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Books in the Home: Thank Heavens for Hugo, or When Size Matters

The Invention of Hugo CabretNot long ago I was having a conversation with a friend while our children were in the school playground. She was worried because her daughter hates reading. The girl is aware that she does not read as well as her classmates, and this upsets her because she enjoys school and does well in other subjects. In her mind, reading has become an insurmountable hurdle, and it is now a struggle to persuade her to read more than a few lines aloud. When my friend related all this to me, I advised her to relax and told her that pressure would be counterproductive. I reminded her that in Scandinavia children don’t read at school until they’re seven and that her daughter would get there when she’s ready. In any case not everyone enjoys reading, I said, and it doesn’t have to be a big deal.

But I was being hypocritical: although my guidance to my friend was sincere, when it comes to my own child, reading is a big deal to me. It’s not that Samuel is not an able reader; he is. No, my worry has been that he will never love reading, and if he doesn’t, he will miss out on one of life’s great joys. I knew it was ridiculous — especially since he’s only just finishing Year 2 here in London — but I couldn’t help it.

By coincidence, the front page of today’s Evening Standard newspaper is about reading. It reveals that one in three children in London does not have a single book at home and one in four can’t read properly by the end of primary school. In contrast, Samuel has probably seven or eight hundred new and reissued children’s books as a result of my work as a reviewer and critic. He also has, in me, an adult at home who knows many of the books. Since he was a toddler I have been setting aside shelves and boxes full of books for him to grow into when he’s eight, or ten, or twelve, feeling as excited by the worlds awaiting him as I would have been had those books been around for me when I was his age. Whenever I’d embarrassedly express my concern to other mums, they would just shrug. He’s a boy, they’d say. They need to run around; girls can sit still more easily. I’m uneasy about such generalizations, though, for either sex. My nephew was a voracious reader from a very early age and remains one at fifteen. And Samuel (and many of his friends) happily sit in front of the TV or computer for hours, or stand around swapping football cards—not much running around happening there. In any case, his summer activity of choice is science camp, which consists of six hours in a classroom, just like at school, but with fewer breaks. Clearly, sitting still and concentrating was not the issue here. He really just wasn’t that keen on reading. My view was, and still is, that any child who “doesn’t like reading” simply hasn’t been introduced to the book that will turn him or her into a reader for life. I was sorry that I couldn’t make this happen for Samuel.

True, he is excited every time a parcel of books arrives from a publisher. He enjoys browsing his bookcase, and he especially likes the fact that several of his books have been signed for him by the author or illustrator. But although he occasionally dips into his science books by choice, still asks for picture books to be read to him before bed, and appreciates books as physical artifacts, his interest in reading chapter books has been patchy to say the least, and not once has he asked for a chapter book to be read to him.

Once in a while, though, he has developed a passion for a book. He loved Megan McDonald’s Stink series in first grade, but his enthusiasm for these particular books made him oddly reluctant to try anything else. Apart from the stories themselves, Samuel was especially pleased that the Stink books were over 100 pages long, a point he returned to several times when talking about them. This is a child for whom size matters.

But alongside his desire to read “big” books was an unexpected, and unnecessary, lack of confidence in tackling those with fewer illustrations or smaller print. I’d tried to approach this circumspectly, giving him free rein, as always, to try anything in his bookcase, and making sure there was a good range of subject matter and reading level in it at any given time. I’d shown him unintimidating books that friends’ children had enjoyed — Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum, Neal Layton’s The Mammoth Academy, and Sue Mongredien’s Prince Jake — and he had turned his nose up at them, although any books with collectors cards, like Steve Cole’s Astrosaurs, were at least opened while the cards were being taken out. I never make him finish a book he doesn’t like, an approach that also applies to the books he reads for school. This doesn’t endear me to the teaching assistant who assigns and gives out the books, which are invariably too easy, and most of which he finds boring; nor does the fact that I no longer make Samuel read his school books aloud to me. He did when he was learning to read, but doing so now seems to both of us to undermine his status as a young independent reader. It also makes reading into a chore. Instead, we talk about what he is reading, and from time to time he asks me how to pronounce a word or what it means.

Recently, a couple of developments have led to a turning point: I began to think about writing this article, and school ran a read-a-thon for charity. I thought the read-a-thon and the article would be a good opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. I wrote to publishers and asked them to send me some suitable books for a seven-year-old boy who is an able, but not exceptional, or particularly keen, reader. Ideally, the books should be at least 100 pages, and they should be illustrated. My own challenge in this read-a-thon was to find him books that he would actively want to read.

The publishers came up trumps, and soon I had a shelf full of new books, including Louis Sachar’s Wayside School series, Alan MacDonald’s Iggy the Urk books, Henry Winkler’s Hank Zipzer series, the Danny Baker Record Breaker series by Steve Hartley (The World’s Loudest Armpit Fart captivated Samuel immediately), the S.W.I.T.C.H. series by Ali Sparkes, Night on Terror Island by Philip Caveney, and more. I added in Spy Dog by Andrew Cope and The Boy Who Climbed into the Moon by David Almond. Now, like most of his friends, my son is rather more interested in money than I would like him to be. So, thinking he might gain additional motivation in his fundraising venture, I’m ashamed to admit that I bribed him. I told him that in addition to the money per book that I would contribute to the charity, I would give him £1 per book to keep for himself. Initially, the plan seemed to work. He rapidly read Arrrrgh! Slimosaur! by Alan MacDonald, about which he was lukewarm, and three books in the S.W.I.T.C.H. series, which he greatly enjoyed, despite the fact that they were less than 100 pages. And then he stopped: even the lure of money couldn’t persuade him to read another one of those books.

Suitable books for an able, but not exceptional, or particularly keen, reader.

I puzzled over the read-a-thon experience with Samuel’s nineteen-year-old babysitter, the kind of intelligent, articulate, cultured young man I hope Samuel grows up to be. He told me that he had been nine or ten when he had really taken to reading. I felt better. Then I spoke to a friend, an academic. Like the mums, he said that boys want to play football and computer games. But he added that although he himself hadn’t read for pleasure when he was Samuel’s age, he certainly does now, and Samuel will, too. He said I should relax. So I did.

And then something else happened: Lisa’s birthday. Lisa is a friend of Samuel’s and a voracious reader. Just turning seven, she has already read Judith Kerr’s trilogy (When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, The Other Way Round, and A Small Person Far Away), available here in an omnibus volume, Out of the Hitler Time. I was excited: here was a child who actually wanted books for her birthday. I took Samuel with me to the children’s bookshop near home and struggled to decide. Would it be Eva Ibbotson? Could Journey to the River Sea wait a year or two? Maybe The Beasts of Clawstone Castle…or what about Diana Wynne Jones? Then I knew. I would start with the classics: it had to be Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase and Penelope Farmer’s Charlotte Sometimes.

I had all these books at home — in my office, not Samuel’s room. Less than six months earlier, I had shown some of them to Samuel and told him that when he was a bit older I thought he would really enjoy them. His eyes had glazed over at the time, but now he expressed a tentative interest in The Beasts of Clawstone Castle. And then I made a throwaway comment about Out of the Hitler Time and how big and grown-up a book it was. Samuel wanted to see it, to see exactly how big this “big” book was. He added up the pages in the three novels: over 700! He wasn’t deterred by the few illustrations or the small font. He wanted to know whether I thought he could read it. I told him I thought he would find it boring. I thought it was more for older children, his eager-reader friend notwithstanding. And yet, although I didn’t know whether it was his competitive side coming out, or a newfound confidence to be challenged, or something else, I felt that a key moment had arrived and I didn’t want to simply let it pass. I looked around the shelves of my office for an alternative and spotted Brian Selznick’s The Invention of Hugo Cabret. I took it down, showed it to Samuel, and told him a little bit about it. I handed it to him and told him to be careful with it. Immediately he opened to the back. 530 pages: that would do.

A week later, Samuel is reading Hugo Cabret every night before bed. When he asks if he can stay up late to read another chapter and we say yes, it turns reading into a treat. He appreciates the beauty of the book, which not only captivates children but takes adult bookworms back to the wonder they felt when they first fell in love not just with reading, but with books.

I’m not worried anymore about whether or not my son will love reading one day. For the moment, it’s enough for me that Samuel is immersed in and enjoying a wonderful book. And more importantly, it’s enough for him, too.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret, open midway.

From the September/October 2011 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.
Madelyn Travis
Madelyn Travis is features editor and a reviewer for www.booktrusted.com, the children’s book website of the London-based educational charity Booktrust. She is currently completing her M.A. in children’s literature at the University of Surrey, Roehampton.

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