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