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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Find Time to Read

When academics and teachers get together one of the most common complaints they have about their students is that “young people these days” don’t do enough reading. I think they’ve always complained about it and I think they always will. Even so reading habits have definitely changed in the last few years. It’s more difficult to find time to sit down with a chunky novel and read it. I now spend almost as much time reading from a computer screen as I did reading dead tree books and journals in the 1980s. Help is at hand. Daily Lit sends you bite-sized installments of public domain novels, poems, and philosophical works by email at a pre-set time every day. The chunks take about five minutes to read and if you like you can request the next installment immediately. I think this could be a useful way of squeezing in extra reading. And yes, Moby Dick is there: 252 parts. Serialization is so nineteenth-century. Here’s that link again.

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Orange Prize Winners Announced

The winners of the Orange Prize were announced last night at the Royal Festival Hall on London’s South Bank. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was awarded the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction for her novel Half of a Yellow Sun, beating off competition from the likes of Kiran Desai and Anne Tyler.

The book is a love story set in post-colonial Nigeria in the 1960’s. Muriel Gray, leader of the judging panel said that the book was ‘astonishing, not just in the skilful subject matter, but in the brilliance of its accessibility’.

Canadian author Karen Connelly took the Orange Broadband Award for new writers with her first novel, The Lizard Cage. She was awarded a £10,000 bursary provided by Arts Council England.

More from the BBC, the Guardian, and the Times.

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The Poetry of Les Murray

Les Murray, sometimes of this parish, features in this week’s New Yorker in a review article by Dan Chiasson. Chiasson picks up on Murray’s rage, which he thinks is the key to the poet’s work and is “what makes him so exasperating to read one minute and thrilling the next.” I get the feeling that Chiasson doesn’t quite know what to do with Murray, or where to put him. Murray’s range and “bluntness” can certainly be offputting. As Chiasson says “You need to be a little bit of a lunatic to bear the specific, outsized grudges Murray has borne through his sixties …”; he thinks Murray is “a cartoon hick in an overplayed idiom.” But there is admiration too, especially for the “new Murray” Chiasson detects in more recent poems:

… like all mature poets, Murray knows and represents his own imaginative limitations, his best poems show empathy lagging a little behind the imagination. The thrill of reading Murray is seeing how the heart that feels will catch up with the eye that sees.

Here’s the link to the article.

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Underground Books

One theory about how to get people reading is that if you put books in front of them they will read. The London Book Project aims to do just that by distributing thousands of second hand books on the London Underground. The idea is that anyone who finds a book takes it home and reads it, but also that readers register their finds with Book Crossing and when they’ve finished reading, leave them on the Tube for someone else to pick up. From the London Book Project website:

The London Book Project is a free book exchange on a massive scale. Using the London Underground as a high speed distribution network, we aim to bring real literature to London’s commuters. Scrap the freesheets – read a free book instead!

Over the next two weeks we’ll be distributing thousands of second hand books across the tube and we want YOU to get involved. If you see one of our books, please pick it up! Then read it and replace with any book of your choice. Let’s make the tube a giant, free library!

It’s not just London. You can add books to the Book Crossing database and leave them wherever you like. Merseyrail here I come.

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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.

Getting the Nation Reading

by Katie Peters

At The Reader we were excited to hear that 2008 is to be a national year of reading. In a week in which there have been calls for television to be rationed for children, it is encouraging to see the government taking steps to give a higher profile to reading for pleasure.

During the previous ‘year of reading’, ten years ago, teachers, school librarians and governors organised thousands of reading events in schools, including author visits, book festivals and reading clubs. The initiative, however, aims to bring the wonderful world of books not just to schoolchildren but to everyone, from toddlers to grandparents, from avid readers to those who are less enthusiastic. A big part of this is encouraging families to spend time reading together, as Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education, points out:

One of the most important things a parent can do to boost the educational chances of their children is to read to them. Simple, yes – but in a busy world it doesn’t happen enough. 30 per cent of parents don’t read regularly with their young children – a vital but missed opportunity to boost their children’s development. We watch an average of four hours’ television a day. If we read to our children for just a tenth of this every day, we’d give their chances a massive boost.

Many of us remember the joy of being read to as a child, but with channels such as CBeebies dedicated to young children available throughout the day, is the classic ‘bedtime story’ being replaced with half an hour in front of Teletubbies?

At The Reader we are working to promote reading for pleasure. Project worker Kerry Hughes has been working as ‘Reader in Residence’ at Weatherhead High School since September, reading to and with students. Another group that she works with at St James’ Library in Birkenhead have begun their own parents’ reading group at the school their children attend. During term time parents meet to read books and poems together. They share the reading aloud and discuss their difficulties and enthusiasms. Reading has become so important to the group that during school holidays they have organised sessions in which they read together with their children. These have been a huge success. Kerry says of the group,

Initially, the women lacked confidence in reading and were reticent when it came to expressing an opinion. For a year we have read together, struggling together over difficult poems and challenging texts and the group has bonded and strengthened. Confidence has soared; one of the women is now working as a librarian at her son’s school, another is just about to start A-Levels and two have set up a reading group for parents at their children’s school.

The prospect of a whole year dedicated to getting the nation excited about reading is wonderful, but in reality, it is a daunting task. The year will have to be as much about changing attitudes as it is about getting books into hands. Jane Davis, director of The Reader, comments:

The power of the story or poem is not just for children. Our Get Into Reading project is offering a model, which I hope will be taken up nationally, of inclusive and intense reading experiences for people of all ages, abilities and educational backgrounds. Read-aloud reading groups can help create community.

When I think about the reaction in the eyes of the 93-year-old dementia patient on hearing the old familiar words of ‘I wandered lonely as a cloud’ read out to her last week, I join Alan Johnson in hoping that the national year of reading ‘will bring about another step-change in attitudes to reading for purpose and pleasure’, and look forward with anticipation to the effects that this change of attitude could have.

Going for Gold

by Katie Peters

The organisers of the Carnegie gold medal for children’s writing yesterday, librarians’ institute CILIP, last week issued a provisional list of their top ten favourite titles compiled from all the books that have won the medal since 1936. Established by The Library Association in 1936, in memory of the great Scottish-born philanthropist, Andrew Carnegie (1835–1919), the medal is awarded to an outstanding book for children and young adult readers. Carnegie was a self-made industrialist who made his fortune in steel in the USA. His experience of using a library as a child led him to resolve that ‘if ever wealth came to me it should be used to establish free libraries’.

The winner of the award receives a gold medal and £500-worth of books to donate to a public or school library. The provisional list is as follows:
 

Skellig David Almond (1998)

Junk Melvin Burgess (1996)

Storm Kevin Crossley-Holland (1985)

A Gathering Light Jennifer Donnelly (2003)

The Owl Service Alan Garner (1967)

The Family From One End Street Eve Garnett (1937)

The Borrowers Mary Norton (1952)

Tom’s Midnight Garden Philippa Pearce (1958)

Northern Lights Philip Pullman (1995)

The Machine-Gunners Robert Westall (1981)

If you were to write a personal list of your favourite books from childhood what would it look like? We’d love to hear your thoughts. E-mail us at readers@liv.ac.uk  and we will publish results next month. To get you started, here are a few of our favourites from The Reader office…

Charlotte’s Web by Elwyn Brooks

Five Go to Mystery Moor by Enid Blyton

Carrie’s War by Nina Bawden

The Railway Children, The Phoenix and the Carpet and The Story of the Amulet by E. Nesbit
Matilda by Roald Dahl

The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tyler by Gene Kemp

The Chalet School series by Elinor M. Brent-Dyer

The Mallory Towers series by Enid Blyton

The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier

What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge

Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer

The Jennings books by Anthony Buckeridge

Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce

The Magic Roundabout stories by Eric Thompson

The House at Pooh Corner by A.A. Milne… we could go on for ever.

 

The short-listed books for this year’s Carnegie award are:
The Road of the Dead, by Kevin Brooks; A Swift Pure Cry, by Siobhan Dowd; The Road of Bones, by Anne Fine; Beast, by Ally Kennen; Just in Case, by Meg Rosoff; and My Swordhand is Singing, by Marcus Sedgewick.

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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