Michael Rosen on Reading for Pleasure

Michael Rosen, who was appointed Children’s Laureate yesterday, is well known as a critic of British education policy, especially when it comes to reading and literacy. One problem that seems to be emerging is that British children are taught to read in a highly structured and specific way which allows very little flexibility either for teachers or the children they are teaching. This is a personal worry of mine because my daughter, who is still in nursery, loves stories and is starting to teach herself to read; she is motivated, as children should be, by the sheer joy of it. This is certainly not the way she will be expected to learn in school and her mother and I are becoming wary of the way we help her in case we do the wrong thing and mess up her early years in school. No doubt there are plenty of parents out there who feel the same way. Rosen has written about this issue on his own website and The Guardian carried an article stating his agenda for the two-years he will serve as Children’s Laureate:

I utterly resent and reject the notion that you can teach reading without books,” he told journalists after his appointment.

“There is a huge push on to create an environment – in nurseries, and reception, and year ones and year twos – where books are secondary to the process of reading. This seems oxymoronic to me. We must, must have at the heart of learning to read the pleasure that is reading. Otherwise why bother? You could learn phonics, learn how to read and then put it behind you and watch telly – you’re given no reason to read. There are many ways in which people learn how to read; the idea that there is one way is an outrageous fib.

Here’s the link to the article. The Children’s Laureate post is administered by the charity Booktrust.

[Edit] The Guardian’s Michael Rosen obsession coverage continues today with an interview. Read it here.

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Getting into Reading in Runcorn

Helen Tookey

On Saturday The Reader ran a readers’ day at the fantastic Brindley theatre and arts centre in Runcorn, an award-winning venue overlooking the restored canal. As one of the organisers, I spent most of the day behind an information desk rather than getting to participate – but from what I could see, everyone seemed to be thoroughly enjoying the day. Things kicked off with a panel discussion about life-changing books, followed by workshops on a range of great books from Dickens’ Bleak House and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre to Mark Haddon’s Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Andrea Levy’s Orange Prize-winning novel Small Island. The whole day was designed to be as accessible as possible to a wide range of people, not just experienced readers of ‘difficult’ literature, and it was good to hear people making comments such as ‘I haven’t read Bleak House, but I really want to give it a go now!’. At lunchtime, the bookstall, provided by local family-run Curiosity Books, was doing a brisk trade, and former Cheshire poet laureate Andrew Rudd gave a reading from his new collection. Highlights of the day were a personal and thought-provoking talk by Stuart Murray on books, autism, and the ways in which we think about and write about ‘disability’; and a reading by award-winning poet Moniza Alvi. Crossing boundaries between reality and surreality, between the comic and the poignant, and between Moniza’s two heritages and ‘homes’, England and Pakistan, the reading was an inspiring way to end the day. Our next readers’ day is in Liverpool on July 7th and also promises to be a great day for all keen readers, so if you live nearby, why not come along? For details and booking form, go to the home page of The Reader magazine.

Alternative Worlds

Reader volunteer Emily Dixon reflects on what she gets from reading

For me, one of the greatest pleasures of reading comes from being able to share my thoughts and feelings about a novel with those around me. Though it doesn’t generally stop me talking if my audience isn’t interested (I’m always hopeful of converting a non-reader to the magical world of books – at least, that’s my excuse!), I’m especially delighted when my chosen subject has either read the book and wants to discuss it, or is inspired to go on to read and (hopefully) enjoy it.

Of course, this enthusiasm is also generated when the roles are reversed and people recommend novels to me. So I was especially pleased to receive a big bag of books from my mum a few months ago, and then again at Christmas. (Second-hand bookshops are doing well out of the Dixons at the moment!) During my MA year I’d always felt slightly guilty for picking up a novel that was non-Victorian, a little as though if I was going to ‘waste’ all that time reading, I should at least be choosing something relevant to my area of work. So, it became common practice for my mum to tell me about an amazing book she’d read/was reading/had heard about and for me to hope she’d remember the title so I could catch up later.

Upon finishing my MA I couldn’t wait to get started on my ‘to read’ list, but when it came to it, I seemed to have lost the passion for all things contemporary, whilst anything Victorian felt too heavy, too much like work for my tired brain. For a while, I stopped reading in any meaningful sense of the word, starting a variety of books but never getting more than a few chapters in and never experiencing that almost overwhelming need to keep on reading a book that you’ve got so caught up in you can’t concentrate on anything else.

It was only when my mum lent me Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go and Alexander Masters’ Stuart: A Life Backwards that I was again able to escape into that alternative world that good books create. Not specifically the world of the story – Masters’ tale is all too real – but the world of reading itself, the world where, for a while at least, only the words on the page seem important. For me, the escapism part of reading belongs to the act itself; the images that this act creates are not simply an alternative reality in which to get lost, but importantly form a world that, though separate, belongs to our own, and reflects back onto it. This is a world that can be powerful enough to make us think about ourselves as individuals, affecting our emotions, but in doing so, also making us question the feelings themselves, where they have come from, and to whom they (should) belong.

To finish with, here are some of my mum’s other recommendations (old books and new). I’m sure you won’t be disappointed – I wasn’t!

Pincher Martin by William Golding, Felicia’s Journey by William Trevor, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, The Diving-Bell and The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Story of Lucy Gault by William Trevor, Blue Diary by Alice Hoffman, Anil’s Ghost by Michael Ondaatje, Case Histories by Kate Atkinson.

By Emily Dixon

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