Find Your Self Within Stories

By Alice Penfold. Alice, 26, was previously a secondary school English teacher. She now works for the National Literacy Trust and is starting an MA in Children’s Literature. She lives in London, United Kingdom. Please read her article and leave your thoughts and comments below.

“She remembered, as every sensible person does, that you should never never shut yourself up in a wardrobe.”

Clearing out my cupboard of children’s classics several months ago (a perfect procrastination from the mountains of marking that became a permanent feature of every weekend last year, when working as a secondary school English teacher), I rediscovered an old, well-thumbed copy of The Chronicles of Narnia; as I started to read it once again, I simply couldn’t put it down. This subsequently inspired one holiday homework idea, ahead of the upcoming school essay.

“I’m not going to set a single essay, comprehension test or written assignment for this half term!” I exclaimed to my rather disengaged Key Stage 3 class, with misplaced enthusiasm. “Your homework is, instead, to read a book. For pleasure.”

What I naively supposed to be a superlatively generous suggestion was met, unsurprisingly, by silence. As the class groaningly grabbed their school planners and began obediently – almost robotically – to fill in the task and due date, one particularly annoyed (and book-avoiding) child popped up his hand.

“Miss, why would I read a book for pleasure in my spare time, when I could play Call of Duty and have more fun?”

The question left me speechless. I could give the obvious answer, one I unthinkingly ramble to anyone asking anything about why reading books really matters. Reams of research proves to us over and over again that reading for pleasure outside the classroom is life-changing: it raises your grades; it enhances your empathy and emotional awareness; it helps you to understand your own and others’ identities; it empowers you to be an active citizen, promoting a healthier and happier society for yourself and others. It improves not only your literacy levels but your wider well-being and likelihood of future success.[1]

That answer, however, would have switched off my audience in seconds. After all, teachers are designed to dictate what you must do! Homework will always be a horrible hardship, and that includes being told that you must read! As the class scribbled down ‘read a book‘ in their student homework planners, before scurrying away to their next lesson, it was clear that I needed to rethink how to not just tell but to properly show young people that reading books really can be favourable and more fun to plugging into the play-station, again, or wasting time on silly and often unsafe websites, again, or hanging outside on the streets not really doing anything, again.

C.S.Lewis gets it right. Books – and particularly children’s books – should not be seen as simply something to keep children occupied. Reading for pleasure, whilst it remains as something that we adults do not actually engage with ourselves and therefore actively prove is pleasurable, will continue seeming to children as a chore and not a choice. And it is that word – choice – that makes the difference. The benefits of reading for pleasure are undoubtedly bigger and better when reading is something students self-select through their own free will. Of course, we know that the concept of free-will is a fallacy. There is much detailed research into the subjectivity of choice, from debates about self-determinism to conversations about social and experiential conditioning. This is not, though, a blog about the endlessly unsolvable psychology of choice. Crucially, what underpins arguments about reading children’s books, both as children and as adults, is the question of how far the choices we make (freely or not) are made by the choices of those around us.

For now, let’s take at face value the fact that teachers and families have an irreversibly huge impact of young people’s decision making. Telling students to read for pleasure (as I mistakenly did) can end up having a detrimental effect, turning reading into a to-do list task rather than an enjoyment. Throughout my teaching career, the difference between students (usually but not always those in higher sets) who had been brought up with book-loving friends and families, where reading recommendations would be swallowed up more speedily than their sugary break-time snacks, and those who struggled with reading or for whom reading for fun was not a normalised part of in or out of school life, never failed to shock.

However, by observing adults – teachers, professionals and, most importantly, parents – actively reading, not only adult fiction but children’s literature too, students are far more likely to pick up a book. They’ve not been told to sit and read, if it’s promoting passively in this way; it is (fallacy or not) something they have selected to do themselves. Whilst C. S. Lewis’s views about choice are connected to his Christian faith when he suggests that “every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before”, this message undoubtedly speaks to us on a bigger level. As we adults choose to let go of phones or laptops (even if infrequently!) and give a dedicated space for reading stories a go instead, I have no doubt that we’ll see the transformative effects that reading for pleasure can have on the mind-sets of both children and adults.[2]

Indeed, C. S. Lewis could not be more right. By consciously demonstrating that reading for pleasure is not compulsory but is a choice that we, as adults, freely, unfailingly and frequently select, young people will subconsciously seek out more stories for themselves, their behaviour influenced by those around them. Not having time to read is – like free choice – a fallacy. We can find a few minutes each day to dive into a book. If parents, teachers and all grown-ups give explicitly increasing importance to reading both adult and children’s literature, then gadget distractions and unhealthy attitudes to reading will diminish. Currently, children see us adults (who are all role models, really, whether we like it or not) continuously answering emails, scrolling through social media and generally giving in to technology’s addictive power, they will inevitably be more likely to follow suit, picking up a smartphone rather than a good story in their free time.

But it’s not too late to reclaim the power of children’s books. C. S. Lewis’s belief that children’s books are also meant for older audiences reminds us of how reading for pleasure can change the perceptions and perspectives not only of young readers but adults too. To see children’s fiction as irrelevant once we’ve grown up and grown more grey is – like free choice and our self-convincing lie that we don’t have time to read – yet another fallacy.

As adults who actively read so-called children’s books, we will not only be re-immersed in their magic but can also dive into deeper meanings. Us adults will also be taken on memorable adventures and re-adventures through fictional worlds (as we always tell children they will), form more meaningful relationships and re-learn to understand ourselves and others a little better, as well as discover new values and appreciation of different cultures and human behaviours. The emotions and experiences explored in good children’s literature remain at the heart of human experience, regardless of how long we’ve been adults.

Reading children’s books, then, as both young people and adults, opens the metaphorical wardrobe door, left too long locked. Like Edmund, Susan, Peter and Lucy, C. S. Lewis’s fantastic protagonists in ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’, re-visiting children’s books, particularly when read collaboratively with young people, unlocks deeper ideas and insights. ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ provides a wonderful insight into the transformative potential of reading. As C. S. Lewis’s captivating character Aslan claims, “This was the very reason why you were brought to Narnia, that by knowing me here for a little, you may know me better there.” Young people will continue to disbelieve that reading can be about real life until we model it and make ourselves re-find the deeper meanings in children’s fiction. Let’s stop simply parroting the positives of ‘reading for pleasure’ and make space to do so ourselves.

 

 

[1]Wilkinson, S (ed) (2015), https://readingagency.org.uk/news/The%20Impact%20of%20Reading%20for%20Pleasure%20and%20Empowerment.pdf, p.4-31.

[2]Clark, C and Rumbold, K (2006), ‘Reading for pleasure: a research overview’, National Literacy Trust.

7 comments on “Find Your Self Within Stories

  1. May Walker on

    This is a fantastic blog! It’s always an important reminder to question what the separations are between adults and children and to revisit our own childhood classics.
    A very insightful piece. I look forward to seeing what else this author produces in the future!

    Reply
  2. Jill Penfold on

    I found this thought provoking Alice and I totally agree. I do feel that we have lost the plot somewhat in primary education at the moment. We are often so absorbed in teaching every minute detail of the literacy curriculum that we forget to look at the whole picture. There are so many wonderful books written for children and young adults for us all to enjoy!

    Reply
  3. Victoria Fuller on

    What a beautifully written piece Alice. As an Early Years teacher with over 20 yrs experience I have witnessed a decline in parental understanding of the importance of sharing literature with children. I did a short survey recently and lack of time was cited as the main reason. This time squeezing is also evident in classrooms, there is so much pressure on teachers to hit targets in all subjects that the ‘end of the day story’, which was often greatly anticipated by many of the children, has become a thing of the past. Our children need time to enjoy literature of all kinds and adults are the file models for this. Thank you Alice for being rave enough to follow your gut and heart as a passionate teacher instead of always dutifully towing the line.

    Reply
  4. Angela Jariwala on

    Great piece Alice. I am currently rereading His Dark Materials – not a classic from my childhood but my son’s. A good children’s book stays in our hearts for life and not just childhood.

    Reply
  5. Rose on

    I enjoyed this piece Alice. Certainly, the decline in reading for pleasure is marked even since I was a young child, with a plethora of other options perceived to be more “exciting” or stimulating for children. i guess part of the challenge comes in encouraging parents to continue to promote reading when some of these other options may be easier or more accessible in the first instance. And agree – re-reading children’s books as an adult adds a whole new level of meaning!

    Reply
  6. Rob on

    Great piece. A great point about passive promotion rather than an ‘eat your vegetables’ approach to reading! I wonder whether part of this is referencing stories more often when speaking to (or in front of) children – just as you’ve referenced the Narnia books here. I know when I was a kid I chose to read some books because I thought it would give me an understanding of exactly where this stuff was coming from…

    Reply
  7. Curtis Bausse on

    A very perceptive article there, also very instructive. It’s a little different but reminds me in some ways of promoting reading for pleasure among EFL students. Very important that reading isn’t thought to be a chore. Thanks for such a thought-provoking piece.

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *