Monday, 16 September 2019

The Right Book for the Right Child (Guest Blog Post By Victoria Williamson)

I remember very clearly when my love affair with Jane Austen began.

It was the summer between fifth and sixth year of high school, when I was seventeen. I’d picked up Pride and Prejudice for the first time, but not because I actually wanted to read it. It was a stormy day despite it being July – too wet to walk up to the local library. It was back in the nineties before the internet, Kindle, and instant downloads were available. I wanted to curl up on the sofa to read, but I’d already been through every single book in the house. All that was left unread at the bottom of the bookshelf was a row of slightly faded classics belonging to my mother. I only picked the first one up as there was clearly a book-drought emergency going on, and I was desperate.

The reason I didn’t want to read it, was because I already knew it was going to be totally boring.
Well, I thought I knew it. I’d already ‘read’ the classics you see. When I was ten or eleven, thinking I was very clever, I branched out from my usual diet of fantasy and adventure books, and opened a copy of Bleak House by Charles Dickens. I can’t remember why now – it might have been another rainy day and another book emergency situation, but whatever the reason, I spent several miserable hours ploughing through page after page of unintelligible drivel about Lincoln’s Inn, Chancery, and a bunch of boring characters who said very dull things, before giving up in disgust.


I ‘knew’ from that point on that the classic novels teachers and book critics raved about were the literary equivalent of All Bran instead of Sugar Puffs, and I wasn’t interested in sampling any more.

I didn’t pick up another classic until that rainy day at seventeen, when I sped through Pride and Prejudice in a day and a night, emerging sleepy-eyed but breathless the next day to snatch Emma from the shelf before retreating back to my room to devour it. That summer, after running out of books by Austen, the Brontes and Mrs Gaskell, I tried Bleak House again. And what a difference! Where before I had waded thorough unintelligible passages without gaining any sense of what was going on, I now found an engaging, and often humorous tale of a tangled court system far beyond the ‘red tape’ that everyone was always complaining about in present-day newspapers. Where before I’d only seen dull characters who rambled on forever without saying anything at all, I discovered wit and caricature, and a cast of people I could empathise with.

That was when I realised that there wasn’t anything wrong with the literary classics – it was me who was the problem. Or rather, the mismatch between my reading ability when I was ten, and the understanding I had of the world at that age. I could read all of the words on the page, I just didn’t understand what half of them meant, and I thought the problem was with the story itself.

I was reminded of this little episode in my own reading history recently when I spent the summer in Zambia volunteering with the reading charity The Book Bus. One afternoon we were reading one-to-one with children in a community library, when I met Samuel. Samuel had a reading level far above the other children, and raced through the picture books and short stories they were struggling with. I asked him to pick a more complicated book to read with me for the last ten minutes, and after searching through the two bookshelves that comprised the small one-roomed library, he came back with a Ladybird book published in 1960, called ‘What to Look for in Autumn.’

He did his best with it. He could read all of the words – the descriptions of wood pigeons picking up the seeds to ‘fill their crops’, the harvesters – reapers, cutters and binders – putting the oats into ‘stooks’ and the information about various ‘mushrooms and fungi’, but he didn’t understand anything he was reading. Needless to say I looked out a more appropriate chapter book from the Book Bus’s well-stocked shelves for him to read the following week, but the incident reminded me of the importance of getting relevant books into children’s hands if we’re to ensure they’re not turned off by the reading experience.

This is a problem often encountered in schools when teachers are looking for books to recommend to children. A lot of the time we’re so focused on getting them to read ‘good’ books, the ones we enjoyed as children, or the ones deemed ‘worthy’ by critics, that we forget that reading ability isn’t the only thing we have to take into consideration. We have to match the child’s level of understanding to the texts that we’re recommending – or in the case of that Ladybird book, get rid of outdated books from our libraries entirely!

Children often find making the leap to more challenging books difficult, and comfort read the same books over and over again – sometimes even memorising them in anticipation of being asked to read aloud with an adult. If we’re to help them bridge this gap, we must make sure our recommendations are not only appropriate for their reading level, but match their understanding too, introducing new words and ideas gradually in ways that won’t put them off.

Samuel and I were both lucky – we loved reading enough that one bad experience wasn’t enough to put us off, but other children might not be so fortunate. Let’s ensure all children have the chance to discover the joy of reading, by getting the right books into the hands of the right child.

Victoria Williamson is the author of Fox Girl and the White Gazelle (click here for my review) and The Boy with the Butterfly Mind, both published by Floris Books.

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