Pat Thomson explains the thinking behind a new series of books which she has devised and written with the needs of ‘new’ readers in mind.
‘I awoke with a start. There was a strange droning in my ears and a heaviness oppressed my spirits.’ No,not an Edgar Allan Poe situation, just me listening to my son reading Book 2b, sent home for me to ‘hear’. The idea for the Share-A-Story series came from remembering those sessions, both of us stiff with boredom, and from my subsequent professional experience spent persuading colleagues and students of the value of real books.
I have always been a book person, feeling that books have more to offer children than a means to recognise print. One of my children learned to read easily and quickly and we were soon sharing books which delighted us both. The other was different.Through him I came to appreciate the difficulties which some children experience. For him, it was hard work and he needed all the support he could get. Because he did not read quickly, he was never lifted and motivated by the story. Because he found texts difficult, he was given simplified material which would have bored a day-old chick. I realised that, just as in the case of swimming or cycling, he needed to practise. Like many other parents, I sat beside him, jollying him along, saying, ‘You read that bit, then I’ll read the next page,’ and that of course is how the Share-A-Story series began.
I was driving home from a talk by Shirley Hughes who had been talking about the way illustration could be used to support new readers. With me was the illustrator Jan Ormerod and I was insisting that what we really needed were books which offered beginners a fair chance of success but which also provided a method of including a more exciting story line and vocabulary. ‘Why don’t you write some?’ she said. It seemed the only sensible answer. The solution, I found, was to share the task of reading between the child and the adult. The adult would read the left-hand page and thus make it possible for new ideas, new vocabulary and helpful clues to be introduced. The child would read the more carefully monitored right-hand page. Later, of course, there would be the possibility of reading the whole book alone or of sharing it with a friend. I must admit it was also in the back of my mind that if the parent was given a very specific role to play it might stop them getting too bossy.
I was tremendously lucky that Gollancz took up the idea in exactly the right spirit. Chris Kloet, the children’s editor, understood perfectly and said that each book must be a normal picture book in its own right and she would find the best illustrators to work on them. In The Treasure Sock, Tony Ross created a splendidly revolting little girl, just the sort who collects things and then conveniently puts them in her sock to carry them home. The cumulative aspect permits repetition without reducing the text to a banal staccato. A way of making repetition amusing emerges when Grandad pretends to be a little hard of hearing. In Can You Hear Me, Grandad? Jez Alborough’s lively Grandad mishears the vital words, so the child has to repeat them. Bob Wilson has made an hilarious domestic drama out of One of Those Days with several sub-plots operating in the pictures. When the books were tried out with infants, this one turned into a kind of trio. The teacher and Claire read the main text and an interested bystander, Philip aged 6, felt moved to fill in with the words in the ‘thinks bubbles’. It comes over clearly on the tape how Claire becomes infected with the fun and her voice warms and quickens, until the tape ends in a callous shriek of laughter as they realise what is going to happen to poor old Dad! There are three more books to come, and as they are being illustrated by Faith Jaques, Mary Rayner and Satoshi Kitamura, they will almost be a showcase of modern children’s book illustration. Certainly, nothing could be further from those flat, bloodless illustrations in my son’s readers.
I am sure that four things are necessary in books like these. Firstly, there must be some kind of motivation on every page. For me, it is humour and I have been very lucky that the illustrators have each in their own way added to the fun. Secondly, there should be a short amount of text on each page. Within that short text, rhythm, structure, repetition and cumulation can be deployed to support the new reader. Thirdly, the reader must have a good chance of success. With these books, one page can be simplified without sacrificing ideas and vocabulary. The adult’s page can carry the story. Lastly, there must be encouragement and approval and that is where the adults play their part. Their participation will indicate approval and support. Here is a chance for adults and children to read together. The parent is not testing the child, they are sharing a story.
The Treasure Sock, pictures by Tony Ross, 0 575 03816 0
Can You Hear Me, Grandad? pictures by Jez Alborough, 0 575 03886 1
One of Those Days, pictures by Bob Wilson, 0 575 03817 9
Gollancz, £2.95 each