As a children’s author you are not just a writer; you are also a performer, an advocate for literacy and a champion of the joys of reading for pleasure. It’s work I love doing, but I have to admit that when I set out to write my first novel I had no idea that if I was published, I’d be required to be all of these things.
Last month, at an author visit to a secondary school, one of the teachers approached me after my session with Year 8 and asked what had made me want to write for children rather than adults. The answer came quickly: remembering the joy of reading as a child and wanting to write stories that made connections with young people in the way that I remember stories making connections with me.
And what are these connections? They are perhaps best described by this recent experience – I’m talking to a group of 14 and 15 year olds, the majority of whom self-identify as non-readers or very occasional readers. I put up a slide with an image from The Hungry Caterpillar. And it begins! The gasps, the recognition, the feeling of instantaneous joy in the room – that’s the connection. Everyone starts talking, sharing, so much so it will take a minute or two for me to get everyone back together in the room.
So what happens to children from those early years in primary, who gravitate naturally and enthusiastically towards books so that by the middle of Secondary they naturally gravitate towards something, mostly anything, else?
As someone who has also worked as an HLTA in primary schools, specifically in literacy and reading, I think the answer is simple. At primary school we learn to read. It’s a sophisticated skill to master, but there is plenty of humour, there are pictures, we read to each other and it is fun. At secondary school, now that we’ve learnt to read, the focus is no longer on the pleasure of it. Reading is our way into learning and learning gets more and more serious the further we go along. And there we are – suddenly we’ve lost the connection, we’ve lost the fun.
It doesn’t matter how many times we tell teenagers about the benefits of reading for pleasure, of which there are so many, the reality is, they aren’t really listening. Students are time poor and under the pressure of exams. There is plenty of other work to be done. There is an information overload and reading is associated with that work – it feels like work – not pleasure any more. So how do we really change that?
I think we need to inspire students to make a conscious decision to learn to read again, but this time, now that they have the skill of reading, simply for the sheer pleasure of it.
This involves giving them permission and choice, resources and support (libraries and school librarians are key to this) to read whatever gives them that same kind of connection they felt when they looked at the image of The Hungry Caterpillar.
We can suggest to students that they go back and read a book they loved again. It’s often a good place to start to get that feeling back. And then it’s about what interests them – graphics, football, cooking, movies, cats. It doesn’t matter what it is they’re reading, so long as they’re interested, so long as they enjoy it, so long as it takes them to the next book.
And why are books so important? One student asked me why he couldn’t just watch You Tube, and I told him that if he liked You Tube, he should totally watch You Tube, but that he could also read a book. He can do both.
The truth is teenagers access plenty of narrative every day through their screens, but books do something unique. They allow us to see the world from someone else’s point of view, to feel empathy for one another. They allow us to step outside of our own experiences in a way that is distinct from anything else. They enable us to understand ourselves better – there is mirroring, understanding, comfort in that. They allow us to use our imaginations, to see beyond what is in front of us, what is given. They provide us with escape.
And as Margaret Attwood wisely said, “I read for pleasure and that is the moment I learn the most.”
If you enjoyed this blog post about Reading for Pleasure, you might also enjoy:
- Reading for Absolute Pleasure by Dawn Finch, Children’s Author and former School Librarian
- Cressida Cowell on Being Creative by Cressida Cowell, Waterstones Children’s Laureate (2019-2021)
- Turning a Passion for Digital Into Reading Enjoyment by Bev Humphrey, Literacy and Technology Consultant
For more information about the wider benefits of reading for pleasure, please download of copy of the Reading Agency’s report here. https://readingagency.org.uk/news/media/reading-for-pleasure-builds-empathy-and-improves-wellbeing-research-from-the-reading-agency-finds.html
For support with diverse booklists and for choosing books for a more inclusive school library and classroom selection, you can find help via the themed booklists from BookTrust. https://www.booktrust.org.uk/books-and-reading/our-recommendations/booklists/
Youth Services Librarian and blogger, Matt Imrie, hosts a continuously evolving list of BAME authors and illustrators for children on his blog. http://teenlibrarian.co.uk/2016/09/19/an-incomplete-list-of-british-bame-authors-for-children-young-people/
To support and develop Great School Libraries, follow the hashtag #GreatSchoolLibraries on social media and use the campaign website. https://www.greatschoollibraries.org.uk/