Missing the point: reading for the sheer pleasure of it

The other day, I was in the aisles of WH Smith’s book section when I overheard a conversation between a parent and her child, which went something like this:

‘Well, just pick one! We haven’t got much time, so what do you want?’
The little girl was looking up at the picture book shelves a little sheepishly. She responded, ‘I don’t know, there are so many…’
The parent then picked one off the shelf and gave it to her. ‘Here, this one will do, won’t it?’
‘But it’s too tricky!’ said the girl.
‘Well, how about this one then?’ she pulled another from the shelf and handed it to her.
‘That’s the same. I can’t read it…’
To this, the lady seemed to lose her temper and said ‘Fine!’ before putting the book back on the shelf and leading the girl from the store.

Chossing booksI realise I’m in no position to judge when it comes to this sort of situation. Having no children of my own, I can not imagine the day-to-day challenges a parent faces in terms of time and energy when they want to give their child the best they can: I think it was great that the mother was taking the time to try to get a book for her child in the first place. But I also thought the way she went about it might have had more of a negative effect on the little girl’s likelihood to want to keep reading as she gets older.

From this shop experience it seemed that, from the little girl’s point of view, she’s now been told that she should struggle ahead to read the books that she thinks are too tricky for her, or she won’t get a book at all. She’s also been told that she did something wrong by not being able to make a very quick decision about which book to choose, and was punished by not getting anything. But from the parent’s point of view, she did want to get her child a book but just didn’t have the time to stand around all day waiting for her to choose something. So was anyone to blame?

What this pointed out to me was the way that challenging circumstances and parents’ lack of time may be a contributing factor in the decline in reading for pleasure amongst children today. It’s probably not new – countless research efforts by the likes of Scholastic and the National Literacy Trust have considered such factors in their approaches to literacy research. So I wasn’t surprised by some of the points made by Egmont in their latest press release about their Reading Street Consumer Insight research.

In it, they highlight how lifestyle can simply get in the way of the time parents have to encourage their children to read and affects the importance they place on reading as something that should be done just for pleasure:

“The first chapter of our new Reading Street report into children’s reading reveals that some of the key benefits of reading for pleasure in childhood are being over-looked because of a challenging set of circumstances faced by families and the way we live today.”

Is the lack of time given by parents to portraying every step of a child’s reading – from choosing a book to reading a book – as an enjoyable experience having a detrimental effect on children’s perceptions of reading?

Egmont point out the fact that the benefits of reading for pleasure as seen by parents taking part in their study are purely educational and developmental, as opposed to anything to do with the pure pleasure of reading. They make a good point of saying that this may be a mistake – are we overlooking a real benefit of reading here? Their aim now is to find out how and why reading thrives in some families and to use this to determine how to inspire children to read.

I for one am looking forward to learning more about Egmont’s research results. The publisher really stands out to me, alongside such children’s publishers as Scholastic, for the contributions they make to the literacy landscape. I love the way they provide advice on their website pages about the benefits of reading at different ages and how to make choosing books easier (as well as publishing this useful guide for parents). Perhaps more advice like this is needed, or simply more awareness amongst parents, so that scenes like the one I saw in WH Smith become a little less frequent…

Collectable memories of Pooh

On a recent visit to my parents’ home in Wales, I found myself in my old room which, admittedly, given the lack of space in my current London flat, acts as a bit of a shrine to my childhood – filled to the brim with old keepsakes.

ImageAmongst the pink drapes, wind-chimes, old sorry-looking bears and never-to-be-opened-again files of school notes, is a lone shelf that sums up what inspired me to read as a kid – my collection of Winnie the Pooh books. And I don’t mean the different types of Winnie the Pooh spin-offs that have been published over the years, such as I Love You Winnie the Pooh or The Trouble With Bees (although I did spot Eeyore’s Book of Gloom in there somewhere…) but simply the original tales in their many different packages.  There’s even a special edition copy that I found on a shelf in Singapore and lugged in my backpack through Australia, New Zealand, India and Nepal to get home. Yep – I have to admit it – I’m definitely a bibliophile when it comes to Pooh!

Looking at these all lined up on my shelf, I wondered why it is that I’m attracted to collecting these beautiful representations of my childhood. I suppose right there are two answers before I’ve even started – they’re beautiful, and they remind me of my childhood. But I keep trying to put my finger on why I feel I have to own them in so many different designs, when they are simply the same stories over and over…?

I’ve slowly come to the conclusion that it’s a mix of fear and lust. Lust for the myriad of designs; for the myriad of colourful bindings that encase what to me, are some of the most precious words in my memory. Eeyore’s solemn words of despair on one page, Piglet’s shrieks of comical fear on the next, all interpreted in a different way by the publisher who packages it. Some have black and white pictures and simple, plain bindings; others have shiny jackets and colourful illustrations on quality paper; while others are encased in decorative slipcases as if they were meant to serve as pieces of art.

And fear? Well the fear part comes from the fear of my favourite words ever disappearing from a paper page. No – I don’t mean that the words will physically fade in my copies, neither do I mean that digital books will replace printed books (we’ve all been exhausted by THAT debate), but that the pretty editions I see on the shelves or find in a second-hand shop will one day go out of print, or be shifted off the shop shelves to make space for a newer version of the timeless classics. When there are so many interpretations of the same books out there, I develop a sort of Pokemon-fever – I just have to ‘catch’ them all…

But what of the kids of tomorrow? With the availability of digital apps and ebook formats of their favourite titles floating around and existing as codes of text on the ether, will they care to collect their favourite books just for the sake of it? Will the ability to click and instantly access the books they want, no matter the packaging, be more attractive to them than the idea of keeping something forever?

One thing’s for sure, Eeyore doesn’t really have the answer: “This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over-rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it.”

 Winnie the Pooh