The secret of luring children into books

31st May 1996 at 01:00
Paul Jennings, the bestselling Australian children's author, once signed one of his collections of wacky, subversive stories: "Dear John, when you have finished this book Grandma will give you $20." None the less, he does not recommend bribery or any other underhand tactic for wooing reluctant readers.

Real books with "a story that comes from the heart of the writer, something to give the reader a reward" will succeed where patronising remedial texts fail, the former primary teacher and teacher-trainer has been telling UK professionals this week.

"You can only make children into lifelong readers if they grow to love books," he said at a Library Association gathering in London. "As a writer you have to ask: 'Is that first line interesting enough?' What makes you laugh? What makes you cry?'. If you can't get the good readers, you won't get the reluctant reader."

He started writing in earnest in the early 1980s - his first novel was rejected when he was 15 and he didn't try again for 23 years - while he was lecturing on learning disabilities in Melbourne. "One of my children, then aged 11, could not read fluently and did not like books," he said. "I gave him a remedial book and he threw it across the room - he could see it wasn't a proper book. It looked terrible and the plot was non-existent. I felt that I had to do better for him."

Jennings' accessible but powerful stories, many of them adapted for television in Australia, now have a worldwide reputation for creating pleasant hysteria in classrooms. Grotesquely embarrassing families, messy emotions and messier bodily functions are all fair game. "We should laugh at children's worries and explore them, but never pretend they're not there. You can only make children laugh by going into their culture - the biggest and most homogenous culture in the world, but the last one to be recognised as a culture. They are small, they are powerless, they don't know what's going on, they're scared of wearing something the other kids at school aren't wearing."

Much of his material is autobiographical and stems from his arrival in Australia aged six, when his parents moved from Middlesex as post-war Pounds 10 migrants.

"My sister and I were the only children in the school with English accents. I lost mine very quickly, but I remember the horror of being different. My family lived in a very English way, and it took me years to settle. The emotions that you have at that age stay with you."

His childhood reading was English too - Rupert Bear, Enid Blyton, Biggles and William (still a favourite whose streak of anarchy is ever-present in Jennings' own work).

Like William, he enjoys a chance to upset more fastidious adults. "I wrote a story about boys seeing who could pee highest up the wall. I had no complaints in Australia or Japan, but 18 from the UK."

Thirteen! Unpredictable tales from Paul Jennings, chosen by Wendy Cooling, is published by Viking (Pounds 10.99). Unbearable!, Unbelievable! and other collections are published by Puffin

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