Monday, 9 December 2013

The tiresome nature of “good” readers

by Kim Reynolds

I’ve recently been re-reading some of the Puritan stories for children about the deaths of children who have been favoured by God, including the most famous examples featured in James Janeway’s A Token for Children (1671-22). Now that this project has sharpened my focus on how readers are represented, it strikes me that these offer the earliest examples of ambivalent representations of readers in children’s literature. “Ambivalent” might be too kind a term, for there is something deeply disturbing about the way these children – figures we are intended to admire and emulate – read. What they are reading is, of course, the Bible and other “good” books; doing so makes these “good” children who are granted “good” deaths. But even allowing for the distortions of presentism, it is hard not to see these readers are irritating. Let me give you some examples.
Janeway’s third paragon is Mary, “a little Girl that was wrought upon, when she was between Four and Five years Old”. Mary is a great reader, and at several points Janeway describes what and how she reads.
Her book was her delight and what she did read, she loved to make her own […] and many times she was so strangely affected in reading of the Scriptures, that she would burst out into Tears, and would hardly be pacified….
She was very Conscious in keeping the Sabbath, spending the whole time in Reading or Praising, or learning her Catechism, or teaching her Brethren and Sisters…
Mary didn’t just read or confine her teaching to her siblings; she gathered together local children in the neighbourhood and told them how to spend their Sundays. You don’t get any sense that they appreciated her counsel.
Like Mary, most of Janeway’s child paragons are dedicated readers of the Bible who have clearly not mastered the art of silent reading. They weep and groan and expostulate to such an extent that in the case of one little boy who “When he was left at home alone upon the Sabbath days, he would be sure not to spend any part of the day in idleness & Play, but busied in praying, reading in the Bible, and getting of his Catechism,” a neighbour is driven to complain about the way the he is carrying on.

Previously I had assumed that the first question marks about how readers are represented to children were placed around readers who were reading the wrong kinds of texts or reading them in the wrong way, but my return to these very early texts is making me think again….

Monday, 2 December 2013

“Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin”

by Maureen Farrell

This contribution drawing attention to the importance of reading aloud follows on from something Prue Goodwin talked about in her input on Margaret Mahy (September 2013) when she reminded us how good Mahy was at celebrating the power of listening to good books read aloud.

  My involvement in the Reading Fictions project has focused on the place of books and reading in young adult fantasy fiction and among the material I’ve focused on is Cornelia Funke’s Inkheart trilogy. In Inkheart, twelve-year-old Meggie discovers that her father Mortimer, a professional bookbinder, has the unusual skill of being able to transfer characters from books into the real world when he reads aloud. Meggie’s father’s ability to read “ almost tenderly, as if every letter were a musical note and any words spoken without love were a discord in the melody” means that even the most hard bitten audience is caught in the thrall of the words on the page. Funke takes the idea further so that the reader in the book has to read the text aloud in such a way that the fantasy is realised not just in the reader’s mind but in reality. Characters are ‘brought into or out of” the books if the passage about them is read aloud.

The importance of reading aloud to children is widely acknowledged both in the classroom and at home. The Secret Garden and Alcott’s Little Women. Then we read War Horse (Morpurgo) and Theresa Breslin’s Remembrance and most recently we finished Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird and both of us found Scout’s first experience of school and a recently qualified teacher very pertinent. Scout arrives at school already able to read because she has read everyday with her father Atticus. The teacher is horrified that Scout (Jean Louise) is able to do this and says Atticus is not to read with her any more – the implication being she’s to forget all the ‘bad habits’ she has been taught at home. How the thinking has changed – one hopes!
Recently however, I have been reflecting on the pleasure adults get from being read to. My elderly mother, a former primary teacher and early years specialist, is now in a care home and her eyesight is so bad she can no longer see to read herself. Consequently I have begun reading aloud to her (and sometimes an uninvited audience of care staff) and have been struck by the pleasure she gets from this. We started with Agatha Christie and then some classics, Frances Hodgeson Burnett’s

Searching around for material to read aloud I came upon a wonderful organisation called The Reader Organisation a charitable organisation working to connect people with great literature through shared reading.
Their ‘reading revolution’ targets some of the most vulnerable and excluded people in our society, including prisoners and people in secure forensic psychiatric settings, children in care or excluded from school, and people suffering dementia and severe depression; as well as company employees, library users, students, parents, people entering retirement and those at risk of isolation. They do this through their ‘Get into Reading’ groups which bring people together weekly in read aloud reading groups. Their website has a wealth of valuable information but the readers stories have particular impact.

Recently I was working with a group of one-year secondary English teacher trainees and I used a passage – actually an advertisement for a Pioneer car Hi Fi system – that reads like a Gothic horror story. They were not provided with the text and they were asked to respond to it, generally about whether they were able to identify the purpose of the piece of writing from the generic features. What was surprising was that many of their initial responses centred round how much they had enjoyed being read to and that led on to discussion of the fabulous resources that the digital age gives us access to through iPods, MP3 players, phones and so on. I have friends who swear that Stephen Fry reading the Harry Potter books kept them and their three children fully engrossed when travelling by car from Elgin to London.

Let’s not just keep reading aloud for the primary classroom or for bedtime stories. Sharing the joy of reading through reading aloud is a hugely underused and underestimated approach. So, are you sitting comfortably?.........