Sunday, 11 March 2012

The Incredible Disappearing Act of the British Book

It's no secret that I'm a bit book crazy. My parents said they could bring me anywhere as a child and not worry because I'd always find something to read; books, newspapers, magazines, pamphlets, instruction manuals. If it had words, you could guarantee I'd read it. My favourite gifts have always been books (and cuddly toys, but that's another post). This past Christmas the husband and I had a bit of a disagreement about the appropriateness of books as gifts for kids. Our little niece is four-years-old, very bright and loves stories. We have to travel a fair distance to see them, so I thought that books would be an excellent gift. She likes them, they're easy to transport and if we get her one she already has, it's easy for Mum to re-gift. Vetoed.

My other half - who is, I should say, also a reader - maintained that there's nothing like a gift. "A proper gift" he called it. As in a toy, not a boring book. Well I want to say that a book is better than a toy any day. A good book is not just a physical thing, it's an entire world, it's a future, it's a integral part of a childhood, it's  filled with possibilities.

I can't even guess at the number of hours I spent with my childhood neighbours playing "Olden Days". It was a very involved game of make-believe that sprung directly from the Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. When I was at university in Montreal, Canada I saw maple syrup being poured on fresh snow to make candy. It brought me back to the moment I first read about that in Little House in a Big Wood. In an instant, I relived the joy that I felt reading that book over a decade before. I didn't love maple syrup candy, but I loved that moment. What would that moment have been without the book? Nothing.

Laura Ingalls Wilder was, in fact, the writer that made me want to be a writer. I remember saying to my dad that no one would ever be interested in what I'd write because my life was boring compared to hers. He said, "It's not what happens to you, it's the story you tell. Laura's life was ordinary to her, too." Turns out, Dad was right.
The four books I brought when we moved to England. Not to worry, though, the rest are safely stored away, waiting for more shelf space!

The BBC recently did a piece on books in Britain where they reported that 1 in 5 children has never been given a book as a present. It makes me so sad that 20% of British children have never had the joy of curling up on a cold and miserable Christmas day with a new book that whisks them away to a world so different to their own. According to the report, in 2005, 1 in every 10 children said they had no book at home. By 2011, this number had skyrocketed to 1 in 3. They said that this translate to almost 4,000,000, that's right, four million children without a single book in their home.

I can't even imagine not having a single book in a house. I grew up in houses filled with books and around adults who discussed, recommended and traded books all the time. We used to read together. Well, Mom and I would read; Dad would put on his glasses, take out something to read and then fall asleep, but it wasn't TV that brought us together, it was books. This, in a family, where most of us are dyslexic. My parent made sure that no one missed out on the joy that reading and books could bring.

There's an awful lot of talk these days about print books vs. e-books and I want to weigh in on this debate, finally. My take is: I don't care how kids read as long as they do. You, like me, love print books? Love the feel, the smell the actually physicality of the book? Well read a print book. You're attached to your laptop, smartphone, iPad etc? Go to town on e-books then! Who cares as long as you're reading?

I know a young man who is dyslexic and struggled to learn to read as a child. His parents read to him constantly, even while he jumped up and down, swung off his bunkbeds and generally did everything but sit and listen quietly. When his classmates were learning to read Berenstein Bear books, he was scribbling on pieces of paper while Mom read Harry Potter in the background. When his friends started to read Roald Dahl, he read comics like Beano and anything with a fart joke or explosion. No matter what he was reading, his parents encouraged it. They understood that nine-year-olds don't need to read the classics, they need to develop a life long love of reading. He devoured Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events (which his mother hated, but never told him) and a fairly poorly written series about feral housecats. At about eleven he suddenly made the transition to adult literature. Today, in his mid teens, he's well able for the classics and anything school throws his way. In the last year he's read Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games trilogy and Native Son. Not a bad list for a kid who was once diagnosed as "illiterate."

So I say, give books! Give books to all the kids in your life. Give them not what you think they ought to be reading, but what they'll love to read. They love cartoons? Give them comic books. They love horses? Give them the first book of any number of horsey series. Never mind what the book is, as long as they enjoy it. Give them the gift of other worlds and imagination. You never know, you might end up with a dyslexic author in your family, too.

What did my niece get for Christmas? Well, she got a book, but she sure did love the jewelry box and silver handbag that we brought, too.

No comments:

Post a Comment