The most real part of my childhood? The books

As a child, Jo Brighouse insisted that reading was boring – and then she discovered The Magic Faraway Tree

Jo Brighouse

Reading for pleasure: How to help children discover the joy of books

Last night, the most amazing thing happened. I went into my daughter’s bedroom, armed with a pile of discarded clothes and a tirade on tidying up, and I saw something that made me freeze and back out silently. 

She was reading. Lying on the floor, holding Enid Blyton’s The Naughtiest Girl in the School and reading – at no one’s bidding but her own. 

I executed a small dance of joy on the landing.

My daughter is not a reader. It’s not through lack of ability – or encouragement. 

Reading for pleasure

Since birth, she has had books lavished on her. She has a personal library that wouldn’t disgrace a small branch of Waterstone's, and she likes being read to.

She loved Ballet Shoes, and The Swish of the Curtain, and has been obsessed with midnight feasts ever since we finished Malory Towers. But she resolutely refused to read on her own.

I can’t fathom it. Does her generation simply have too many distractions

She and her brother have just spent the Christmas holidays building Harry Potter Lego, watching Harry Potter films, playing Harry Potter computer games and conjuring up endless agonisingly bad Harry Potter raps on YouTube, while the actual Harry Potter books looked on, undisturbed, from their shelf. 

The joy of books

My own reading career took a while to get started. My elder sister was glued to a book pretty much from birth, despite my best efforts to stop her. 

She used to read with her feet wedged against her bedroom door, against which I bodily hurled myself, shouting, “Boring, boring, boring!”

It was The Magic Faraway Tree that hooked me in, then the Secret Seven and all the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books. (Say what you like about Enid Blyton, I’d never want a classroom without her.)

After Blyton, it was a quick step up to Roald Dahl, interspersed with the likes of Anne of Green Gables, Ballet Shoes and my beloved Little Women, until I discovered Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School and read literally nothing else for the next three years. 

Revisiting children's books

But I’d forgotten quite how incredible childhood reading is until I read Lucy Mangan’s Bookworm, a Christmas present from my sister. 

If you haven’t read it, find it and read it now. Seriously, drop everything. It took me back along a path of childhood reading that was uncannily similar to my own (if we overlook Mangan’s failure to recognise the supremacy of Chalet School and inexcusably heartless reaction to Little Women’s Beth). 

To revisit childhood books is to revisit a world that is in many ways more real than most other aspects of your childhood. 

Only, looking back, the books I loved best didn’t belong to my childhood, but to someone else’s. Milly-Molly-Mandy, My Naughty Little Sister, Jennings, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy (I will NEVER recover from losing Beth) – all these characters which peopled my existence sprang into being decades before I was born. 

All of which is a roundabout way of reminding teachers that, while we embrace modern-day children’s authors (and there are a great many worth embracing), it’s always good to keep a large smattering of the old but gold on your class bookshelves. 

The sanctity of silent reading time

And, when you come across a bona fide bookworm, please handle with care. 

Ditch the compulsory end-of-book quizzes, don’t insist on a list of authors and genres to be ticked off before “moving up a level” (this would have killed me in my Chalet School years). Nudge them towards authors you think they will like and allow them to find their own paths. 

Preserve the sanctity of silent reading time with the zeal of a religious fanatic, and make sure you feed the habit (even if this means smuggling extra books into bags at home time). 

Oh, and if you do catch a reluctant reader absorbed in a book (any book) then do the right thing and back away. The birth of a bookworm is a delicate thing, and some things are more important than teaching. 

Jo Brighouse is a pseudonym for a primary teacher in the West Midlands. She tweets @jo_brighouse

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