Books in the Lives of Children

I noticed in The Guardian of Tuesday 6 October 2009 that there was about to be a National Bookstart Day on 9 October. I groaned at the thought of yet another government intervention – two free books to every child at 7 and 18 months and three years of age, mainly handed out at Health Visitor run sessions. However, the article did go on to clarify that the scheme is run by the charity Booktrust, which acknowledges that some families are harder to reach than others and the charity tries to work with other professionals to gift the books as well.

While being glad that the importance of introducing books into the lives of very young children is being recognised and encouraged, I am sad that in a world full of newsprint and glossy magazines it is taking a special initiative to emphasise the need for adults to introduce young children to the written and spoken word by reading aloud with them.

Reading at Home

Many years ago I taught what were then known as ‘infants’ in a very deprived area. After a while it dawned on me that many of them had no books at home. We used to send home little flash cards in small tin boxes for the children to learn the words with their parents. Sometimes we sent the actual reading books, with requests for parents to hear their children read. I think I was slow to realise that the reason we all made slow progress was that some of the parents could not read either.

At that time in my sheltered world I did not understand that others had no books around them and no ability to make use of them either. Even my grandmother, who left formal education at 13 years of age to rear the rest of her brothers and sisters, could read and write in beautiful copperplate. She would spend hours with me, squashed into an armchair, extending my vocabulary and widening my horizons, although she would have said she was keeping me quiet while my mother ‘got on with her jobs’ (around the house).

I don’t know what we read but I do remember one Christmas getting a big book that was a triumph for my mother, acting as Santa Claus’s agent as usual. It must have been 18 inches wide and about two feet long. It had a hard back and lurid pictures in the Walt Disney style. If you started at one end it was about Slappy, a duck. If you turned the book over, the other end was about Dumpy, a Tortoise who wanted to be rid of his shell and be a ‘pusson’ (person). My cousin’s mother read this book to us again and again. She acted the roles and did funny voices. We were entranced and I think it is due to these two relatives that my love of books began.

Over time my Slappy and Dumpy book wore out and was disposed of by my mother, who was not a sentimental hoarder. Years later, while I was working in Leeds, I had cause to go in to a little Post Office which happened to sell books. To my great surprise and joy I spotted a couple of books on the bottom shelf. Slappy and Dumpy had been re-printed as two separate texts, more easily managed by small hands. The illustrations were still the same and Dumpy still wanted to be a ‘pusson’. They are now in our bookcase of treasures for visiting children.

Relatives in Canada supplemented my post war library with gifts of Heidi and Little Women, both beautifully illustrated and both still on my bookshelves. Peter Pan also joined my collection, probably also from Canada. Then there was a story about Canadian woodland creatures, including a squirrel who hid his store of nuts in a hollow rail in the farmer’s fence. Details remembered. Title forgotten.

My book collection also grew year by year thanks to Sunday School Prizes for good attendance at my local Methodist Church. I note with interest that it is reported each year in the Eastern Daily Press that the Queen continues this tradition by presenting prizes for attendance at village Sunday Schools around Sandringham, when she is in residence there.

Passing on the Skill

I don’t remember when Winnie the Pooh came in to my world, but the bear with little brain has affected several generations. First I read it to my nephew as we squashed in the same armchair inhabited by Grandma and me years before. He soon knew the books off by heart, so no skipping pages was allowed. Next I read Pooh to my bookless infants. It even caused mothers to come to tell me how exciting I made reading stories by ‘doing all the voices’.

Over the years as a teacher, parent and grandparent my aspiration has been not only to teach the mechanics of reading but to kindle a love of books in children. I discovered early in life that, if you can read, you can escape, you can travel, you can be informed and you can enjoy endless pleasure for relatively little cost.

Two books I commend for sharing with young teens are both by Michael Morpurgo. One is Private Peaceful and the other is War Horse. Like The Boy in Striped Pyjamas they do require strong reading skills and encouragement. They also need sympathetic adults on hand to help deal with the difficult subject matter.

A Loose End from Childhood

One of my happy book memories is being at the conference of the National Association of Nursery and Family Centre (NANFC) members in Hereford. Baroness Lucy Faithfull, as their President, was in attendance as usual and she asked me to accompany her to the nearby Hay-on-Wye to search for a book. Apparently, as a child, she had been moved around to live with various family members. In one place where she stayed a few times, there was a book about a boy called Curdie, which she read at intervals, but never got to finish. So, at an advanced age it was one of her wishes to get a copy of The Princess and Curdie by George MacDonald and find out what happened to Curdie. Consequently we peered (sometimes literally crawling on hands and knees) up and down the miles of shelves in every book shop in Hay-on-Wye. Sadly we were not successful. However, this particular story does have a happy ending, because when we were recounting it to a mutual friend soon afterwards, he disappeared for a few moments to return with a copy of the much desired book, which he was happy to pass on. So finally Lucy was able to find out how things turned out for Curdie.

Where Next?

I wonder where new technology will lead us though. I passed on The Boy in Striped Pyjamas to my grandson. When I asked if he had read it he said they had started reading it in his class at school and then somebody brought in the DVD, which they watched instead. Will there be only e-books for the next generations? Are families who didn’t have books be more likely to have computers? Is a computer screen a substitute for loving attention and a squashy armchair?

Whatever the future holds I know that I only sleep really soundly at night if I drop off to sleep quite naturally after reading a little – or sometimes a lot.

MacDonald, George (1883) The Princess and Curdie

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