Sunday, 4 March 2018

Now, more than ever, young children need to be read to – David Thorpe

Penny Dolan wrote here on 1 March, World Book Day, that she was in a library reading to children. How ironic then that on the same day Northampton County Council announced it was closing 21 libraries and only opening another 21 just one day a week, because of spending cuts.

What a short-sighted decision. Every time a library closes, part of a community dies. Literacy and libraries are part of the glue that binds the members of communities, they provide intellectual and emotional nourishment which, in the case of children, may later help them become more mature members of whatever community they come to live in, and grow into more rounded social beings.

Last month saw the publication of yet another report showing a decline in the number of parents reading to children, saying that less than half of pre-school parents now do this.

There was also another report, that paediatric doctors are finding that children are starting at primary school unable to hold a pencil properly because, rather than being encouraged by their parents to draw or write, they are given iPads or e-notebooks, resulting in diminished digital (in the original sense to do with fingers) dexterity. This impairs their ability to write.

All of these trends bode ill for the future. Reading and writing go together like milk and cereal. Both together nourish the mind and promote healthy intellectual growth. Kids need the added cognitive nutrients that books serve up by stimulating their imaginations and feeding their ability to form critical attitudes.

As Dianne Hofmeyr wrote here a couple of days ago, writers and illustrators – and publishers – are nowadays unafraid to produce books tackling difficult (some say 'dark') subjects. This is not darkness for the sake of darkness, but darkness because without it we – children included – do not fully appreciate the light – and vice versa: without the light we do not appreciate darkness.

We all experience darkness at times, so difficult subjects should be addressed – but with care, to promote understanding and empathy and help stimulate discussions by children. Only by coming to terms with these unpleasant experiences can we become fully rounded adults.

If children's books can help just a little to achieve this then they have done a great job - part of the reason that we have literature.

And part of the reason why we need libraries and need to read to children to get them into the reading habit.

Why do we have to keep repeating this demand? I feel I've been saying this for years. Isn't it obvious? Or is it just that too many other pressures are crowding books out despite it being obvious?

A weekly journey to the library was a staple of my own childhood, and opened my otherwise narrow world to a universe of possibilities. I would not be a writer – with the motto on my website "With imagination we can change the world" – without that library.

When my kids were smaller I looked forward so much to reading to them every night, and so did they – it was a terrific bonding experience. I miss it. I miss reading all the brilliant new books for kids, too, that have come out since – often borrowed from our local library – as well as the old favourites.

If I didn't read to them I made up my own stories – or we would do it together. They might give me an idea to start with and off we'd go, conjuring a new tale out of the air, a collective act of magic. Often I would draw pictures at the same time, illustrating the story while telling it, and we'd end up with a sheet of paper like a scribbled comic book page.

I'd catch my own kids using the box of coloured pens and pencils and stack of paper we always left on the low coffee table for them, scribbling away at drawings while chattering away happily to themselves – making up scenarios and illustrating them, explaining to themselves what they were drawing while drawing it – complete with sound effects (explosions, fights)!

It taught me that drawing is never just drawing but part of a narrative-making process, or perhaps a ritual, and I gained the idea that perhaps cave drawings made by long-ago humans (and Neanderthals, we now know, as well) could have been made the same way – as a collective activity that included the recital of a story or the chanting of songs or the acting-out of a scene. The original multi-media happening.

For culture is what sets us apart from all other animals. This ability to use language, pictures and story-telling is what constructs us as uniquely human, it helps fashion our social sophistication, it is the evolving skeleton of our world-view-making.

Parents must read to children. Libraries must be in every community – they are palaces of wonder. These two things should be laws and breaking them punishable by being made to learn George Orwell's 1984 off by heart. They would be if I were PM.

[I am the writer of Marvel's Captain Britain, the sci-fi YA novels Hybrids, Doc Chaos: The Chernobyl Effect and the cli-fi fantasy Stormteller. I also run a regular writing course, called 'Making Readers Care' that can be taken online. Contact me if interested.]


Chitra Soundar said...

Reading by law!! And perhaps some sensible brexit too if you become PM.

But we do have to appreciate many parents don't have the skills and even well-read educated parents struggle to find the right books and authors - they don't know about Booktrust websites or other literacy resources. Parents and teachers are overburdened and to make it easy we do need professionals - librarians in schools who recommend what to read at home, encourage children to take books home and ask their parents to read it, identify children's interests and suggest suitable books.

But I agree reading is a family thing. I was at a really posh prep school recently and it was sad to see only 25% of children are being read to in affluent / well-educated families compared to 80% of children who said they are read to in an inner-city comprehensive.

Thanks for this post - we all need to advocate reading. I am a world citizen today because of my reading.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Children 'drawing' stories is probably the most pure form of storytelling as its done with such complete engagement of mind and eye. And I always think of the earliest cave dwellers as being our first film makers... with a great story made even better with flickering firelight casting shadows on the rock walls and drumming, clapping and chanting thrown in for sound.
Thanks for a great post.

David Thorpe said...

Thanks Chitra and Dianne. If I ever get to be PM you can be in my Cabinet!