Reading the Years

Janet and John

Janet and John

I learned to read with Janet and John; that is to say-I was taught using the reading scheme, Janet and John, not alongside 4 and 5 year olds with those names [although there may well have been Janets and Johns in my class]. The prose was simple, repetitive and tedious but did the trick. I recall that the satisfaction of achieving the decoding of the words was enough to motivate me. I believe the time taken to learn to read was very short, as I was very quickly moving on to the likes of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ which I was soon able to quote long chunks of, so familiar did I become with its enchanting story line.

Janet and John was of its time, the 1950s. The family was standardised mother, father, boy, girl and dog. They were white and middle class. Janet was pictured helping mother in the kitchen while John and his father did manly chores involving the garden. These were not riveting tales. Most sentences ran along the lines of ‘Run, John, run’. He would not be running to avoid the attention of the police or to save the planet but in some vague notion of play.

By the time I was myself teaching children to read, the Ladybird scheme had arrived, although the cultural and socio-economic portrayal of the characters was not a jot different. This time the children were called Peter and Jane, the dog Pat. I feel I should apologise, here and now to the children in my class in Stockwell, London who had no option but to use these books with their white, middle class nuclear family. They must have seemed as alien as the bar in Star Wars for children whose cultural backgrounds were African, West Indian or Asian and who lived in tenement blocks in 1970s London.

Later still, my own children were given ‘One, Two, Three and Away’ books, which at least had story lines-albeit surreal. There were the beginnings of some kind of diversity, with deviant ‘Percy Green’ portrayed as a naughty boy-the character small children loved the most.

When I returned to teaching after an eight year child break there was a bright, shiny new scheme. Political correctness was burgeoning and the books went some way towards addressing it. There was still a white family with a dog [‘Floppy’] but there was the addition of Wilf and Wilma, Nadim and Aneena and their families. Everyone continued to be middle class, with no depictions of unemployment or single parents, but this is to be expected since nobody wants children to learn to read using material based on dispiriting circumstances.

Since the early 90s subsequent governments have meddled with increasingly heavy-handed interventions in the teaching of reading-each new education minister eager to make their mark and overturn the previous ‘big’ idea, regardless of what teachers know and have always known. Normal well supported children can learn to read from the back of a cereal packet but get their richest experiences from real, proper books. Those from homes with little language input and impoverished bookshelves cannot.

Who can resist the lure of children’s books these days? They get better every time I visit the book store!

Reading Life

                Reading habits differ as much as tastes in TV or music. There are those who do not read at all, choosing to derive their entertainment from the screen. There are those who eschew books in favour of newspapers, magazines or manuals. There are those who consider fiction beneath them and opt for worthy non-fiction. Then there are issues of class or generation.

Years ago I was quizzed by a gentile, elderly great-aunt-in-law as to what my preferred ‘light’ reading tastes were and I responded with more enthusiasm than prudence, eagerly blurting out a long list that included lurid thrillers, shallow romances, juicy, explicit murder mysteries and science fiction. Her stony faced response was an impressive put-down as she shared her leisure time favourites- Jane Austen, George Eliot-and for more vicarious pleasure, Charles Dickens. I refrained from inquiries about her ‘serious’ reading choices, fearing I may have already become so far out of my depth my feet had floated out from underneath me.

I was a voracious reader as a child; the child who could not be torn from a book for anything, not to help with the dishes, to lift her feet for the vacuum cleaner or for sleep. There were books I longed for, having heard them serialised on the radio [a joy children are deprived of these days]. The Christmas morning I awoke to find that Santa had left a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’ on the end of my bed is my most memorable. I still have it, along with many other beloved childhood novels- Alice in Wonderland, The Wind in the Willows and Eleanor Farjeon’s beautiful take on Cinderella, ‘The Glass Slipper’.

As a teacher of young children I managed to squeeze in enough time to indulge my enjoyment of children’s literature by regular readings of my own favourites as well as theirs-Roald Dahl and Dick King-Smith included. It was gratifying to see them coming in with their own prized copies of these novels, even those whose ability was not quite, yet, up to the task of reading the stories themselves.

Then there are the film versions. I have never been able to shake the compulsion to see a film version of a book despite knowing from experience that it is never going to match the depth and pleasure of its print original.

Even now that I am approaching my dotage I still come across novels that captivate me to a point where I become evangelistic about them, urging others to read them and feeling vastly disappointed if the response does not match my own. D. C. B Pierre’s ‘Vernon God Little’ was one of these. I eulogised ad nauseam over it but found no one to share my enthusiasm. When my frustrations at the dearth of post book analysis became overwhelming I joined a book club, only to find that within the narrow confines of those who enjoy fiction novels there is the same mismatch of tastes.

But whatever is read, one truth remains. The written word is the most wonderful invention known to man!