Monday, 25 November 2013


by Peter Hunt

We have been looking at examples of images of the child reader in the book, being read by the child reader outside the book – although ‘outside the book’ isn’t really an adequate description of what is going on, because if the book is a success then the reader is, in some strange way, absorbed into the book. But when this happens, and the reader with the book identifies with the reader in the book, how and why does it happen?
One theory was put forward in another classic critical text from the golden age of the unique children’s literature journal Signal - Peter Hollindale’s Signs of Childness in Children’s Books (Thimble Press, 1997). What characterises a successful text for children, Hollindale suggested, was the presence of ‘childness’ – the quality of being a child – and it is a quality that is ‘shared ground … between adult and child.’
He goes on:
I wish to argue … that childness is the distinguishing property of a text in children’s literature … and it is also the property that the child brings to the reading of a text. At its best, the encounter is a dynamic one. The childness of the text can change the childness of the child, and vice versa. On other occasions of reading the encounter is only a mirroring – conservative and confirmatory. 

Hollindale is proposing a wide theory of children’s literature, but is worth borrowing his idea of childness and applying it to our present project. He sees children’s literature as an event, an interaction between child and adult and book – what I have described elsewhere as being the mutually respectful negotiation of the Tom Tiddler’s ground between adults and children. Empathy derives from sharing, and childness, as Hollindale defines it, is the basis for that empathy: ‘For the child, childness is composed of the developing sense of self in interaction with the images of childhood encountered in the world…’ and these naturally include the images of childhood within books – and especially the image of the child reading in books.

Successful reading depends to some extent on empathy: we like what we see when we read. Obviously, childhood changes with time and place, and concepts of childness change at the same time. Similarly, empathy is a very vulnerable concept: a writer who seems empathetic to the needs of children, recognising childness in them and in herself or himself, might seem to some adult readers to be manipulating the concept for her or his own ends (whisper it, as in the Case of Roald Dahl).

Nevertheless, the validation of reading by the presence of reading children in fiction sends a strong empathetic message. And as Hollindale observes, this is uniquely an attribute of the book.
It is precisely the conjunction of exterior with interior action…which gives the children’s book its special place in helping a reader to build and diversify her sense of childhood possibility…. The representation of childhood for children [on film and television] is sparse and incomplete…Children who do not read books are exposed to a fictional life made up almost exclusively of adults. What we see is – to use an ugly word for a fairly ugly phenomenon – the defictionalising of childhood. 

The acknowledgement of shared ‘childness’ through shared, empathetic reading is a powerful antidote to this accelerating trend.

Monday, 18 November 2013

The political convenience of a non-reading culture

 by Kim Reynolds

During the time the Reading Fictions group has been meeting I have had reason to look at attitudes to reading from the seventeenth to the twenty-first century, and it recently struck me that there are some rather disturbing patterns in the way those in power regard reading. These patterns inform how readers are represented in fiction in ways that deserve some attention.

This image taken from:

For many centuries reading was the preserve of a powerful educated minority. Its members largely selected who would or would not be trained to read – normally this was confined to those like themselves that they trusted and admired or those whose skills and services they needed in one capacity or another. Although as can be seen in the example of The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), from the earliest days of commercial publishing for children many children’s books appear to be dedicated to teaching the young to read, essentially they convey the belief that full literacy in the sense of the ability to engage with and interrogate a wide range of texts is a skill that is not to be trusted to all. In her Preface to The Governess, or little female academy (1749) Sarah Fielding distinguishes between true and false ways of reading. The ‘true Use of Reading’ she explains, is ‘to make you wise and better’. ‘Wiser and better’ is an ambiguous phrase which could mean, among other things, wise enough to know your place, for instance or better able to serve those in authority over you. Or perhaps wise enough to know when reading might prove unsettling and lead to dissatisfaction, disobedience and even rebellion.
Even when universal compulsory education was introduced into schools in England in 1880 it was with a view to providing different levels of literacy, largely on the basis of class. The upper classes (especially upper-class males) received a wide-ranging classical education while workers were taught just enough to help them decode instructions and the Bible. Debates in the British parliament show a clear connection in the mind of the governing classes between reading and insurrection. As the Reading Fictions group has shown time and time again, representations of readers and reading show the legacy of these ideas about who is and is not to be portrayed as a reader. And this brings me to my point.  For all the rhetoric and activity around the importance of teaching young people to read and cultivating the habit of reading in them over recent decades, it continues to be the fact that in terms of printed texts at least, reading skill and stamina are not increasing. Students reading English literature often struggle with long novels, and as families and nations we dedicate time to many activities (particularly sport) but apart from the much-criticised ‘literacy hour’, there has been no attempt to ensure that time is made for reading regularly.
While no government wants to preside over a population that is slipping down the educational league tables, at many levels it is easier to manage a population that reads little and is principally drawn to undemanding recreational reading. This is the unwritten assumption behind much neoconservative thinking: the ‘good’ can be trusted with knowledge and ideas that in the masses are likely to be misused. Arguably changing this state of affairs needs to start by changing how readers are represented – not just in books (most likely to be encountered by a self-selecting group) but in all the other kinds of texts the young encounter.  Let’s hope the current generation of children’s writers will give us some dynamic, charismatic, and heroic readers of all backgrounds, sexes, ages and cultures.

Thursday, 7 November 2013


by Peter Hunt

The 1970s and 1980s were a golden age for writing about children and reading (if not for  writing  for children), and one of the most remarkable pieces of work was How Texts Teach What Readers Learn (1988) by the remarkable Margaret Meek, first published in Signal. ‘A workshop rather than an essay or a lecture,’ How Texts Teach…  builds on Frank Smith’s dictum that ‘children learn to read by reading’, most importantly by arguing that we learn to read by becoming involved in what we read. Children have often acquired many ‘reader-like behaviours’ before they come to books, the most important of which are recognising patterns and genres, and understanding that reading is a game with rules. All of this may seem a world away from some of the classroom practices of today: ‘what texts teach is a process of discovery for readers, not a programme of instruction for teachers.’ Meek takes as her examples books that collude with developing readers, mirroring within the texts the child’s own acts of reading – notably Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman (1986) an exercise in Intertextuality that depends on the characters in the book reading ‘other people’s letters’. 

She cites the frustration that Huck Finn has with Tom Sawyer’s book-based imagination in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – and best of all, the small William in the late (and often inspired) Jan Mark’s ‘William’s Version’ from Nothing to Be Afraid Of  (1980). Reading is (or can be, or could be) an enveloping experience, made all the more seductive by watching a reader in a book struggling with the process. Here is the pre-literate William, teaching his Granny about reading:
                ‘Once upon a time [said Granny] there were three little pigs.                        Their names were –‘
                ‘They didn’t have names,’ said William.

               ‘Yes they did. The first pig was called –‘
                ‘Pigs don’t have names’ … William slid off Granny’s lap and went to open the corner cupboard by the fireplace. Old magazines cascaded out… [William] rooted among them until he found a little book covered with brown paper, climbed into the cupboard, opened the book, closed it and climbed out again. ‘They didn’t have names,’ he said.
                ‘I didn’t know you could read,’ said Granny, properly impressed.
                ‘C-A-T, wheelbarrow,’ said William.

Granny is, of course, forced to bow to the authority of William’s reading of the book (which turns out to be First Aid for Beginners)which perhaps demonstrates just how tricky the question of the reader and the book and the reader in the book can be.