“Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.”
So today is International Children’s Book Day.
Ten or more years ago, and in a former life, I made educational programmes – many of them focussing on literacy – for young children. I loved writing scripts and songs and stories, and working with marvellous animators to bring picture books to life. Whilst making ‘Rat-a-tat-tat’, I immersed myself in everything from Julia Donaldson’s The Gruffalo to Jill Murphy’s books and to Quentin Blake’s illustrations. We took the books out into the real world and picked up the themes of the stories. They say, never work with children or animals – but we worked with them all: we visited zoos (filming with meerkats, lemurs and a large snake), otter sanctuaries, cat rescue homes; we filmed dog clubs (don’t! – it’s utter chaos, especially when attempting to get them to bark on cue) and on one memorable and very stressful day we filmed Aiden, our daredevil presenter, attempting to ride a surfboard and sing amongst the waves at Newquay for the story of Mrs. Armitage and the Big Wave, whilst a crew member swam underwater holding a large shark’s fin. Aiden, the best kind of presenter – funny, amenable and up for everything - climbed trees, went up in hot air balloons, shovelled coal in steam trains and dressed as a pantomime dame. And we worked with lots of wonderful teachers and enthusiastic children. It all seems very long ago and far away now. And Groucho Marx would probably disagree that television is any kind of substitute for the act of reading itself:
“I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book.”
I know a primary school teacher – an excellent teacher – who does her very best to bring the children wonderful and positive experiences through their lessons. But I also hear how she struggles to find the time, amidst the statistics and the SATS tests, to do so. And I wonder (not having any children of my own) whether that joy in reading which I was lucky enough to have as a child is still as prevalent amongst children today? Or is reading another chore, another task to master, another tick or cross against their name?
For most of us who have ended up as writers, reading was a magical experience, a portal which took us into exciting worlds where anything was possible. As a child, my tastes were eclectic: I read my way voraciously through The Brothers Grimm, Aesop’s Fables, Enid Blyton (from The Faraway Tree and The Famous Five to Mallory Towers), the Susan books by Jane Shaw (because the heroine had my name, and because they were very funny – I still have them and re-read them). I read Robinson Crusoe and The Swiss Family Robinson and Heidi, the Swallows and Amazons books and, best of all, the Narnia series. And many more in between. Books were my friends and my secret world. Indeed, I’ve even called one of my main characters – who writes fairy tales - Jo (after Jo in Little Women.)
Do children today have time to dream? Because that’s what books offered me. Time to roll around, metaphorically, in different worlds: to pause and meander and wander amongst new ideas and to meet people who were like no-one I knew. Time to wonder ‘what if?’ Time to try out other lives. Children today seem to have their time parcelled tightly into neat packages, each with attainment targets and checklists. And their ‘fun’ seems to consist of fast-paced TV programmes and video games. I probably sound like an old wotsit, but I think kids are the losers now. They are losing the joy of slowing down to the pace of words. Losing the ability to dream. Perhaps we all are. Which is very sad.
So let’s take a moment today to go back: back to the days when we were young and books were magical. Which were your favourites, then? And what do you read with your children now? What would be your ‘Inheritance’ books? Which would you take on your Desert Island?
“When we read a story, we inhabit it. The covers of the book are like a roof and four walls. What is to happen next will take place within the four walls of the story. And this is possible because the story's voice makes everything its own.”