently read: ‘Wildwood’ (Colin Meloy, ill. Carson Ellis), ‘Crewel’ (Gennifer Albin), ‘Level 2’ (Lenore Appelhans), ‘The Wormwood Gate’ (Katherine Farmar), and the one I’m currently reading, ‘Robopocalypse’ (Daniel H. Wilson). Thoughts on those will have to wait for another blog post!

Have a great Saturday.

The wonderful Siobhan Dowd. Image: randomhouse.com

The wonderful Siobhan Dowd.
Image: randomhouse.com