Monday, 27 May 2013

The Consequences of Becoming Literate

Evelyn Arizpe
One my original ideas behind this project on children’s books about reading was to write about books with  plots that hinged on the life-changing consequences of illiterate characters becoming literate. At first I was thinking about the more traditional and didactic stories where learning to read makes it possible for someone to go to university or get a job or become president. The more I read however, I began to think of books, some of them now considered ‘classics’ but also some more recent ones, where the consequences of coming into contact with books or other texts becomes a pivotal narrative device for characters that are expected by society – mainly, the establishment and the authorities – to be and to remain illiterate. When they do learn to read, the consequences are not always the traditional benefits that the reader might predict: there are further rejections, complications and even dangers. However, one of the underlying consequences perhaps remains the same for all books about characters who become literate: they are revealed as ‘good’, as defined by the traditional values of being kind, generous and noble, under the layers of poverty, ignorance, dirt, rubbish or whatever other reasons for their illiteracy and no matter what their previous ‘crimes’ –as defined by that establishment and those authorities-  may have been. Most importantly, it is through this ‘goodness’ of character that these initially marginalized and parasitic characters often, in their turn, alter or cause transformations in the very same society that rejected them to begin with.

(Photo: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton)

Poverty and/or homelessness are the main causes of illiteracy in these books, so the characters tend to be children and young adults who live on or off the street or rubbish dumps,  usually uncared for and often abused by adults. In almost all these books, the child characters are on the margins of society,  usually looked down upon or even loathed by the establishment which they prey upon and live off, mostly by stealing. Their ‘ignorance’ is meant to go side by side with a lack of interest or ability to appreciate literature but, as it turns out, they make up for their illiteracy not only by having imagination and creativity and by the desire to learn to read or at least, by having a fascination with words and stories. Their rather inexplicable attachment to a text or book is perhaps a reflection of some kind of intuition that these may be a ticket out of poverty, a way to an alternative future and  underneath the signs of poverty, minor delinquency, ignorance, rubbish and dirt, they have kind hearts. As a consequence of becoming literate or ‘literary’, both their creativity and good nature is enhanced and thus they change the course of their own and others’ lives.

Some of the books that I am working on and will discuss in my paper for the conference in October (see May 27 blog) are the following: Smith by Leon Garfield; Lee Raven Boy Thief by Zizou Corder; Holes by Louis Sachar; Trash by Andy Mulligan and The Baby and Fly Pie by Melvin Burgess. Although these books are different in many ways, starting with the fact that they are set in different countries and/or different historical periods (both past and future), there are several general similarities between them: first, the main characters mostly are all boys and they are orphaned or estranged in some way from their parents; second, they accidentally find or mistakenly steal something that does not belong in their normal, everyday circumstances: a wallet, a baby, a magic book. In the case of Smith and of Lee Raven, the objects are actually a document and a book which they cannot read. These objects act as triggers for the rest of the story because the teenagers are reluctant to return or give up the glimmer of hope they offer for the future. Because of this reluctance they suffer a variety of dangers: persecution, imprisonment and even torture. In all cases, learning to appreciate what it means to read is pivotal to the plot and in all cases, accepted notions of the  positive consequences of becoming literate are questioned.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Pragmatism, postmodernism and economics

by Vivienne Smith
I am enjoying reading Goblins and Dwarves, by Philip Reeve.
It is the second volume of a trilogy. First there was Goblins. In this Skarper –the only goblin who has ever learned to read is thrown out of his home (literally: by catapult!) because he is too clever by half and therefore irritating to the everyday sort of goblin thug. He meets  Henwyn, a heroic, but not very bright cheesemaker;  Ned, an aging and engagingly sensible princess who bakes scones; a giant; a troll;  three charlatan magicians; some sulky cloud maidens  and some  magical twiggy creatures. In an unlikely but entertaining romp they overthrow the cross-dressing Goblin king, and settle down to live happily ever after.  But of course they don’t. Goblins and Dwarves, continues their adventures, and the third volume, when it is published, will continue them still.

I am not a great fan of fantasy adventures. On the whole, I can do without elves and hobbits and their high-minded quests. I don’t want to read about Evil Overlords. I prefer domesticity and in these books, Reeve provides it.  Amidst the (mostly incompetent) questing, the magic, the pull of power and the battles are cups of tea and buttered scones, and cheesemaking.  Princess Ned’s common sense gently brings into focus the absurdity of the tropes of fantasy fiction and fairy tale, but the adventure is still there, fast and funny. Reeve, as ever, is clever, witty and entertaining.  And, of course, his prose is faultless.
But, for the Reading Fictions Project, it is the bookishness of these books that interests me. In Goblins, Skarper’s ability to read is a major engine of the plot, and the denouement, when it comes is achieved because of what he had read. Despite the jokes and the silliness, reading really matters here. In Goblins and Dwarves there is less reading, but more books. Dr Quesney Prong, 'the Voice of Reason'  is an academic. He has spent his life proving beyond doubt that magic does not exist. It is unfortunate for him that in the very week his great book on the subject is published, magic floods back into the city. Of course no-one buys it. Of course he is ruined. We meet Dr Prong subsisting in a shack by the river. The shack is built from his unsold books.
It made me laugh. It made me imagine a similar fate for Richard Dawkins. And it made me think that what we say about books in books for children has moved on again. Here are books as objects: they are things you can build with. They are not precious and they are not special. They lack authority.  They are not containers of truth and they will not make you clever or wise. They can be wrong.  Perhaps even more interestingly,  they are commercial entities. They can make your fortune and they can ruin you. They are part of the economy.
 Pragmatism, postmodernism and economics. Is this what books are for in the twenty-first century?

Friday, 3 May 2013

Why is reading fiction valuable?

by Maria Nikolajeva

People who work with books, reading and literacy have always known that reading fiction is good for you. With the recent development of brain research, we now have hard facts to prove that reading fiction is not merely a pleasurable, yet meaningless pastime, but is crucial for our survival as individuals and as a species. Storytelling is our way of understanding the world, other people and ourselves. Reading fiction stimulates attention, imagination, memory, empathy – brain functions indispensable or our cognitive, social and emotional development. 
In the age when the value of deep reading is questioned, when libraries and schools invest in computers and tablets rather than books, when the books themselves undergo a medial transformation from print to digital, it is all the more important to consider what reading does to us. There are alarming reports about irreparable changes in our brains inflicted by our engagement with information. We tend to get shorter attention span; as a result, young people have difficulties reading books with slow pace, long, compound sentences, and a large number of characters; writers and publishers adapt their products accordingly. Our semantic memory is deteriorating since factual information is easily available to us with one click on an electronic device. We supplant our real-life experiences with virtual ones, especially through social media, thus decreasing our social skills. 
On the other hand, recent statistics show that the massive advance of electronic reading devices has had a positive impact on reading: on the average, we read more today than ten years ago, and sales of electronic books in some countries have caught up and even surpassed the printed book. 
A recent newspaper publication in the USA caused a storm of debates when an arrogant mother stated that reading picturebooks would not take her three-year-old to Harvard. The mother was wrong: reading baby books, picturebooks, comics, chapter books, and novels will potentially take young people to Harvard and beyond, toward the Nobel Prize. Reading fiction is a matter of social justice. Reading fiction is the best investment parents and educators can offer the new generation. 
In this blog we will share our findings and insights from a project about reading fiction in the twenty-first century.