It is a truth universally acknowledged that a young boy in need of an occupation will choose any activity but reading. Or is it? My experience as a parent was the reverse of this. Both of my sons loved to read from an early age. So I thought it would be interesting to ask them what they could remember about their first adventures in the land of literature. This is what they had to say (they are now in their mid-twenties):
For Francis, pictures were just as vital as words. He loved both the illustrations and the storyline in The Mountains of Tibet, which was on our very first publishing programme in 1993. He also adored a picture book called Diana and the White Rhinoceros by that genius of the genre, John Burningham. This delightfully eccentric story describes the relationship between a little girl called Diana and a white rhinoceros who turns up in her parents’ sitting room one winter afternoon. There is general panic among the adults–only Diana realises that the poor creature has a streaming cold. All he needs is a little affection and some hot buttered toast. This marks the start of a long and intimate friendship. What Francis loved about it was the way Diana broke the rules (the rule in this case being ‘rhinoceri are dangerous and must be kept well away from children, preferably in zoos’) for the sake of a higher rule: the rule that says if you see a fellow creature suffering, it is your duty to help him.
Francis was not interested in funny picture books. Right from the start, he was happiest with the kind of magical realism that characterises so many of the best children’s books. He also enjoyed books about physical endurance. Rollo, on the other hand, adored humour. For him, reading was a game and it was all about learning how to play it. He learnt to read in the same way as he learnt chess: he knew it was a challenge, but he liked to be challenged and he wanted it to be fun. He didn’t mind making mistakes, and he didn’t mind asking for help. For him, it was very important that there was no pressure–he remembered other children being contaminated by their parents’ anxiety (‘why aren’t you reading yet–there must be something wrong’) and feeling sorry for them.
I asked the boys how much of their reading as children was linked in their memories to what happened to them at school. For both of them, school mattered less than home, although they acknowledged that they learnt their letters here and Rollo enjoyed climbing The Oxford Reading Tree. But what I realised as I spoke to them was that it was the things we did and shared as a family that made them readers: the fact that they grew up in a house where what went on in the pages of books was really, really interesting. Worth working for. Worth talking about.
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