Now this wasn’t planned, but my 100th blog post has ended up addressing the love of my life; Books. Reading. Writing. Otherwise known as literacy. But rather than wibbling on about why I’m so besotted with all of the above, instead, I’m going to kick off with a bit of Shock and Outrage (because hey, if you’re already familiar with my blog, you’ll know that I’m at my happiest when I’m frothing at the mouth. And I don’t just mean as a result of excessive consumption of Sherbet Dabs.)
A recent CBI survey highlighted that 1 in 6 pupils struggle to read when they leave primary school and that for boys in particular – especially those from more disadvantaged backgrounds, reading rates are actually dropping. And the National Literacy Trust tells us that the gap has increased – between the proportion of girls (61.6%) and boys (47.2%) who say that they ‘enjoy reading’.
And yet we live in one of the most well developed, most affluent nations in the world. So, what the hell is WRONG with us? (Apart from the fact that we’re axing libraries – 201 public libraries were closed down as part of UK government cuts in 2011-12.) Now, I could spend the next several thousand words trying to persuade you of that I’ve been researching this issue to death, that I know precisely ALL of the reasons for this societal dismal failure, but I’m: a) not a well-paid journalist – or indeed, paid-at-all in order to preach to you and; b) I’m a hard pressed mother of two, who also tries to juggle several jobs, plus replacing the toilet roll AND continuing with my ongoing battle with our recalcitrant bin men.
Meaning that I can only provide you with a smattering of speculation and my own recent observations on this issue.
Previous posts on this blog have alluded to the fact that I was an early reader, that I had a Ma who encouraged me to sit with my nose in a book and that although I grew up in a pretty poor working class area of East Manchester, I was fortunate enough to live just a five minute wander from a local library, that babysat me for most days of the week (joke there, Ma – joke!) We also had a set of very exotic neighbours who influenced me with this peculiar reading habit.
There were all very bohemian because their kids were allowed to read books at the dinner table … and even (even!) whilst the family bums were parked on the loo! Consequently, my dream as a small child was to grow up to become the kind of lady who had a bookcase next to the bog.
So if I’m going to be honest, I’ve never really understood the Other Species. Those folk who can turn their nose up at a book – or at any form of the written word. Reading came oh-so easily to me. But a good few years ago, I began to write to inmates – both on Death Row in the USA, and here in the UK. http://www.lifelines-uk.org.uk/
And the one commonality that I discovered – was this; that incarceration bred the thirst for literature. As I began to hear the different ‘stories’ of an inmate, of those who had never really *read* before going to prison, the themes became all too common; the lifetraps of an impoverished background, poor attendance at school, a chaotic homelife, no teacher or other adult who took the time to prod and poke the kid towards the certain type of book that might appeal to them… And then added to this melting pot of low literacy, was all too often added the final ingredient of a reading disability (such as dyslexia.) Worldwide, it’s estimated that 60% of inmates are functionally illiterate – and this statistic is set to worsen as the prison system in the UK is still horribly hampered when it comes to supporting inmates with their literacy needs. Literacy Shame Stats
The letter-writing provided me with a new mission in life – to either send books into prisons, or to furnish inmates with a long list of; ‘if you CAN – do try and get hold of this one …’ I’ve become sort of a nicer, fluffier version of Amazon’s ‘If You Like That – You Might Like This!’ pop-up box. And I don’t gain nowt from it, neither. Other than the warm gooey feeling of having helped a fellow human being.
So yes, I have to confess that I had been enjoying the rather saintly feeling that hurling book choices towards other people involves. But as they say, pride comes before a fall. And the smug grin was wiped off my face when Child Number One arrived in my life. Because Child Number One did not want to sit and read a book. No. Child Number One would happily command you (and I don’t use that term lightly, but hell – the kid is scary) to read to her. For hours on end. But would she pick up a book and read it herself? Nah. In fact, she would hide her school books so that you couldn’t find them. And it wasn’t so much that Child Number One didn’t enjoy a ripping good story – no. I mean, now that she’s ten years old, she owns nearly 150 audio books (most of them pitched at the Young Adult or grown-up market – but don’t worry – I haven’t let her near Fifty Shades, just yet.) So how had this happened to me? How had I ended up with a kid – so similar to me in so many ways, but who would happily have carried out a ritual book-burning in our back yard, if I had mooted the idea?
‘Dyslexia’ is the fast answer to that question. But the solution to the problem has been less straightforward. So for the rest of this post – and in celebration of being Kirklees Writer in Residence for this month – and with me wanting to champion the Summer Reading Challenge which The Reading Agency created, I’m going to share a few tips and ideas for getting the reluctant reader to become a little bit more engaged:
1) AUDIO-BOOKS – Now, I’ve posted on this one before. Buying Cassettes You Oddball? The thing with audio-books however, is that they can be damned expensive. My own personal solution is to go all 1980’s and to employ the use of a good old fashioned tape recorder. That way you can pick up those cassette-tapes thingies that no bugger else wants at your car boot sales etc – and force your kid to listen to them at bedtime. CD’s are fine too – but get a bit scratchy, don’t they? And downloands? Fine. But pricey. And they tend to be the newer books which ain’t always the most captivating for kids in my opinion… (But more on that thorny subject in my next blog.)
Once you’ve tried a few out, you’ll become familiar with the kind of stories and authors that are working best for your little wanabee book-convert. But then… the trick is this; DON’T let them listen to more than one or two of their ‘favourite’ authors or series in a book! Or to see the films first (see ‘TV’ below.) Otherwise you’re going to get – as have done – “Why should I read the book ‘Treasure Island’? I mean, Mum! I know it off by heart already!” (and believe me, she does.)
Because, you’re aiming for a teaser…. to get them hooked on the book. Which leads me to:
2) INTRODUCING A BOOK – I’ve stopped chucking books at my daughter and expecting her to break the ice with it. It’s exhausting enough having dyslexia, without some smart-alec grown-up ladling on yet more expectations for you. Instead, I read the blurb out to her – in a very amusing and quite frankly, very annoying – ‘Hollywood Film Trailer Voice.’ And then I read most of the first chapter out loud to her too. And yes, if I’ve done my work well in terms of researching *the right book for her to begin with* (see ‘GO RETRO’), then the wee varmint, more often than not has been drawn into the story and has already overcome her initial reluctance to read.
3) LISTEN TO PROFESSIONALS – Librarians for example. They’re actually very nice people. Most of them. (I won’t mention the one who yelled at me back in 1982 because she refused to believe that I had read 3 books in one morning and I wanted to get another 3 out and; “But our system doesn’t ALLOW for this sort of thing!” Old bat.) And most librarians DO want to keep their jobs and they DO love books themselves. And they WILL guide you to different sections where the books have been printed on paper with different shades, or maybe has a different font, or is more spaced out. And whilst we are on the subject of the professionals – an optician might also help you with dyslexic tendencies; try and find a local, small shop who can help you or your child out with a colourscreen test. Specsavers do them too. Here’s a bit more on how they may help you; Colour Screen Tests
But beware of signing up for the tinted glasses too early on. We just bought the overlays and the kid gave up on them after a few weeks when the novelty had worn off (and believe you me, the specs would have been a hell of a lot more expensive than the overpriced overlay things.)
4) BEFRIEND A WRITER – Sounds a bit crazy, but it works. My lass has now written to several authors in order to thank them and to tell them that their books have had the honour bestowed on them as becoming her favourites. We have a little shelf of children’s books – all signed by the authors that the kids have met. Perhaps our favourite ever encounter was with Val Biro – author and creator of Gumdrop – Val sadly died last year at the age of 93. But not before he had painted my kids what is probably – one of the last ever images of that famous little car (see below). Gumdrop’s Page
People forget that us writer-sorts have fragile egos. We need to be told that we’re lovely and that you didn’t just hurl our book in the nearest skip (speaking of which – have you reviewed my book on Amazon yet? If not – please do. I might just give you a fondle the next time that I see you.) Chrissy’s Amazon Reviews
And the same goes for the Big Guys too – my daughter wrote to The Beano, explaining how the comic had helped her overcome her hatred of reading; and this actually led to an appearance on Radio 4 by the nipper – alongside fellow dyslexic Nigel Kennedy. Yup – nice, well brought up kids should say ‘thank you’, I reckon.
And it should go without saying that – like the bigger and scarier inmates in prisons – the smaller inmates in Da Family simply adore receiving proper, old-fashioned letters in the post. Makes them feel like important, worthwhile little souls. And if a real-life writer writes back to you? Coolio Daddio.
5) WORK WITH THE SCHOOL – I was the kind of kid who volunteered to be a school librarian. Not only did it get me out of many a primary school soggy playtime (jumping over strings of elastic a la ‘french skipping’ was something that I viewed with disdain) but it also allowed me to sit for hours and get to know different types of books and authors. However, most school libraries today pale in comparison to those of yesteryear. I have lost count of the number of times where my daughter has brought home a book from the school library – and even from the public library – and has abandoned it, telling me; “I chose it because I just sort of panicked – I just grabbed the first one and it’s actually well- boring” or “They’re all dull-dull-dull in that library” or “If you don’t like girly things or football – and if you’ve done all the Dahl and Walliams already – then – there’s nowt left there to read!”
So for the purposes of this blog, I was pleased to be able to find out about the School Libraries Association and to track down their Director and I’ll be sharing a bit about some of the marvellous work that they carry out in my next post. Of course, one of the reasons as to why the reading books available at schools, or in their libraries may not the best in the world (or ‘they’re total bobbins!’ in the words of my girl) – is due to horrific budget cuts but … there is a lot more to be said on this subject, so I’ll hangfire with it for now…
Suffice to say though, that *most* schools will support you in your quest for discovering the best books, the most suitable sort – to pitch at your kids in order for the child to use as their ‘school reading book.’ Meaning that there is nothing to stop you from seizing the initiative and actually sourcing your own book to be used by your kid, when there is nothing available in the classroom that tickles their fancy. Schools will generally encourage your kid to just damned well read; so they WILL let you use your own books if the reading standard is of a similar match. And please believe me that this also doesn’t have to mean a big financial outlay on your part. Because you can do this;
6) GO RETRO – Some may accuse me of being a bit of a hoarder (or a mucky old tart) but I am so very glad that I kept an awful lot of my childhood books (although let’s not talk about the entire collection of ‘Smash Hits’ from 1985 to 1990 still lingering in my parent’s loft eh? Or Dad’ll be onto me about it again…) Because those books – the Narnias, the Judy Blume’s, ‘Flat Stanley’, ‘The Silver Sword’ etc etc have been the saving grace for my family. Re-reading these books – through the eyes of my daughter – has led to me remembering the titles and authors of books of old; now out of print, or deemed to be unfashionable. Some of them, I’m pleased to say – are having a bit of a comeback or a bit of a re-print (‘Amelia Jane’ for example). And Ebay and Amazon are the bees-knees if you want to track down some second-hand copies of the books that really got you giddy as a child; not to forget the brilliant book sales which are ongoing at most public libraries too – cheap as chips, bless ’em! Get chatting to others adults too, about books that wowed them when they were or a nipper, or which have worked for their child (and yes – a huge thanks to Sharon B – for telling us about ‘Mortimer the Raven.’)
Because the thing about a lot of kids and adults with dyslexia is this; they ain’t thick. Far from it.
The word-skipping and the letter-reversal and the sheer frustration with the stupid topsy-turviness of the english language (resulting in avoidance of writing, or of ‘poor spelling’) are more often than not, actually the *signs* of a very intelligent mind. Of a brain that works *fast* – that wants to stream ahead and to ‘get to the point of the story.’ Of a brain that is good at de-coding information and which gets totally naffed off with the seeming lack of consistency in written English. So the worst possible sort of book for a noggin like this is something that lacks a riveting story; that purports to be your high-falutin’ literary stuff and that tends to witter on too much about watery sunsets, one that “takes about ten pages to describe a sodding tree-trunk to you” (that’s my other half speaking there – undiagnosed dyslexic, no doubt.) And no, I won’t mention any *specific* modern-day children’s authors here, because us writer-sorts do like to have a sense of solidarity. Just email me for their names instead… 😉
7) GET GRAPHIC – Graphic novels and comics were key in turning both of my kids onto books. The big favourites being ‘The Beano,’ ‘The Dandy,’ followed hot on the heels by Asterix, Tintin and the many Marvel and DC graphic novels from our local library, which my 7 yr old keeps himself amused with for hours (and his Dad too – “Hey! I’m sure that this one should have been in the ‘teenage reader’ section – look at Catwoman’s outfit in this one! That’s…. practically gravity defying!”)
Another wonderful discovery at one of Kirklees libraries for us, have been the graphic novels for children that convey the Sherlock Holmes stories – along with the books that also illustrate the classics by Dickens and Shakespeare. The complex story structures of classics such as these, are indeed too tricky for children to read in their original form, but they are ideally presented in the medium of graphic art or using the cartooning approach. And they also lend themselves to good old-fashioned ‘Fam-Time shared reading’, where you can explain a little bit more about the socio-economic and political tensions of the time and about the inherent misogynistic attitudes of the Establishment during the 19th Century (or perhaps that’s just the bit that I enjoy telling the kids about the most, just before bedtime.)
8) KILL THE TELLY – I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. The biggest enemy to the reluctant reader is excess screen time. Chuck the telly out of the window. And as well as providing you with more time to read, you can also fill all of the extra time that you will gain with the sort of project illustrated in this photo, instead. And if you *must* have a TV, don’t allow viewing on the week days. Please, believe me – this little act of discipline is one that you’ll simply suffer the pangs of short-term pain for, whilst reaping the benefits of long-term gain. It can be a LOT harder to bin the box when they’re under the age of 5 (and I personally don’t think that I could have done it, back then) but the minute that they’re able to read, go nuts on getting hold of second hand books! Let them lose on a pile of those instead of CITV or CSI. I now have to physically lock the room in our home, which houses our biggest collection of the most fun-to-read books (i.e comic/ annuals), if I ever want my kids to do anything other than read … and these days they rarely even think to ask me if they can watch the telly. Remember Roald Dahl’s poem on what TV does to your child?
But, if you had told me that life would be like this three or four years ago, I would have smiled politely to your face and mouthed ‘yeah, right – you weirdo,’ behind your back.
So there you have it. Just a few tips – but as always, I’m eager to learn from others. Please feel free to share any ideas on how to get ALL of us reading a bit more. We should all aspire to be like our next-door neighbour – a chap whom we never see without a book in his hands (even when he’s tackling the binmen for us! He’s a Trooper, indeed.)
And my next blog will involve passing on some thoughts about how we can start getting a bit choosier about our reading material, whilst still supporting our libraries.