PROTECT AND DEFEND: THE RIGHTS OF THE READER

An avid reader (Scout) on book snobbery.

A mother (let’s call her Sarah) recently confided in me that their children didn’t read, no matter how hard she tried to encourage them. I asked Sarah whether her children (Maddie and Sally) might be dyslexic or longsighted, which kept my own sister from reading for a long time before she got a pair of specs. Sarah explained that their eyesight was fine. “They just spend all their time reading trash.”

Maddie and Sally are bright kids, twelve and thirteen. And like most preteen girls, they have a penchant for the sensational and romantic. Maddie loves to read stories about first loves and heartbreaks. Sally prefers a vampiric or medieval tale. Sarah’s complaint reminded me of a poster written by French writer Daniel Pennac, titled “The Rights of the Reader”. It was essentially an essay in response to Pennac’s tenure as head literature teacher at an unnamed “challenging” school in rural France. The toughest obstacle he faced was encouraging children to read. “The Rights of the Reader” was a reaction to the systemic culture of “book snobbery”, where children are criticised for not reading the “correct” material, rather than being encouraged to read according to their passions and interests.

Pennac takes the intimidation factor out of reading. Illustration: Quentin Blake.

Pennac takes the intimidation factor out of reading. Illustration: Quentin Blake.

Translated by Sarah Adams and illustrated by Quentin Blake – whose work is synonymous with the kooky creations of children’s author Roald Dahl – the book is the manifesto of an author who fell into writing through reading. Pennac believes that any reading has merit, even if it’s not a Penguin Classic or one of the esteemed canon. Even as someone who indulges in all kinds of reading, I recoil at the idea that Stephanie Meyer is on par with Hilary Mantel. But that’s not what Pennac is saying. Clearly, the sophistication of one outstrips the other (Mantel’s crass “Bring Up The Bodies” has nothing on Meyer’s beautifully macabre “New Moon”). But his logic stands; reading should be about enjoyment, not enlightenment. Children can learn from any kind of literature, even if it’s not Literature. More importantly, I’ve found, regardless of what interests a child, there must be an author out there who does the topic justice. To say that all vampire novels are not worth reading suggests an ignorance of the rich folklore culture surrounding our sanguine counterparts or an overexposure to R-Patz/K-Stew love triangles in Today Magazine.

John Polidori's 1819 gothic work "The Vampyre" is one of a long tradition of vampiric folklore, which took Britain by storm in the form of novels that were considered licentious, improper and lascivious for their time. (Photo: Phillip Burne-Jones, 'The Vampire', 1897)

John Polidori’s 1819 gothic work “The Vampyre” is one of a long tradition of vampiric folklore, which took Britain by storm in the form of novels that were considered licentious, improper and lascivious for their time. (Photo: Phillip Burne-Jones, ‘The Vampire’, 1897)

What Sarah and I did agree on is that we need to fight the increasing intellectual inactivity of iGen. The benefits of reading against screentime, which is the book’s nemesis for time-passing, are widely documented. Just this year, in April, The Scientific American published an article by Ferris Jabr explaining the importance of keeping children reading, particularly on paper rather than screens. He cited the physicality of turning to a page and pointing to an illustration as examples that reading is not purely a cerebral activity. “As far as our brains are concerned… text is a tangible part of the physical world we inhabit.” Jabr writes. “When we read, we construct a mental representation of the text in which meaning is anchored to structure.” So reading does not simply improve our language skills or increase our capacity for dinner party conversation, but provides a physical and spatial journey. This is why we need to keep children reading, even better if they’re leafing between pages instead of tapping screens.

"Teaching is not a military art." Daniel Pennac emphasises the importance of all reading in a child's development. (Photo: The Independent)

“Teaching is not a military art.” Daniel Pennac emphasises the importance of all reading in a child’s development. (Photo: The Independent)

To denigrate another’s reading choice is to discourage them from reading altogether. To force a child to read a certain book for a certain amount time sends the message that reading is a chore, something to be avoided at all costs. Even if you disagree with Pennac’s mantra that all reading is good reading, you must admit that letting a child to read whatever they want will eventually encourage an appetite for good writing and more sophisticated literature. We have to walk before we run.

Even Alan Bennett is in accord, to some degree. Bennett’s satirical novella “The Uncommon Reader” follows Queen Elizabeth as she rediscovers the joy of reading. She initially reads an Ivy Compton-Burnett, which she only manages to finish out of sheer willpower and discipline. But after perusing a few easier novels, the Queen returns to Compton-Burnett’s work to appreciate the brisk, abrasive writing that once nearly broke her reading spirit. Bennett notes that no reader is perfect, no novel is perfect, and every book we read brings us something new, even if it’s “too easy” for us or too ambitious.

"I don't think children should be afraid of books." Tamora Pierce. (Photo: Random House Publishing)

“I don’t think children should be afraid of books.” Tamora Pierce. (Photo: Random House Publishing)

Last Friday I brought a stack of old books around to Maddie and Sally. A good Neil Gaiman-esque vampire novel and a few medieval page turners from my childhood idol and ardent feminist (get them while they’re young, I say) Tamora Pierce for Sally. Some classic preteen angst by Jacqueline Wilson and Judy Blume for Maddie. Sure, they weren’t Booker Prize winners, but they all excelled in making literature accessible to children and young adults. More importantly, they were writing on topics that Maddie and Sally were passionate about. These weren’t far-flung Victorian tales of inheritance, love and sacrifice in three-inch-thick leather books with one-millimeter font (though once I gave Maddie a brief outline of Jane Eyre, she immediately wanted to read it). These books brought the reading mountain to the reluctant Mohammed, so to speak.

I think of reading as a ladder. Each book is a rung. Sometimes you finish a book, and you place it in the ladder to climb a little higher. Sometimes you don’t finish a book, so you put it aside for later or throw it as far as you can. Every rung is important, from the bottom to the top. You can climb up, if you’re feeling ambitious, or go back down to familiar territory when overwhelmed and needing comfort or assurance.

It’s not the summit that matters, as wise Miley Cyrus once told me*, but it’s the climb.

*To end on a sophisticated note.

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