Some things stay the same because they’re rooted in the deepest fabric of our human being. One of those constancies is the need for story, story told and, more recently, for story read.
Barbara Hardy wrote:
`We dream in narrative, remember, anticipate, hope, despair, believe, doubt, plan, revise, criticise, construct, gossip, learn, hate and love by narrative.’
The printed word (‘writing to keep it to remember’, as a child once called it) has meant that we can draw our stories, daily, freshly from further and further afield. The printed word and our growing capacity to read it have together given us the chance to shake off what R K Narayan in ‘A Tiger for Malgudi’ describes as ‘fetters and shackles for the rising soul, minds over-burdened with knowledge, facts or information’.
At the same time, however, it has to be understood that the reading of story is not mere escape. The reading of story is part of the effort to understand more clearly what is simply ‘known’. Story is part of the vast evidence about life and those who live it. Story is the agent of Rudyard Kipling’s ‘six honest serving men’ in ‘The Elephant’s Child’:
‘They taught me all I knew
Their names are What and Why and When
And How and Where and Who.’
Since story is a fundamental question-raiser, I would argue that those who don’t read stories, those who neglect the importance of story-reading are dangerous to us all. Our children and the adults they become need to be able constantly to ask the right questions about life and its living. They need the best language in which to frame those questions and in which to understand the answers.
It’s for these reasons that all our children need to be surrounded by rich print worlds – which places special obligations, of course, upon school and public libraries. They share a particular responsibility to demonstrate, through their book provision, that the adult world deeply cherishes its children. That essential demonstration pays dividends, I believe, in helping the growing of children into adults who, touched from their earliest years by the sad and joyful magic of books, have been given the chance to be creative, imaginative beings, more fully conscious of, and more sensitive to, the needs of the many living worlds about them. I know that being a reader doesn’t guarantee that we know ourselves or that we’re more sensitive to those who share our space. Nonetheless, I can’t escape the faith that our sustained contact with the efforts of good writers to grapple with life’s eternal questions at least gives us the chance to be a little better. It gives us less excuse for not being so.
For the children we teach and provide for in our libraries, depend on our having in mind for them some noble adult reading destinations. What kind of readers do we want our present children to be when they are forty or fifty or sixty or more years old? What aim should we have, at the outset, for them all?
I’m not thinking here of reading benchmarks for eleven-year-olds. Indeed, I’m convinced there are deep dangers in meeting some books too soon, emotionally unprepared for and switched off, perhaps for ever, by a particular book’s adult concerns. For instance, I’m eternally glad that I met Huckleberry Finn first in my twenties rather than at twelve. By the same token I’m ever guiltily sad at my grammar school teaching struggles to teach Silas Marner to twelve-year-old boys and girls whose tedium was matched only by their sour distaste. I was fifty-five before I read the novel again – reduced to tears on some un-Eliot Greek island. My regret is that few, if any, of those I taught will have ever returned to the book.
No – what I seek to pursue is merely the thought that teachers and librarians should believe that all those in their care may have one day the potential to read, say, Hard Times. For some of their children, they may believe that if their adult reading is lame, they will, nonetheless, have the capacity to listen to and understand the novel – as illiterate audiences, heard and understood Dickens. From the beginning the assumption has to be made by teachers and librarians that one day each child who stumbles into the nursery classroom or the children’s library is entitled, at the age or fifty or sixty, to meet, say, Ronald Bottrall’s poem ‘Belfast’ (and, pray, reflect upon it as a piece of bizarre, sad history).
‘It doesn’t matter if you are a child
Or an old woman,
There is no time to look at the sun
Or enjoy the privacy
Of cellars, attics and cemeteries.
In the morning
And the afternoon and the evening
You put out your hand to greet a friend.
Before you can reach him
He has exploded into fragments.’
With Bottrall’s poem just read, it will be as well if the future reader can quietly lean for some consolation upon Dostoyevsky’s Brothers Karamazov.
‘Love will teach us all things: but we must learn how to win love, it is got with difficulty: it is a possession dearly bought with much labour and in long time; for one must love not sometimes only, for a passing moment, but always: even the wicked can do that.’
From the beginning, teachers and librarians should have for children the aspiration that, one day, they might meet with delight the work of, for instance, R K Narayan or Shusako Endo or Ngugi or Margaret Atwood or Gabriel Marquez or Elizabeth Jolley or Primo Levi or Janet Frame or…
The beginning needs an end. But what of the beginnings? To make their way to the writers like those I’ve just mentioned, to their successors in the year 2000 and beyond and to the great writers of the past who will continue long to have their tomorrows, today’s children need good starting points. They need starting points beyond the last visible reading scheme. They need to start perhaps with the Ahlberg’s Each Peach Pear Plum, a book in which text and illustration sing so richly together. They might start with the same two authors’ remarkable history book Peepo. They might move to John Burningham, perhaps to the unending delight of the questions in his Would You Rather? or to the moving comedy of Shirley Hughes’ Dogger. A little older, some will still be caught (and carried forward) by the poignant magic of the classic Velveteen Rabbit.
Some, older still, may identify with and be oddly comforted by The Shrinking of Treehorn. At, perhaps, twelve or so, the road will, for some, be brightened by the outstanding poetry (and art) anthology Talking to the Sun. The picture story books Rose Blanche, Are We Nearly There? and Piggy Book will continue to speak volumes to sophisticated young readers in their late teens. With luck, few of them will be disengaged from encounters with Anne Fine or Robert Westall or Susan Cooper or Jan Mark or Katharine Paterson or Cynthia Voigt or James Berry. This is not an ‘approved’ list: there’s too much to choose from. The roads (diverging ‘in a yellow wood’) may lead to Jeffrey Archer or to Chinua Achebe, to Frederick Forsythe or to E M Forster, to Robert Ludlum or to Doris Lessing.
These roads are not the same. It would be dangerous to be dogmatic about the needs for the readers our children become to take ‘the road less travelled by’. In plucking authors from the air, I don’t intend an excess of worthiness. The light, the trivial, the comfortable (and comforting) are not barred. None of us, I hope, can be serious all the time. To meet a range of genres and generations of writing is essential. But I cannot escape the belief that some writers are better and more necessary to humanity than others. I argue merely that every effort should be made to give all our children an unblindfold chance to choose the wiser route. My faith is that, given the right start, the clearest, best signposted, and most beautiful of maps, few of our children will go astray.
With retirement looming, I begin to grasp a truth which, had I been sharper, I would (I should) have grasped too many years ago. It’s summed up for me in a poem by Gillian Clarke, called ‘Miracle on St David’s Day’. In that poem she gives an account of her reading poetry in a mental institution and of being interrupted by a man who hadn’t spoken for forty years. He interrupts to recite faultlessly the Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ he learned in school as a child – and Gillian Clarke comments:
‘he has remembered there was a music
Of speech and that once he had something to say.’
At the heart of what I seek to say here is the belief that in presenting our children with the best, most considered of language in the best of books, teachers and librarians are enabling them all to possess a music of speech, giving them all an improved chance of something to say and the means by which to say it for themselves.
My slow realisation, however, helped by my repeated reading of Gillian Clarke’s poem (in which, simultaneously, I find ever something new and contentedly discover the same) is that of knowing now, as never before, that our children can never escape us. We can escape them – and do. But our children are ours forever, touched for better or for worse by the what and how of our teaching. We have, as teachers, as librarians, as parents, that terrifying obligation and proud privilege of making sure that our book-touch is benign and lasting. Our unremembered children will then be ever in our happy debt.
I end with a reflection on reading by E B White, whose Charlotte’s Web continues to instruct and delight children as much now as it did when first published almost forty years ago.
‘Reading is the work of the alert mind, is demanding, and under ideal conditions produces finally a sort of ecstasy … The experience of reading has a sublimity and power unequalled by any other form of communication. It would be just as well if educators clung to this great phenomenon and did not get side-tracked. ‘
Trevor Dickinson retires in 1991 as a member of HM Inspectorate. His travelling roadshow promoting children’s books and reading is well-known throughout the UK. He was awarded an OBE in the recent Honours List. BfK offers congratulations on this well-deserved recognition for all his work.