When my son first started reading, he mostly went for non-fiction, in areas that interested him. Hmph, I thought, books about poo and ancient Egypt hardly count towards developing a literary sensibility. I embarked upon his education, based on books of literary merit, as defined by me, the writer in the family. We’d ease in with Dr Seuss and follow up with Enid Blyton, and on. My son’s interest in reading congealed like refrigerated castor oil in his psyche. He liked Dr Seuss well enough, particularly as the cat in the hat was bucking the system he himself wanted to buck – why should I read what you want? He might have liked other books I suggested, but they weren’t about the things that interested him. It’s a wonder the fledgling reader in him survived.
If I’d taken a leaf from my mother’s book, I’d have realised my folly. She didn’t care what we read, so long as our eyes were on words. I mostly read Superman and Batman comics. I moved to books, of course I did, but I still chose what I wanted, at the local library and through the school’s bookclub. I loved Ivan Southall best, and read everything he wrote. I remember in Year 7, I saw his new book Bread and Honey on the bookclub list. I was over the moon. But Mother de Montfort said Bread and Honey wasn’t suitable for children our age and we weren’t to order it. I was devastated. I went home and told Mum. “Just tick the box to buy it, dear,” she said, and so I did. I was amazed when the book arrived in my monthly parcel, Mother de Montfort none the wiser, no bolt of lightning striking me down. I loved Bread and Honey, a gentle book about adolescence and change, and I still have my copy.
Reflecting on my journey as a reader and now as the parent of a reader, I’ve started to wonder why grownups decide which books are good for children. This year’s Children’s Book Council Awards will be announced on 1 July, and children haven’t done the judging. Why is that? Children know what they like. They can think, describe, even write persuasively, thanks to NAPLAN. Why don’t they decide which books are the best? If I can decide what’s of literary merit, surely they can too. Perhaps not for books which are read by grownups to children. These could be judged by grownups, preferably ones who’ve had to read them 200 times. But surely panels of young readers could judge books for young readers.
This may seem flippant, but our literacy rates suggest we need to encourage Australians to discover what a joy reading can be, and joy doesn’t generally come from coercion in any form. The sobering fact is that 46 per cent of adults in Australia have literacy rates below the minimum level for “coping with everyday life and work in a complex advanced society.” Today’s children may be even worse off, because they have at their disposal many more competing joys than previous generations that don’t require near as much effort as reading.
I think Andy Griffiths – who isn’t on the shortlist for this year’s Children’s Book Council awards – should be Awarded in the Order of Australia for turning so many kids on to reading. In fact, it was when I heard my son laughing out loud as he read The 13-Storey Treehouse – a sound every parent should be treated to – that I realised my folly in foisting books on a child. Suddenly, I remembered how my mother made me love books so much. She let me be.
When my son needs new books now, I stay out of it. His father has a knack for sourcing fantastic non-fiction in the latest area of interest – medieval cities, brain science, ninjas. His little public school has one of those lightfilled libraries that hums with readerly joy. And we go to Avid Reader bookstore at West End which has a children’s corner that’s just right and staff like Hannah and Chris who take children’s interests so seriously they share them. My son is making recommendations to me on reading now, which is the way it should have been from the start, poo and all.
Based on the column published in The Courier-Mail Qweekend on 22 June 2013. I write mainly about writing, education, birth, health and the thrill of parenting. You can Get in touch, tick the box to receive emails, Like Writer Mary-Rose MacColl on Facebook or follow MaryRoseMacColl on Twitter. Have a great day!