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Sharing the Joy of Reading

By Sue Wight

Like Fanny Price, I have to admit to being an unabashed novel reader. A good novel is a type of madness for me, and I sometimes become so emotionally involved that wrenching myself away can be devastating. I was once on a plane which had the temerity to land when Jane Eyre had just left Thornfield. How could I abandon her there whilst I attended to mundane matters such as bags, crowds and taxis? This feeling of guilt persisted despite the fact that I had read the book half a dozen times previously and knew Jane was going to be okay. Emotionally, I was on the moors with the forlorn Jane.

There is no doubt that fiction expands the mind, improves the vocabulary and allows us to visit places we’ve never been. More importantly for me, it allows experience of situations I’ll never know and gives me insight and empathy for real-world people through exposure to fictional people – their situation, their hopes, their dreams and their fears. Through fiction I live other people’s lives and walk around in their skin. I enter fiction to the point that, when I finish a book, I look up and find the world is just the same, but I’ve changed somehow.

By contrast, as a child, I was excluded from the world of books. I found school a bewildering cacophony of noise and movement. What was it all about? Why did everyone else seem to know what was going on? Why was popularity linked to the possession of Derwent pencils or the ability to throw a ball? For the first three years I suffered through the rigours of John and Betty and the indignities of ‘Reading Recovery’, avoided the bullies when I could… and the ability to read eluded me the whole time.

When I was eight years old something clicked into place, and I could read. As well as easing the school situation, this milestone opened up new worlds of friends and adventure.

Life would never be the same.

Enid Blyton quickly became my favourite author and I devoured her tales of fairies, goblins, elves, and talking toys. Silky and Moon-Face were my very special friends and a big old tree near our house became my own ‘Faraway Tree’. My childhood was transformed by my reading and the imagination it fired.

When I wasn’t reading, I spent hours acting out my favourite stories. I remember one favourite called Baby Island in which two young girls were shipwrecked with four babies to care for. My dolls and I acted out that story countless times and I vividly recall the waves crashing around our lifeboat on the stormy bedroom floor sea.

These books weren’t great literature but they established a love of reading that inevitably led to a wider reading diet. My childhood resounded to the tune of, ‘Put that book down and…’

Fast forward a few years, and my three sons and I were visiting the library each week and bringing home armloads of books to share. We spent some part of every day cuddled up on the couch reading, as well as having the traditional bedtime story and, ‘Just one more’. Reading served many purposes. It was snuggle time, fun time and a jumping-off point for questions and games. Sometimes it was a good way for a toddler to rest in the afternoon when they thought they could do without a nap; sometimes it was a good way for me to rest in the afternoon when I knew I needed a nap! There were favourite books that were requested again and again – I’ll Love You Forever, Scuppers the Sailor Dog, I Can Count to 100 and My Place in Space spring to mind – and thousands of books which have long been forgotten. Some of the books we shared all those years ago together with their characters have passed into family lore, and if one of us were to quote Frog and Toad or Little Bear, we’d all smile in recognition.  To this day, if I say I’m going to “run over something with the iron”, we all picture Amelia Bedelia running around on the tablecloth, iron in hand, leaving little black footprints behind her.

Enid Blyton had fallen in popularity since my childhood, but we read her anyway – how could I deny my boys some of my most cherished childhood friends? Two of the boys spontaneously learned to read and reading in bed became a nightly event. One son was heartbroken when he finished the Faraway Tree series. He got out of bed and tearfully begged me to write him some more chapters (such faith in his mum – those were the days!) Understanding that let-down feeling that comes when a fictional world closes, I tapped out two adventures in which his friends visited new lands at the top of the tree. He loved them and they provided enough reading material to tide him over until library day.

When my eldest son started school, our reading time was drastically reduced. I conscientiously spent time at school helping with literacy sessions but it was a poor substitute for the home experience –a duty rather than a pleasure. I arrived home late morning with the chores undone and two grumpy preschoolers – sometimes they were hyped up by school and other times they were justifiably frustrated at my attempts to keep them from being disruptive to the class. We still read together every day at home, but now we had to operate on school time and our reading lives were impoverished as a result.

We spent three years in the school system and, between bullying, lack of stimulation, and general unhappiness, life deteriorated markedly. By mid-2000 we were close to a decision to home educate but still working up the courage. We were borrowing books from the library without having time to read them. It was a travesty. I remember the absurdity of telling a child to stop reading so he could get ready for school where he would sit through reading-readiness activities. I had sworn I would never tell my children to stop reading and yet here I was doing just that – and all in the name of education! And it was the so-called education that was making them miserable.

Home education came and, with it, far more reading time – together and individually. I came to consider reading to be one of the perks of home education. What other job involves curling up on the couch and sharing books with your children? Watching their excited faces as a mystery or adventure unfolds – I wouldn’t exchange that for anything. The opportunity to read all day with your children – what bliss!

Somehow I had missed Roald Dahl as a child but he provided hours of shared pleasure now, as we discovered him along with many other new authors – Odo Hirsch, Margaret Mahy, Lynne Reid Banks, and Diana Wynne Jones, just to name a few. We joyfully examined all the fairy tale variations we could find, with Jon Scieszka’s The True Story of the 3 Little Pigs becoming a firm favourite.

We also continued with Enid Blyton. Growing up in the 1970s, I had been unaware of the classism and sexism in her books but, as the new millennium dawned, these books drew questions from my children. They wanted to know why the girls always prepared the food or did the dishes while the boys went on the adventures. Why did Julian boss everyone around? Why did George’s family have a cook? Why didn’t we? Why did the Five have quite so many adventures without ever ageing? We laughed at how Blyton never wasted a good plot by using it only once, and we had a running joke about the number of books with a chapter called The Face at the Window, but nothing stopped us from ‘jolly well’ agreeing the books were ‘simply smashing’.

The boys enjoyed these adventure stories so much that they inspired imaginative games and led to the creation of several series of books at our house such as The Fantastic Five, The Solving Seven and The Fabulous Five.

I had mixed emotions when The Famous Five was re-released in modernised, more politically correct editions. On the one hand, how lovely for a whole new generation of children to have the pleasure of Blyton’s adventures; but on the other hand, won’t sanitised versions rob readers of the opportunity to talk about all the issues the books raise? Why deny children the window to a different time and a different way of life? I guess many school kids, who have so little reading time, will never get the opportunity to have those conversations with their parents.

In home educating families, reading time and talking about books can expand to take up as much time as it needs to. And it does. Talking about books at home isn’t anything like the guided discussion about books that happens in school. Teachers have a set of ‘right’ answers they are looking for, and a tick-list of points to ‘draw out’. Home reading conversations are spontaneous, unpredictable and lead to unexpected places; they make interesting connections and are just plain enjoyable.

As our home education progressed, one of our boys came to reading ‘late’. The beautiful result was that shared reading continued in our family for years, with everyone enjoying the read-aloud sessions. It also meant that the boys read to each other and, in this way, they shared books even when I was busy elsewhere.

Home education also allows reading to expand into non-reading time. Our family hasn’t just read books, we’ve lived them. Take the Harry Potter series, for example. We’d pre-order our books and queue up in costume on the release day to get our hands on our own pristine copy (is there anything quite like the smell and the feel of a brand new book?) and then rush home to cuddle up on the couch and read. One such day, when we arrived home, I was surprised that one son dashed off, instead of taking his place on the couch. He was back in a flash with his favourite soft toy, in his pyjamas, perfectly comfortable for his ideal day snuggled up on the couch being read to. My husband knew from experience that there wasn’t much hope of decent meals that weekend, so he took charge of the kitchen and plied us with hot chocolate and food while the boys and I read all weekend. It was necessary to sleep on Saturday night but I had to make the unbreakable vow not to read ahead. We finished the book late on Sunday night and held a hoarse-voiced post mortem.

The enjoyment didn’t end there. We read the books individually and spent weeks listening to the audio books; we talked about them at length, we critiqued the movies, and compared them to the books. Watching a Harry Potter movie with my kids involved regular interjections like, ‘They’ve just skipped five chapters!’ The boys made board games based on the books, wrote fan fictions, made predictions about coming books, named many of their toys after the characters, became regular visitors to Mugglenet and Mugglecast, made their own Potter Puppet Pals and played long, imaginative games based at Hogwarts. And they did it all together, creating a shared world and a common history.

The shared experience of these and countless other books has been part of an ongoing conversation in our family for many years. Books are regularly quoted in conversation and have helped form our very relationships. They’ve opened up new topics of conversation, allowed an entry point into difficult issues and, at times, helped us work through tricky situations and negative feelings. Paul Jennings, of all people, unlocked one son’s guilt over the death of his grandfather. Fiction is powerful.

Over the years, the boys have sometimes read books that have made my husband and I groan, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t enjoy all their reading material – it matters that reading is enjoyable to them. Kids who enjoy reading move on to more complex books in time – and who knows what it is they see in the books that fascinate them at a particular stage. Just because we don’t see a value, doesn’t mean it isn’t there.

Home education gave our boys unparalleled individual reading time. They had the opportunity to lie on their bed or occupy a comfortable chair all day while reading a book that captivated them. They had time to stare into space when they finished a good book – thinking over the ideas it raised, or just reluctant to leave the world it evoked.

These days shared reading is a thing of the past for us, but the conversations about books will never end. We often enjoy the same books and add books to each other’s bedside stacks. Three of us are currently waiting on the new Thursday Next book. One son will read it while the other is at uni during the day; his brother will read it at night and leave it on the kitchen table for me to read at breakfast time. And then, of course, we’ll need to talk about it. As you do.

Reading has always been one of the greatest pleasures in my life, and sharing books has formed a huge part of my boys’ childhoods and means we now have a whole landscape of shared fictional experiences as well as the unhurried life experiences home education has allowed. Through conversation, audio books and movies, we’ve even shared books that we haven’t all read as I’ve introduced the family to some of my favourites through excellent BBC productions. It is a truth universally acknowledged that boys won’t enjoy Jane Austen, and yet mine do. If we hadn’t home educated, I think the boys would still have loved books; they just wouldn’t have had as much time to read and we wouldn’t have shared the experience of so many books. They may have dismissed Jane Austen as the author of ‘some soppy love stories Mum likes’ instead of appreciating her brilliant wit. They may never have met characters such as Wilkins Micawber, Mr Collins or Tess of the d’Urbervilles; never have noticed J.K. Rowling’s Dickensian names; and never have discussed whether Severus Snape or Mr Rochester is a better example of a Byronic hero.

I’m very glad my sons have had the reading childhood they have, and that I have had the privilege of sharing it. They have expanded my reading diet and taught me to think about books in new ways and our reading continues to enrich our family conversation and learning.

And the son who read ‘late’? He now gets through more books than the rest of us, reads widely and deeply, and is the only one yet to start on my Bronte collection. He often reads all day and most of the night, and I leave him to it. I don’t even feel the urge to say, ‘Put that book down…’ but occasionally I do suggest that breakfast might be a good idea – sometime before midday.

From Otherways 133

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