With a special look at Top Juniors Elaine Moss chooses Ten for the Top
Reading is, and indeed to a large extent should be, a private and personal joy. But it can also be, should also be, a shared experience – the shared experience of reading aloud. Reading aloud is an accepted, expected activity with young children. But what about the older ones?
Sometimes teachers say that top juniors are too old to be read to; (but thousands, including me, love A Book at Bedtime, so why should ten-year-olds have outgrown the pleasure of listening?) Sometimes they say `We do read aloud for the last half hour of the day,’ (when everyone is exhausted, particularly the teacher!). Sometimes, with a sigh, `There really isn’t anything one can read to a mixed ability class of ten-year-old boys and girls.’
I take these comments to mean `We don’t really know what to read to top juniors.’ But sometimes they imply, I fear, `Our Head thinks that reading to ten-year-olds who ought to be able to read to themselves is a waste of time,’ or, worse still, `The Head thinks fiction isn’t educational.’
There is not the space here to explore these two misguided `educational’ themes. But there is a chance to point out ten books that have been incredibly stimulating in atop junior classroom.
It goes without saying – but nevertheless perhaps it should be stated – that no book will succeed with any group of children unless the teacher reading it aloud is enjoying it too. So – yes – you have to read to yourself the book you are going to read aloud. The blurb plus a quick riff through to see if there are any pictures just won’t do. You could strike lucky with this hit-and-miss method; more likely, much more likely, you’ll come unstuck and present the anti-fiction-aloud lobby with another round of ammunition.
So, these are books that worked for teachers who read them aloud in a school where reading aloud, and reading silently, are valued activities. I had better make it clear that our children do not follow the text; they `merely’ listen, are involved, enjoy – and beg for more.
In any class tastes will differ as widely as reading ages. That is why the books that follow are a great mix of adventure, humour, SF, fantasy, family life, animal stories. Will the SF addict listen to Philippa Pearce’s The Battle of Bubble and Squeak? Will the child who likes family stories be bored with John Christopher’s novel-of-the-future The Guardians? It seems that shared experience of books that are exceptionally well written outweighs the natural preference of the individual listener, broadens his or her reading base and induces a not inconsiderable virtue – tolerance of other people’s obsessions. (I rather think that the same positive group experience would not come about if pulp literature, which has its own place in private reading, were to be read aloud to a class; I don’t know because to read aloud stilted dialogue and poor language would be a waste of the teacher’s dramatic talents and, more important, the children’s time – an experiment one could in no circumstances underwrite.)
On the whole, too, the best stories transcend classification. Does it matter whether Philippa Pearce’s The Battle of Bubble and Squeak is a family story or is it a story about animals? Bubble and Squeak are a couple of gerbils and it is their fate (they oh-so-nearly get thrown with the rubbish into the steel maws of the dustcart) that brings the lives of the family that owns them into open crisis – and towards a broad solution of its problems. As always with Philippa Pearce rose-coloured spectacles are firmly rejected: there are streaks of malevolence, evil she would call it, in most of us. Here it is the mother of the family who cannot stand those `smelly little rats’ – and who tries, yes tries, to get rid of them. But who would dispute that there are mothers in the world more neurotic, crueller, than Alice Sparrow? Children recognize this, listen with fascinated horror, enjoy discussing the relationships of Alice, her second husband, the kids and the gerbils – and are relieved when, by a subtle twist in the story, Alice feels needed by one of the gerbils who has been savaged by a cat, and begins to love it.
Real rats appear in Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH by Robert C. O’Brien – or are these fantasy rats? Real rats don’t succeed in running rings round the scientists who use them for laboratory experiments (so far as we know). But these rats not only defeat the scientists’ security systems; once free, they make last minute rescue plans to evacuate a female mouse and her ailing son to safety, for their home is threatened by the plough. Animal story, gripping adventure, family story, fantasy: it’s all of these.
Grinny by Nicholas Fisk had an uncanny impact (it’s an uncanny book, after all) not only on the top juniors who could not wait for the story to unfold, but farther afield too. It is SF of a kind – but because Grinny (a robot posing as a distant great aunt) gets right inside the everyday life of a here-and-now family when she comes to stay, the idea grips the imagination and spreads like wildfire. The school bookshop was besieged with requests for Grinny not only from the class to whom it was being read and the class below (understandably) – but also from kids who had gone on to the local comprehensive and came back on Bookshop day further to deplete my vanishing stock.
The only book that has rivalled Grinny as a seller is Mike Rosen’s Mind Your Own Business, those off-beat verses about `the shirt/that’s been covered in dirt/for years and years and years’, and the contemplation of `the hand/that touched the frost/that froze my tongue/and made it numb’. Once, on a school trip by Underground across London, astonished passengers were treated to a Rosen-in-unison programme. That was a peaceful journey thanks to a poet – no mucking about, no bullying.
Bullying goes on in every school, and most kids, like Mouse Fawley in Betsy Byars’s immortal The Eighteenth Emergency, are scared of one or two of the bigger ones. Mouse is a naturally cautious boy and has prepared himself, in his lively imagination and with the aid of his resourceful friend, for seventeen horrendous happenings (e.g. Emergency Sixteen: Sudden Appearance in Your Swimming Area of Sharks). It is, of course, the eighteenth, unexpected, emergency – a confrontation with the school bully – that happens. `If it was natural to start screaming, survival called for keeping perfectly quiet. If it was natural to run. the best thing to do was stand still. Whatever was hardest, that was what you had to do to survive.’ A richly humorous book on social survival, The Eighteenth Emergency has never been known to fail. Every listener is right in there with the unfortunate Mouse, rooting for him.
Survival in the physical sense, when the odds are heavily against you is quite another matter – not funny at all but absorbing in an altogether different way. Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins tells fictionally the true story of an American Indian girl, Karana, who was left entirely alone on an island off the coast of California when the rest of her tribe (in the mid-nineteenth century) was murdered or deported by white traders. With only a wild dog for company Karana wins through. But was it winning through to have to go amongst people again? Is the ending really a happy one? In the long canon of Crusades this, so far as I can recall, is the only one with a heroine.
If you don’t already know Gene Kemp’s The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler it will not be obvious to you why I have thought it should follow on here – and I’m not going to spoil a treat by telling you. But I will warn you that it has an astonishing twist in the tip of its tail that throws ten-year-olds of both sexes into clamorous uproar. One teacher I know failed to take the precaution of reading the book to himself before he read it aloud – so he was knocked off balance by the climax along with his pupils. So beware. Prepare yourself both for the issues it raises (about special education, about children who don’t understand teacherly language, about loyalty) and for chauvinistic reactions.
I would have thought Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia rather too personal a book to be shared by a whole class but this did not prove to be the case. The teacher who read it was herself carried away by the author’s skilful handling not only of the competitive animosity between a boy used to winning everything and a newcomer to the school, a girl, who challenges him – but of their developing friendship through the creation of a fantasy kingdom, Terabithia. This leads to the accidental death by drowning of the girl, and to the boy having to face up to living through the awfulness, both immediate and long-term. The class who listened to this story had, earlier in its history, had to cope with a classmate suffering from leukaemia and with her death, so the book, perhaps eighteen months later, proved cathartic. (Had it been read earlier as direct bibliotherapy I think it would have been disastrous – but, like reading indifferent fiction aloud, this was an experiment to be rejected.) When Falkner’s Moonfleet was subsequently read aloud, after a gap of perhaps two terms, the children were ecstatic – the excitement of a great adventure story carried by such noble language (read beautifully by the same gifted teacher) engulfed them. But when Elzevir died there were some in the class who thought this terrible (‘stories should have happy endings’), others remembered Bridge to Terabithia and wanted to talk about and compare the two sets of circumstances.
If Moonfleet and Bridge to Terabithia may be allowed to count as one, that leaves me two, more candidates for the top.
John Christopher’s The Guardians is an unnerving comparison of life inside the crowded, over-regulated Conurb of the future with life outside the barbed wire, in the deceptively peaceful County – where individualism is surgically `nipped out’. As 1984 approaches the issues raised in this novel need to be thought about.
And my tenth for the top: Nina Bawden’s Rebel on a Rock which invites the reader in with the best opening sentence of the decade: `When I was twelve years old I stopped a war.’ It is about a family (mother, stepfather, two children and adopted Alice and James who are black – ‘what a funny mixed lot,’ says Jo, the twelve-year-old who stopped the war). The background to this exciting story is Ithaca where Jo, adolescent, awkward, fiery, mercurial becomes involved far more deeply than she means to in the insurgents’ plans. Some holiday: but a fantastic read!
These books, read aloud at odd times throughout each day by teachers who relished them, offered a unique opportunity for bringing together in common pursuit of a story, ten-year-olds whose reading levels are as far apart as The Cat in the Hat is from Watership Down.
MEET ELAINE MOSS
Throughout the seventies Elaine Moss has provided an indispensable service to everyone concerned with children and books in her selection of Children’s Books of the Year for the National Book League. Each year she has chosen approximately 300 books for the exhibition and compiled a catalogue with comments and annotations which, while setting uncompromisingly high standards, has never lost sight of the fact that the books are for children.
She is a fierce (if that is a word one can use about someone as gentle and thoughtful as Elaine Moss) advocate of reading for pleasure, and a supporter of school bookshops which she sees as an important way to reach out and invite many more people into the world of books.
For the last four years she has been employed by the ILEA as a part-time librarian in Fleet Primary School (the only fully-qualified librarian working in a primary school) and this article is written as a result of her experience there.
In 1977 she won the Eleanor Farjeon Award and is much in demand to talk and write about children and books. This year she retires from CBY (after ten years she thinks it’s time for a new picker) but will be compiling the Good Book Guide’s new Young Readers Booklist.
See page 23 for details of Children’s Books of the Year 1979.
Details of books mentioned
The Battle of Bubble and Squeak
Philippa Pearce, Deutsch, 0 233 96986 1, £2.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.1183 1, 65p
John Christopher, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 01795 5, £3.50 Puffin, 0 14 03.0579 3, 75p
Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH
Robert C. O’Brien, Gollancz, 0 575 01552 7, £2.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.0725 7, 75p
Nicholas Fisk, Heinemann, 0 434 93 856 4, £2.10 Puffin, 0 14 03.0745 1, 50p
Mind Your Own Business
Michael Rosen, Deutsch, 0 233 96468 1, £2.75 Fontana Lions, 0 00 670959 1, 75p
The Eighteenth Emergency
Betsy Byars, Bodley Head, 0 370 10924 4, £2.75 Puffin, 0 14 03.0863 6, 65p
Island of the Blue Dolphins
Scott O’Dell, Kestrel, 0 7226 5248 8, £2.75
Puffin, 0 14 03.0268 9, 65p
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler
Gene Kemp, Faber, 0 571 10966 7, £3.95
Puffin, 0 14 03.1135 1, 65p
Bridge to Terabithia
Katherine Paterson, Gollancz, 0 575 02550 6,£3.75
Puffin (later this year), 0 14 03.1260 9
J. Meade Falkner, Edward Arnold, 0 7131 5132 3, £2.95
Puffin, 0 14 03.0168 2, 75p
Rebel on a Rock
Nina Bawden, Puffin, 0 14 03.1123 8, 75p
Gollancz, 0 575 02695 2,£3.95