Sally Abbott is a character in John Gardner’s novel, October Light. At one point in the book she is sitting in a room in the house reading. At first she reads without commitment, but, imperceptibly, she is drawn into the story and then:
`the real world lost weight and the print on the pages gave way to images, an alternative reality more charged than mere life, more ghostly yet nearer, suffused with a curious importance and manageability …
By degrees, without knowing she was doing it, she gave in to the illusion, the comforting security of her vantage point, until whenever she looked up from her page to rest her eyes, it seemed that the door, the walls, the dresser, the heavy onyx clock had no more substance than a plate-glass reflection; what was real and enduring was the adventure flickering on the wall of her brain, a phantom world filled with its own queer laws and character.’
Gardner is describing here the sort of reading which occurs when the story is good enough to engage the imagination of the reader. Clearly what is happening to Sally is powerful, absorbing, influential, creative. It is the kind of reading which, once experienced, sets a standard for all other types of reading.
Dictionaries tell us that the word imagination comes from the Latin, imaginare: to form an image of; to fashion; to represent. Psychologists and philosophers appear to be both puzzled and entranced by the notion of imaginative activity. They suggest that we acquire knowledge of the external world by a kind of snapshot process which involves the production and assembly of brief images. They indicate that we achieve an orientation in space through the working of the imagination, and that we establish for ourselves sets of personal symbols by the same means. We have to turn to a poet, Ted Hughes, to get a direct and more certain view about the imagination and how it functions:
`The word “imagination” denotes not much more than the faculty of creating a picture of something in our heads and holding it there while we think about it. Since this is the basis of nearly everything we do, clearly it’s very important that our imagination should be strong rather than weak. Education neglects this faculty completely.’
Mary Warnock believes that the images we form are also ways of thinking about the world in which we live. It is plausible, and convenient, she says:
`to give the name imagination to what allows us to go beyond the barely sensory into the intellectual or thought-imbued territory of perception.’
Evidence of the influence of stories on the imagination in early childhood, is not easy to find. It is harder still to define the nature of the interaction when an adult reads aloud to a young child. Consider what is happening to young listeners as they encounter, for the first time, Antonia Barber’s story, The Mousehole Cat, and reach the part of the tale where Old Tom, the fisherman, and his cat Mowzer put out in their small boat to face a terrible winter gale, lashed up by the Great Storm-Cat:
`All day they fished in a seething sea. The waves were so high and the clouds so low that they soon lost sight of the shore.
And all the time the Great Storm-Cat played with the little boat, striking it and then loosing it, but never quite sinking it. And whenever his claws grew too sharp, Mowzer would sing to him to soften the edge of his anger.
As evening came down they hauled in the nets. Into the belly of the boat tumbled ling and launces, scad, hake and fairmaids; enough fish for a whole cauldron of morgy-broth; enough pilchards for half a hundred star-gazy pies.
“Mowzer, my handsome, we are all saved,” said Old Tom, “if we can but bring this haul home to harbour: “
But Mowzer knew that the Great Storm-Cat would strike when he saw them run for the shelter of Mousehole.
She knew that the game serves only to sharpen the appetite for the feast to follow. It is his meal or mine, thought Mowzer, as she looked at the floundering fish in the belly of the boat. Blue, green and silver, they glistened in the greyness.
It made her mouth water to look at them.
As she thought of the morgy-broth murmuring on top of the range, the star-gazy pie growing golden in the oven, Mowzer began to purr.’
When we read a good story the experience is powerfully creative. The reader or listener is called on to process the text as it unfolds, not only to make sense of the chunks of language as they are read, or heard, but also to place the story, and all it consists of, on his/her personal map of experience. In the case of The Mousehole Cat much of what is encountered – the setting, the linguistic constructions, the literary conventions, the imagery, the vocabulary – will be new to the listener and will mean that the map has to be extended or re-drawn. One commentator, Michael Benton, has investigated the way in which the operations of the imagination come about:
`If the reading experience is an amalgam of individual associations and memories mingling with more precisely traceable reactions provoked by the text, how does the infinite variety of this world manifest itself? The commonest answer, but not the only one, is by way of mental imagery – pictures which form in the reader’s head.’
What are these pictures that crowd into the mind’s eye, and of what use are they to us in our daily lives? Are they passive, evanescent phenomena or something much more crucial to our status as human beings? Dr David Weeks, neuro-psychologist at the Royal Hospital in Edinburgh, believes that visual imagery is absolutely essential to the creative process, and that each image is capable of working on other abstract ideas to form new concepts. If David Weeks is right, then what he describes is the mainspring of all human capacities – the ability to think, consider and re-shape ideas; the power to build up those notions and categories we call concepts; the talent, in fact, to handle symbols. How well Alan Garner fuels such activities in his marvellously crafted The Stone Book Quartet. Here is Mary climbing the spire of the village church:
`Mary hitched her frock and put the knot of the baggin cloth between her teeth and climbed the first ladder.
The ladders were spiked and roped, but the beginning of the steeple was square, a straight drop, and the ladders clattered on the side. She didn’t like that.
“Keep fast hold of that tea!” she heard Father call, but she didn’t lift her head, and she didn’t look down.
Up she went. It felt worse than a rock because it was so straight and it had been made. Father had made parts of it. She knew the pattern of his combing hammer on the sandstone.
Up she went.
“Watch when you change to the spire!” Father’s voice sounded nearer.
At the spire, the pitch of the ladders was against the stone, and Mary had to step sideways to change. The ladders were firmer, but she began to feel a breeze. She heard an engine get up steam on the railway. The baggin cloth kept her mouth wet, but it felt dry.
The spire narrowed. There were sides to it. She saw the shallow corners begin. Up and up. Tac, tac, tac, tac, above her head. The spire narrowed. Now she couldn’t stop the blue sky from showing at the sides. Then land. Far away.
Mary felt her hands close on the rungs, and her wrists go stiff.
Tac, tac, tac, tac. She climbed to the hammer. The spire was thin. Father was not working, but giving her a rhythm. They sky was now inside the ladder. The ladder was broader than the spire.
Father’s hand took the baggin cloth out of Mary’s mouth, and his other hand steadied her as she came up through the platform.
The platform was made of good planks, and Father had lashed them, but it moved. Mary didn’t like the gaps between. She put her arms around the spire.
“That was a bonny climb,” said Father.
“I do hope the next baby’s a lad, ” said Mary.’
What happened to you as a reader, when you went with Mary up the ladders to the platform at the top of the spire? What kind of pictures did you make inside your head? What sort of experiences, attitudes, emotions did the reading nudge into life? And where were you as you allowed the power of the tale to exercise its magic? You entered, I believe, like Sally Abbott, the phantom world of story, and what was real and believable for those few minutes was `the adventure flickering on the wall of the brain’.
Being a committed reader of this kind is not just a matter of our willingness to enter this secondary world: the quality of the story on offer always affects the nature of our involvement. There is no greater barrier to entry than non-stories. Certainly the basic readers of reading schemes, with their jerky rhythms and emotionally threadbare situations, are unlikely to provide much of a draw. A good story enables the reader to enter the secondary world, and anyone who has shared a real story with young children knows with what ease and delight they do this, and how eager they are to collaborate in the experience.
So what sort of stance are we to take on the question of choice? When it comes to selecting stories for children, is our commitment to those books which will nourish and sustain the imagination? It seems reasonable to me that this is the fundamental issue which any debate on reading must address. What kind of books? What kind of reading? What kind of readers are we promoting when we teach children to read?
That doesn’t mean that reading has to be dull or limited. Michael Rosen is a brilliantly funny writer whose work rarely fails to trigger imaginative responses. His Bathtime’ is a wonderful, comic tale, evoking that sense of childhood which all good teachers retain:
`I step over and in – how’s that? Owah!
as hot as feet can bear.
I kneel down
as hot as knees can bear. Oh!
Down a bit, down a bit
as hot as bottom can bear. Oooph!
Sit for one moment in the water world
with my last dry thing still on –
then, vest off, over the edge, out of sight
and I slide the rest of me into the water.’
This owes its success to its familiarity as well as its humour. We share the experiences with the child in the bath, having played all of those games ourselves, and we re-assert our sense of what it is to be human as we encounter them again. Children need opportunities to do that – to know that they think and behave like other people; to see that their pleasures and problems are shared by the larger communities outside of home. They encounter in stories, too, experiences and attitudes which are new to them, some of which may, indeed, allow them to look for better things from life than those they have met so far.
One of the main differences between listening to a story being read by someone else, and reading it for oneself, is the flexibility which silent reading allows. We can pause whenever we feel like it, turning back the pages to check on some detail which caught our attention earlier, or we can reflect on what has happened and consider what might occur next. Sometimes these strategies are deliberate: sometimes they occur sub-consciously as we move through the text. As soon as children become independent readers they operate on stories in this way, and stories, in turn, operate on them. The urge to find out what is going to happen next, generates a nervy flow in the busy traffic of the imagination, enabling us to hold the story separate from all the other stories we know.
Ask yourself, as you read one of the best opening passages in children’s literature – Leon Garfield’s Fair’s Fair – how the story works on you, and you on it. How do you place it in time? What experiences do you bring to the events of the tale? What is it about the language the author uses which drives the reader forward? Why are we so keen to find out what happens next?
`Jackson was thin, small and ugly, and stank like a drain. He got his living by running errands, holding horses, and doing a bit of scrubbing on the side. And when he had nothing better to do he always sat on the same doorstep at the back of Paddy ‘s Goose, which was at the worst end of the worst street in the worst part of the town. He was called Jackson, because his father might have been a sailor, Jack being a fond name for a sailor in the streets round Paddy’s Goose; but nobody knew for sure. He had no mother, either, so there was no one who would have missed him if he’d fallen down a hole in the road. And nobody did miss him when he vanished one day and was never seen or heard of again …’
By inclination I am a list-maker. I’m not sure how useful summaries are to anyone other than the maker, but a review of the key features of reading and the imagination seems to be worth stating:
- imaginative activity involves holding and inspecting pictures inside the head;
- this is the basis of everything we do;
- the images we shape can be re-called and re-organised;
- the activity is symbolic and thought-imbued;
- visual images are much more important than other forms;
- good stories create pictures on which the imagination can operate;
- children are better at ‘picturing’ than adults;
- all children have the ability to receive and process stories;
- conceptual learning arises when images, and the ideas they sponsor, work on each other;
- skilful story-makers create secondary worlds;
- children enter these worlds easily and naturally;
- inside this world we encounter familiar and new experiences;
- as we read we check, reflect, picture, compare, consider, confirm, speculate, anticipate and extend our understanding;
- children need to encounter stories which extend, challenge, puzzle and engage their attention;
- good stories deal with the fundamental categories of human experience.
In 1987 Brunto Bettelheim made some profound comments about reading – so wise are they that those influential, strident and ill-informed people who sound off about the teaching of reading, should be made to acquire them by heart:
`The time is long-gone when learning to read was directly related to learning about the supernatural and magic, about the dangers of sin and the hope of salvation. That is why many children, although they have the requisite intelligence for learning to read, fail to do so. Even if they do learn, reading remains emotionally empty and unappealing to them. For them reading is not supported by its power to stimulate and satisfy their imaginations, in respect to what, to them, are pressing and urgent issues; nor has it created a strong appeal through its magical meaning. If it has not become attractive during the child’s formative years, it may never seem attractive, even when its practical value is recognised.’
I suspect that we would all agree on which are the formative years in a child’s development – those years before, and immediately on entry to school. If the child is fortunate he/ she will have parents who know about stories and their importance, and will then go to a school where reading appeals through its magical meaning: if not, if the parents don’t bother with stories, and the school puts its efforts into those anaemic formulations which masquerade as stories, society will continue to deplore the decline in standards. More importantly, the failure to link reading and the imagination will be ours.
Jack Ousbey has taught in primary and secondary schools, was a Senior Lecturer in a college of education and a Senior Inspector with the Nottinghamshire Education Authority.
He will be contributing a fuller account of ‘Reading and the Imagination’ to a publication on the teaching of reading planned by Routledge for 1992.
Benton, M. Secondary Worlds, Journal of Research and Development in Education, Vol. 16, No. 3, 1983.
Bettelheim, B. A Good Enough Parent, London: Thames & Hudson, 1987.
Egan, K. Primary Understanding, London: Routledge, 1988.
Gardner, J. October Light, London: Cape, 1977.
Hughes, T. Myth and Education, in Fox et al, Writers, Critics and Children, New York and London: Agathon and Heinemann, 1976.
Warnock, M. Imagination, London: Faber, 1976.
Children’s books quoted:
The Mousehole Cat, Antonia Barber, ill. Nicola Bayley, Walker, 0 7445 0703 0, £9.99
The Stone Book Quartet, Alan Garner, is being re-issued by Collins in April 1992.
Quick, Let’s Get Out of Here, Michael Rosen, ill. Quentin Blake, Deutsch, 0 233 97559 4, £6.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.1784 8, £2.50 pbk
Fair’s Fair, Leon Garfield, ill. Brian Hoskin, Simon & Schuster, 0 7500 0333 2, £6.99; 0 7500 0334 0, £2.99 pbk