Jane Gardiner on the impact of Harris and Me on Tim, a boy who didn’t like books…
My Year 10 GCSE class is an interesting and interested bunch to whom, in a rush of blood and enthusiasm during their very first lesson in September, I made a promise that they haven’t forgotten. ‘Do exactly what I say, when I say it and I promise that you will get a grade C’. Rash. But the statistics suggest that it’s possible and the effort that many have put in makes it probable. During our recent target review Tim reminded me of that promise. And pointed out he hadn’t got a C for his last piece of work. I left the girls who sit near him to take him through the usual questions that I ask at this point.
When I returned he was looking jubilant. ‘The good news, Mrs G, is that I’ve met every homework deadline and made far fewer silly errors this term.’ He paused for me to be pleased which I was, but then his head went down as he burst out, ‘But I’m still not reading, not books. I read the sports in the paper and even some of the news but not books.’ I love the way that books always equal fiction for teenage boys. ‘I don’t like books. I go to the library and I don’t know what I want so I don’t bother to take anything out.’ So much for the books I’d been recommending on an almost weekly basis.
Later, when the rest had gone, we visited the school library discussing our favourite television en route. Tim, it appeared, liked comedy and action. He clearly needed Harris and Me – a story so hilarious that my husband actually fell off the sofa laughing whilst reading it – but would it be there? It was and Tim was able to borrow it in spite of having forgotten his library card again. Harris and Me hasn’t got a very enticing cover, the new cover is actually worse than the old one, and I don’t think that it starts in a really promising way unlike lots of Paulsen’s others. Hatchet, for example has farting, flying and a fatal heart attack in its first five pages. Harris and Me is bleaker, darker but that highlights the hilarity of Ernie, the Tarzan swing episode, the motorised bicycle, and as for the electric fence… you’ll have to read it for yourself. Tim did. He read the entire novel in a week and came back for more. I could have suggested more Paulsen, Hatchet, and its sequels, Winter and The Return but I didn’t because I think Tim values comedy over action. He’s busy with Philip Ridley at present, Scribbleboy, loving its blend of cartoon and reality, comic and serious. He might even read something the girls recommend after that. Who knows? It doesn’t matter. He’s acting like a reader, asking his friends what to read and telling everyone who’ll listen, and quite a few who won’t, about Harris and Me.
Librarian Alison Forrest on a book that’s anything but flat…
The joy for me as a librarian working during the school summer holidays, is talking to children about books. Spending all day as immersed as your customers is truly exciting and hardly feels like work at all. The toughest challenge comes however when you meet a reluctant reader – someone hanging around in the library because it’s ‘somewhere to go’. So this summer when Manpreet said to me: ‘Find me a GOOD book’, I began to earn my salary!
Manpreet, not being a regular reader, hadn’t joined my Reading Club, where members swapped fun reads and reviewed books naturally. He also shared the problem of all ‘reluctant readers’ of having no background in reading – no database of successful reading experiences to inform a new choice, or indeed give confidence that he could read a whole book at all. When I asked, ‘What sort of books do you like reading?’ I was greeted with a depressing, ‘Dunno’, giving few clues as to what to recommend.
Discovering he liked The Simpsons on television, I pointed him in the direction of ‘Pics and Puzzles’, a fun leisure mix of graphic novels, picture books and jokebooks, much frequented by the boys we are desperately trying to attract. Triumphant at finding a Simpsons comic on the shelf, I was downcast by his response: ‘It’s too easy!’ He wanted a ‘real book’. This, I learnt later, was partly to please his father and partly the school – but also to challenge himself, the excitement of seeing if he really could manage a whole book of impenetrable text.
Funny books are often a good hook, so when I found Manpreet enjoyed humour, I thought Anthony Horowitz’s ‘Groosham Grange’ books could just be the answer. ‘Well, I like these,’ I tried, but he took one look at the volume of text and said, ‘That’s too hard! I mean a GOOD book.’ I was starting to worry.
I was beginning to build up a picture of Manpreet – in Year 5 at school, bored with the long summer, and pushed by parents and school, searching for something he felt might not even exist – a REALLY good book. All the books he had tried at school had been tarred with the academic – something you read for homework, to please someone else, but definitely not for fun. Some of the few books he could remember trying to read were the worst of the mechanical reading scheme titles, and his face told how engrossing they had been.
So I needed something funny of a reasonable length (not too daunting, but still a ‘real’ book) with a good cover and a gripping story – and I needed it now! And then I saw it – Flat Stanley leapt out at me from our pejoratively named ‘Easy Reader’ section. Swiftly hiding the Easy Reader sign, I handed Manpreet the book, to a rather lukewarm reception! As I began to explain Stanley’s predicament, to all purposes a waiter tempting with the dish of the day, a smile spread over Manpreet’s face and I knew I had made a sale. He pointed me to the cover and logically said, ‘He couldn’t do that himself’ as Stanley sealed himself into the envelope. ‘My Uncle lives in America,’ he added – so Stanley had enough realism for him to identify with, whilst still being ridiculous enough to amuse him. For those of you who don’t know this fabulous first reader, it concerns Stanley Lambchop, only half an inch thick after a notice board topples on to him in the night! This situation allows him to save the day in many adventures which form a sparklingly fresh 60 pages, despite being first published in 1968.
I was very happy when later that week Manpreet came back with his father in tow and told me how ‘great’ Flat Stanley is. He told me it was by far the longest book he had ever attempted, but as we all know, children will try for books they really want to read. I am convinced Manpreet will be next to plead for Harry Potter – and really read it!
That day in July, by luck as much as judgement, we helped transform Manpreet from a reluctant to enthusiastic reader. His difficulty had been a mixture of unwillingness and lack of technical ability – and the combination needed equal consideration. Obviously too, there is no standard rule for ‘cracking’ reluctant readers – joke books will work for some, Sci-Fi books for others. Manpreet will still need encouragement and guidance as he builds up his reading ‘portfolio’, but that is what I hope we will be there for in the coming months. Librarians are not just for the holidays!
Harris and Me by Gary Paulsen is published by Macmillan, 0 330 33695 9. £3.99 pbk.
Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown with illustrations by Tomi Ungerer is published by Mammoth, 0 7497 0137 4, £3.99 pbk.
Jane Gardiner is acting Head of English at Bottisham Village College, Cambridgeshire.
Alison Forrest is Team Leader, Children’s, at Hounslow Library Services.
Readers who would like to contribute to this ‘Reluctant Reader’ series are invited to submit an account of their experience (500 words) to the Editor. Please mark your submission ‘Reluctant Readers’.