Once upon a time reading schemes (such as The Beacon Readers, Janet and John, Ladybird Key Words et al) with their simple vocabularies, formulaic sentences (‘This is Janet. Here is John.’) and stereotyped patterns of behaviour launched the reading careers of the nation. But if an emerging reader is to become a lover of literature or even to move from functional literacy to something more sophisticated, some more valuable and nourishing input is needed. Can series fiction provide it? Julia Eccleshare explores.
Remarkably few novels written for younger readers in the first half of the last century endured the test of time. Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories address a young audience – but more as listeners than readers: ‘Once upon a time, on an uninhabited island on the shores of the Red Sea, there lived a Parsee from whose hat the rays of the sun were reflected in more-than-oriental splendour.’ The opening of ‘How the Rhinoceros Got His Skin’ does not trip easily off the tongue of those brought up on ‘See the dog run’ or the simple exchanges between Biff and Chips. Similarly, A A Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, though unquestionably aimed at young readers, are written in such an arch style that they have always seemed more suitable for reading aloud than reading alone.
Making readers: Blyton and Dahl
It wasn’t until Enid Blyton, who cared not at all what adults thought of her writing so long as the children she wrote for liked what she did, that, apparently universally, the imagination of emerging readers was appealed to at a level of reading skill that they could readily manage. Despite almost half a century of censure for her lack of literary credentials, her stereotypical characters and her underlying racist attitudes, novels such as Adventures of the Wishing-Chair and the redoubtable Famous Five have led her, amongst all authors, to be the writer most often credited by the 40+ generation for turning them into readers.
A generation later, Roald Dahl had exactly the same effect. In quite a different way, Dahl has the same ability to appeal directly to his readers, avoiding adult intervention entirely. Like Blyton, he is at times racist and sexist and, though he did care about what adult critics thought of his books, he cared more about the children he was writing for. In content and style his books collude with his young readers, often at the expense of adults. Drawn in by dramatic openings such as the sudden and tragic death of James’s parents who are eaten by ‘an enormous angry rhinoceros’ – and in broad daylight, too – in James and the Giant Peach, young readers are hooked, reading through Dahl apparently almost by osmosis. And Dahl delivers. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Magic Finger, Fantastic Mr Fox and the rest all have genuine stories.
And there are others: individual titles whose quality has had the ability to change children into readers. Ursula Moray Williams’s Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse and Gobbolina the Witch’s Cat, Catherine Storr’s Clever Polly and the Stupid Wolf and later Jeff Brown’s Flat Stanley and Florence Parry Heide’s The Shrinking of Treehorn are just some of the high points. These are books of real emotion embracing the full range of humour, pathos and adventure. Books that show the complexity of reading but within the possibilities of the unskilled reader.
But that was before the need to make sure that all children can and do become readers quite properly became a central plank in education. And before publishing, again for quite proper reasons, became inextricably tied up with education as the library and home markets dwindled.
Of course, publishers recognised the need for novels for younger readers nearly half a century ago in the buoyant, child-centred years of the 1960s and early 1970s. ‘Reindeers’, ‘Antelopes’, ‘Gazelles’, ‘Acorns’ – series proliferated, a way of helping both children and teachers to find a book at the right level and so to enable children to progress smoothly. These new series not only gave a focus to books for the younger reader but attracted some excellent writing. New authors were launched alongside some of the best known names who then, as now, liked to write short as well as long. Commercially, series made sense too. These small books needed the shelter of a series to be affordable to produce and to find shelf room.
Disappointing black and white
But the breakthrough in young fiction which gave it the appearance it has today came with the recognition that these short novels (with the all important chapters that young readers aspire to) should, as near as possible, flow seamlessly from the learning to read experience. For those lucky enough to have found their first reading experiences in such picture books as John Burningham’s Mr Gumpy’s Outing or Pat Hutchins’s Rosie’s Walk, small format young fiction novels with their clear print and black and white illustrations were bound to disappoint. Heinemann’s ‘Banana Books’ were the first to introduce colour: it was a critical change that made the young novel both look like a ‘proper’ book while also having the appeal of the picture book territory from where the reader had come.
From then on, there was no going back to black and white illustrations and no going back on the importance of young fiction. But, young fiction soon slipped away from both the wonderful picture books it came from and the high quality longer novels it was moving readers onto. As long ago as 1982 Margaret Meek predicted the current situation in Learning to Read (Bodley Head, 1982) when she wrote, ‘Literacy is the world’s yardstick for children’s learning … What was once a shared pleasure at home, is now an individual accomplishment within a public setting, with degrees of success measured by books of progressive difficulty and teacher’s praise and standardized tests.’ And she couldn’t even have dreamt of Key Stages.
The current need for schools to produce measurable results in reading has made both teachers and parents hungrier than ever for books to help with first steps in independent reading. And publishers have responded – there are ‘Colour Young Hippos’, ‘Flying Foxes’, ‘I am Reading’, ‘Ready, Steady, Read!’, ‘Colour Young Puffins’ and then, the a little more difficult ‘Roaring Good Reads’, ‘Sprinters’, ‘Young Corgis’, ‘Young Puffins’ and so many more – attractively presented for a visually literate readership. Much attention has been lavished on how the books look with a layout, including careful use of sympathetic typefaces, designed to make reading seem as approachable as possible. The step to becoming a real reader has been divided into carefully calibrated stages: from Puffin alone there are three kinds of bridging books – including the exemplary ‘Happy Families’ series which shows that Allan Ahlberg is a genius of the genre – even before ‘Young Puffins’ which, designated for Developing Readers, are classified as ‘Ideal for building reading confidence’. It’s all a process to ‘make’ readers through apparently measurable outcomes.
Disappointing titles and patchy series
So, the science behind this crucial young reading stage is good but that’s not really how readers are made. It’s the quality of the storytelling and the power of the writing that will make the difference. These are often lost in the need for a certain word count or level of difficulty ‘as checked by a reading consultant’ which many such books are. When it comes to the content there are no clear rules: all the laborious effort that goes into getting to Key Stage One, level 3 or, in common parlance which is rarely spoken any more, being an enthusiastic and competent reader, can be lost in a few short pages as indifferent stories dull the senses and turn reading from being a pleasure into a chore.
Series fiction of any kind is bound to be patchy. And there’s no short cut to knowing which will be good since even successful authors can turn in indifferent short novels. General complaints are that too many titles patronise the readers, assuming they want to concentrate on the trivia of their own lives. Too many are set in the classroom. Too many are noisy stories which can only be conveyed with frequent exclamation marks. Tiring to read and to engage with. Strange really when picture books manage very quietly to tackle such major themes as mortality (Posy Simmons’s Fred, John Burningham’s Granpa, Jeanne Willis/Susan Varley’s Badger’s Parting Gift), anger of different kinds (Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Tony Ross’s I Want My Potty), sibling rivalry and many other central issues in children’s lives.
With the emphasis on the suitability of the story, another problem creeps in about lack of interest in language. Children who have learnt to read and have marvellous lines of poetry resonating in their heads (eg Quentin Blake’s Mister Magnolia: ‘Mr Magnolia has only one boot. / He has an old trumpet that goes rooty-toot’) may find themselves bogged down in pedestrian sentence work which has stuck to a language framework.
Not all bad news
But not all is bad news for young fiction. Some strong voices have grown and developed and continue to provide good stories in which something tangible happens. Certainly Ann Cameron’s Julian Stories (Young Corgi), Terence Blacker’s Ms Wiz (Macmillan), Humphrey Carpenter’s Mr Majeika (Young Puffins) and most recently Ian Whybrow’s Little Wolf’s Book of Badness and its sequels (Collins) all seem to go from strength to strength.
And even within the series there are some strong editorial leads. ‘Young Corgis’ are remarkably consistent: it’s rare to read one which leaves you with the disappointing feeling of ‘so what?’ ‘Sprinters’, too, have real story qualities. Collins new ‘Roaring Good Reads’ have started with some strong titles including Jenny Nimmo’s The Witch’s Tears and Jean Ure’s Daisy May. For an earlier stage – more pictures, and in colour – two more newcomers, ‘Colour Young Hippos’ and ‘Flying Foxes’ are attractive to look at and include some amusing stories such as Susan Kelly and Lizzie Finlay’s A Tale of Two Wolves.
Financially unrewarding, unglamorous for prizes or even reviews, young fiction is easily overlooked. And yet, if it connects, it provides the moment – often only a brief moment – in which a reader is made. Young fiction is a reading snack and like a snack it may be quickly forgotten but if it’s quality it can prove to be a lifesaver.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s book editor of The Guardian.