The first ‘Hal’s Reading Diary’ was published in March 2002 when Hal was a one-year-old. As his father, Roger Mills, commented at the time, these early nonverbal responses to books had to be observed and deduced and, as an additional complication, not confused with Roger’s own feelings about the importance of books and reading. The Diary now ends with the 12-year-old Hal very able to express his views and preferences, and they are quite often for computer games rather than for books.
Over the last eleven years the Diary has been popular with BfK readers and, while there have been other accounts (usually by librarians who are parents) of a child’s response to books, ‘Hal’s Reading Diary’ has been unusual in also affording psychoanalytic insights, written as it is by a father who is a psychodynamic counsellor. The honesty and humour of Roger’s accounts, his record of what actually happened rather than presenting an idealized picture has created a unique account of a child’s relationship to books and reading.
Many parents will have had the experience of relatives coming to visit and making amazed comments on how our children have grown. We, living with our children every day, usually don’t notice the growing process which happens in such minute increments.
The same is often true of a child’s progress in reading. Live with it day in and day out and you don’t usually notice unless your child is one of those that experiences a quantum leap in their reading ability. Or unless there is a good reason to observe the minutiae of change. Writing ‘Hal’s Reading Diary’ has given me precisely the motive to observe those tiny shifts in his reading in a way which I am certain wouldn’t have happened otherwise. And it seems appropriate in this, the final entry of the series, to reflect back on what has happened over the last 11 years.
The earliest diary that comes readily to mind was one about picture books and how the one-year-old Hal was picking out shapes and distinguishing them from the backgrounds. A bit later I was writing about how he was beginning to see objects in families – cars, houses, dogs etc. which happened at the same time as attaching words to these objects. Little and rather normal steps of course, but actually massively important in a child’s intellectual development.
All that was before we got on to letters and words. I remember thinking a lot about how phonetics work…piecing together words from sounds in a way which makes the visual object – a collection of letters on a page – suddenly become a sound object too. That’s an incredible leap for a young mind to make and a doorway into a whole different way of understanding things as well: visual marks correspond both to a sound and to a concept. So normal and yet so amazing. And then there were the trials and tribulations of English itself where phonetics only gets you part of the way. Our wonderful, infuriating language where spelling is so irregular that the letters ‘ough’ can sound four different ways according to the word that they are in (try cough, through, bough and although). This nightmare for young readers means that a vital bit of reading is learning words by rote…you can’t get it just by sounding the letters phonetically.
Hal’s bit by bit mastering of these technicalities of reading took up many diaries. But many were also devoted to what we were reading. The recurrent, but hugely powerful, mechanics of storytelling. Early on we started to notice how the tension between forces of ‘good’ which the writing steered you to sympathise with, and ‘bad’, make the bedrock of so much fiction, tension invariably being ratcheted up as a tale drew to a close and bad looked like prevailing until all came well against the odds in the end. The way in which Hal made often quite emotional connections with characters made me see both that we need stories because we like our emotions to be stirred in this way, and also what an immensely powerful moral agent writing is. Writing forms a basic part of our sense of right and wrong and becomes a crucial guide to how we live (which in turn makes you think about what happens in the minds of people who are not exposed much to stories with a moral underpinning).
I could, of course go on. Over 11 years there have been over 60 diaries. It has been a fascinating journey and one which has made me look not just at Hal’s relationship with books but also at my own little struggles with parenting along the way (whether you should impose your belief in the fundamental value of reading on your child who much prefers computer games being one recurrent dilemma). And I hope that I don’t stop watching Hal’s relationship with reading just because I am no longer chronicling it in this Diary. I don’t think I will. The watching has become quite habitual. And it has been a marvellous habit to acquire for which I am extremely grateful to BfK.