Once upon a time, young minds were excited by the written word. With their grandparents’ help, the story can have a happy ending even in today’s multimedia world
My favourite remark about reading came from a nine-year-old who’d just seen the movie version of CS Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. “It was excellent!” she beamed.
“As good as the book?” I asked.
“Not that good, no.”
She looked at me as if I were mad.“Because when I’m reading a book the pictures in my head are better,” she said.
All book-lovers know what she meant. What we see on screen or on stage – the apple barrel scene in Treasure Island, say – often falls a long way short of the version we first encountered on the page.
Of course, there’s no mystery about this. The right picture can be worth a thousand words, but the right words can also be worth a thousand pictures – thanks to the room they allow our imagination. The best children’s authors exploit this brilliantly. Here’s Roald Dahl on a roll:
He was so short his chin would have been under water in the shallow end of any swimming pool in the world.
Wow! This gives the reader of Fantastic Mr Fox a perfect fix on Farmer Bunce’s child-like height.
Words can work on a big-scale, too. When the Space-Bat-Angel-Dragon in Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man is hurtling towards the earth from outer space, the author doesn’t spare his young reader’s feelings about the horror of what’s going to happen:
. . . if it hit the world at that speed, why, the whole world would simply be blasted to bits in the twinkling of an eye. It would be like an express train hitting a bowl of goldfish.
Eat your hearts out, designers of special effects.
Writing as good as this isn’t just enjoyable, it’s mind-expanding. No wonder reading just for the fun of it is recognised the world over as a key predictor of a child’s educational success.
Beware, though. It has to be just for the fun of it. Any hint of compulsion and the pleasure stops in its tracks. A relish for the magic of words can only be caught, not taught.
That’s the trouble. These days, what with Sats, Ofsted inspections, league tables and an ever-proliferating curriculum, teachers are hard-pushed to establish the basics of reading let alone foster its delights. And with most parents up to their eyes in simply keeping their family afloat, who has the time and inclination to show kids that both activities can be a blast?
Well, if you’re a grandparent, it could be you.
OK, I know what you’re thinking. What do you know about current children’s books? Come to that, what do you know about current kids? Haven’t both moved on a bit in recent years?
Well, maybe they have, superficially, but our aim should be the same as it always was: to build a three-way relationship between a kid, a grown-up and a story. My advice is begin with the story. Here’s my own favourite start-up for a three- to five-year-old:
Plop was a baby barn owl, and he lived with his Mummy and Daddy at the top of a very tall tree in a field. Plop was fat and fluffy. He had a beautiful heart-shaped ruff. He had enormous, round eyes. He had very knackety knees. In fact he was exactly the same as every baby barn owl that has ever been – except for one thing. Plop was afraid of the dark.
Jill Tomlinson’s The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark offers the literary equivalent of what musicians call perfect pitch. Any adult who reads it will be itching to find a youngster – any youngster – who wants to share it.
For me, if it goes on to initiate fun for life, it’s the best possible gift a grandparent can give his or her grandchild.
Chris Powling, 69, has four grandchildren and is the author of more than 90 books for children. Rainbow Boots will be published by A&C Black in September.