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.