A Reading Life

P1080883

I’ve been interested in the readings of ‘Why Women Read Fiction’ by Helen Taylor, being read on BBC’s Radio 4. A recent episode explored women’s favourite childhood novels, giving clues as to why the books instilled a lifelong passion for fiction reading.

Children’s books are glorious. I have a collection of my own [the only paper books I tend to want, these days]. Some of the precious treasures on my shelves, tucked away in the bedroom reserved for small grandchildren are saved from my childhood, notably a beautiful copy of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ with stunning colour plate illustrations I saved up my pocket money to buy, the leather-bound copy of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking-Glass’ that I discovered nestling on the end of my bed one Christmas morning and the romantic ‘The Glass Slipper’ by Eleanor Farjeon that I read and re-read with all the others. I also have an age-spotted copy of ‘Struwwelpeter’, a book of rhyming cautionary tales I found in a second hand bookshop and had to buy because it had held a horrific fascination for me when I attended my first school at 4 years old and I spotted it on the shelves in our small, village classroom.

P1080886

I have described before how I became fixated on some books after hearing them read on the radio [The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was one]. As a child, along with my two brothers we read weekly comics and were familiar with the characters in ‘Beano’, ‘Dandy’ etc. We couldn’t imagine a weekend without Dennis the Menace or Minnie the Minx.

Offspring 1 and 2 loved books, although Offspring 2 [female] was the more voracious, famously in our family history for being fleeced by Offspring 1 [male] 20 pence each time she wished to borrow a book from his shelves. I was never sure whether to be horrified at the cavalier treatment of his younger sister or impressed by his early entrepreneurial skills…

Research shows that women read far more fiction than men and that the fiction that this minority of men do read is mainly by male writers. Do those men who dislike fiction feel it to be less valuable in some way? Or is it less manly to waste time in such a frivolous pastime as fiction? Myself I believe there is as much to be learned from reading [good] fiction as anything else.

I know for sure there are men’s book clubs out there, although few and far between. My own book club is all female. When we meet up [large enough in number for it to be tricky to get a word in!] it must seem daunting to other users of the hotel bar we inhabit. Our chatter is animated, enthusiastic, argumentative, often rowdy in the way that all female groups can be. The discussion ranges from what we’ve read to politics, relationships, childhood, environment, psychology and everything in between but is never dull. There is no ‘ban’ on male members, but I wonder how the dynamic would change if there were some?

In the meantime I have a good book to get on with. It’s ‘Where the Crawdads Sing’ by Delia Owens [soon to be released as a movie].

P1080887

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!