Talking About Books

This week, Chris Riddell is leading a campaign to protect school libraries. But also the librarians within them. For a room full of books can’t provide the accessibility to reading without a guiding hand, a guiding voice.

In the primary school library I read books with the children, and to the children. And they read books to me. But I also spend a good deal of time talking about books with the children, and encouraging them to talk to each other about books. My library isn’t very hush hush. What do they want to read? What have they read? What do we collectively, and individually, think about certain books? Which authors do we dream of meeting? What sort of writer do we dream of being?

Talking about books gives them an importance, but it also grounds them. It gives them a place in the everyday bustle of life.

As a parent, my children arrive home with their school reading books, and I’m instructed to ask them questions about the text. To form a sort of oral comprehension. It’s not always easy – we’re not always excited about the ‘set’ texts they are given. But we use it as a tool to decipher how much they understand of what they’re reading. Do they understand the inference? What is the author implying? What’s going to happen next? What’s surprising? What’s funny? And then we can apply these tools to the books they read for pleasure.

Why doesn’t the Gruffalo eat the mouse? Why does Paddington prefer marmalade while Pooh prefers honey? Why did Bill Sykes kill Nancy? How upsetting is the fact the tiger never comes to tea again?

And it is important to check that they’re not just sounding out the words, that they actually comprehend what they’ve read. I can read the terms and conditions of my mortgage easily, but it doesn’t mean I’ve taken in and processed what the information is telling me. (Please don’t set me a comprehension on this).

If we go even deeper, we can see what subtleties the author has slipped into the text. And it’s only by talking about them that we can reveal them to each other. Some children won’t get the allusions to fairy tales in books we read because they don’t have that cultural heritage at home. In the same way as I might completely miss allusions to Star Trek in a television programme or comedy because I’ve never seen it. It doesn’t mean I won’t enjoy the new story, it just means I won’t have the full richness of the experience. It’s hard to appreciate even the title of The Wolf Who Cried Boy unless you know of the original story.

In fact it’s sometimes only in talking out loud about the book that a richness emerges from the text. Very few children will pick up on the allusion to The Tempest in Katherine Rundell’s beautiful children’s story, Rooftoppers, but in mentioning it to them when discussing the book, you can lend a wealth to their experience – kudos to the eleven year old who can talk about having read a book that references Shakespeare. Indeed, children often want that richness of experience. Think about what they ask when they meet a ‘real live’ author. ‘Where do you get your ideas from?’ Is one of the commonest questions – yes because they want to know if they can do the same, but also because they want a deeper understanding of the author’s work. ‘What is your favourite book?’ is another often asked question. Reading leads to reading.

Even adults do this. When readers attend literary festivals or bookclubs they want to know from the author more detail about the book they loved – they want it talked about for a richness of experience. We do this with many narratives. Who hasn’t watched a box set and then wanted to discuss the unfolding events?

There is a great deal adults can do to enliven a child’s reading experience when talking about books. Applying them to everyday life can be fun, and make the book more tangible.

“Doesn’t that elderly lady on the bus look like gangsta granny?” or “Eat up your moonsquirters.” Or, when frustrated at the dinner table: “I wonder what Burger Boy would eat?”

Compare books they’ve read. Invite an extra imaginary character to tea.

As they get older the fun’s still there. We might not discuss what Elmer would do, but we do discuss if Jessie Wallace has the right amount of swearing in Out of Shadows. We try and pinpoint which house in the street looks most like how we imagine Boo Radley’s house.

It can also be a really good way of addressing difficult topics using hypotheticals. When one youngster was reading the Casson family books by Hilary McKay, it was a great way to discuss the sadness of divorce and shifting family relationships by referring to made-up people, rather than addressing it directly. This can be helpful for a child to see that difficult things happen to others, as well as a way of talking about it obscurely. It’s like confronting a teenager about a tricky issue and not making eye contact all the time so that they don’t feel as if they’re being directly scrutinised.

Of course all this, parents may sigh, is so time-consuming. After all, knowing all these references intimates that parents too have to be knowledgeable about the books their children are reading. This is where I always say, that reading children’s books is just as satisfying as reading adult books. As CS Lewis said “a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children’s story. The good ones last. A waltz which you can like only when you are waltzing is a bad waltz.”

It shouldn’t be a chore. It can be a key way to develop conversation with your child beyond instructions and mundanity. “Have you got your PE Kit, where are your shoes, put the TV remote down.”

Talking gives them confidence, and instills in them the idea that their opinion is worth listening to. One of the best experiences in the school library is overhearing the children discuss books amongst themselves, recommending books to each other or pouring over a page together – often with non-fiction they will excitedly read out facts to each other, they will read jokes to each other from the joke books – sometimes laughing, sometimes groaning, and more often than not, supplying the answer because they already know the joke!

But you don’t need to be in a library to talk about books. You can even do it in front of the TV.

To read about dyslexia and comprehension, see here.

Re-Reading: Why Do Children Do It? And Should We?


Twice weekly I run a library club in a local primary school. The library holds a fair number of picture books in stock, and yet there are a small number that stand out as clear favourites. No matter what topic or activity we’re linking to a book, when it comes to the children picking a random picture book for me to read to them, the same favourites resurface.

And it’s not just in the library. With children I meet in my role as a reading consultant, with my own children at home; they often pick up the same book and read it over and over.

Why are children so set on re-reading? And re-reading everything, sometimes revisiting books they read years ago and that the adults around them deem ‘too easy’ now. Adults don’t seem to revisit books in quite the same way. So what are these children doing – and should we be doing the same?

Re-reading has been shown to improve skills of decoding words, reading fluency, and reading comprehension. In fact, almost all the skills you want children to pick up when they read. In a study for The Reading Teacher (International Literacy Association) in 2014, analysts found that re-reading helps students to develop a deeper understanding of what they have read. In fact, as long ago as 1979, studies for the same organisation found that rereading helps to develop greater accuracy in reading, which when you think about it, is kind of obvious. When children have struggled over a word they didn’t know, the only way they’ll learn it is if they revisit it.

But as we grow older, and our vocabulary increases, what can re-reading do for us? Actually, something extremely important. When we re-read we absorb more of the emotion behind the words – the inference becomes clearer, the resonance stronger.

Adults who read poems seem to re-read more than most of us. It can be very difficult to extract meaning from a poem on first reading. We gather all the different components of the text in our heads – the rhythm or perhaps rhyme, the grammatical constructs, the sparse vocabulary used – often a poem speaks to us first with its rhythm and then in meaning, and then finally in the emotion behind the words.

Even with prose there are many components to pick up on – rhythm matters here too, as does vocabulary, the inference, the meaning of phrases, metaphors. If you’re reading it like a writer, you’ll often revisit a sentence to see the construct – or the dialogue to see how the author crafted it so as to show the character’s attributes.

But readers revisiting whole texts can glean something extra. Cristel Antonia Russell of the American University, Washington explains: “Even though people are already familiar with the stories or the places, re-consuming brings new or renewed appreciation of both the object of consumption and their self. By doing it again, people get more out of it.”

She found the same with revisiting familiar holiday destinations! The emotional depth is stronger the second time around.

Re-reading can be particularly pertinent at different ages. I bet children re-read Horrid Henry differently at age 10 than they do age five, in the same way that Anna Karenina read differently for me at age 17 than it did as a married woman in my thirties, because we often apply our own life experiences to what we read.

A good writer leaves gaps for the reader to fill with their own imagination and their own understanding of character motivations. Each reread, the same reader may bring a different perspective to those hidden gaps, and the book reveals itself as being so much more than it was the first time.

There’s also the pleasure evoked by memories of when you first read a much-loved story. For me, I was sitting in my office at a publishing house with very little to do, contemplating a probable upcoming redundancy when I first read Harry Potter. It was the perfect magical escapism. I’m sure many of you can remember where you first read it.

This also brings huge risk though. Revisiting a much loved book from childhood can be painful if you find that the reread doesn’t have the same impact as when you read it as a child. (For me, the Famous Five was my favourite series as a child – now the books seem a little stilted and dull.)

With page-turners, we can find ourselves reading faster and faster towards the end in order to find out what will happen, at the same time kicking ourselves for not savouring it. So re-reading can help.

Obviously with all the millions of books out there to read, re-reading as an idea can feel like short change – why revisit when there are so many wonderful new books to read, and less time as we get older? It’s a difficult balance to strike.

Of course, re-reading can just be an irritation if you’re a forgetful person. I know of one reader (no names) who will be more than halfway through a David Baldacci book before realising they’ve read it before….and their time could have been better spent…



To comprehend or not to comprehend

reading image

I blogged last week about what reading can do to your brain – and the importance of comprehension. That’s why it’s important when children are learning to read – all through their schooling – to talk to them about their reading – to ask them questions about the text. This can help to push and deepen your child’s understanding of what they’re reading. I’m not saying they should be grilled on every book – the idea is not to turn them off reading, and they may look at you a little impatiently if you pounce on every book they read for pleasure – but a general discussion on the book may help them to think about it more clearly.

Of course you can ask them if they know what certain words mean – writers quite often play with ‘names’ of characters as well and checking that they know what ‘arable’ means may help them understand, or even just appreciate the irony, of Mrs Arable’s name in Charlotte’s Web by EB White. How about Matilda Wormwood in Matilda by Roald Dahl – her family name is another word for bitterness. There’s a reason Frances Hodgson Burnett chose the name ‘Mary’ for her character in The Secret Garden – those with knowledge of nursery rhymes will understand: “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?”

For younger readers you may be asking questions to which the answers are obviously in the text, such as to recap the sequence of events. But then you can start looking at the inference – or as I put it to them – the secret code behind the words. These are questions which probe behind the obvious – behind what’s ‘shown’ to the reader in the text. My favourite picture books that teach inference are I Want my Hat Back by Jon Klassen – read the book and then ask the child what happened to the rabbit. Shh I Have a Plan by Chris Haughton needs careful attention to the pictures to see what’s going to happen – the text is scant. Please Mr Panda by Steve Antony doesn’t spell out why Mr Panda is so reticent to give some animals a doughnut – the clue’s in the title.

Inference questions can also lead the reader to pull out the emotion behind a scene as well as the implied consequences. Even the youngest child can do this if the book is discussed rather than just read.

To go even further with older readers, you can open it out to a full-blown discussion about reading – is the story moralistic, does it pull on a reader’s personal experience of something, does it compare to something else they have read, is it trying to say something other than just tell a story? What opinion do you have of the character’s actions, the story as a whole?

When the readers get to the age of exams and comprehensions, it can be a delightful discovery to nit-pick passages of great storytelling prose, like a mini course in studying the classics. For those involved in the #2016classicschallenge (reading classic books during 2016), looking at exam papers is like sampling a taster menu.

Going through a small extract makes the reader look carefully at the writer’s precise choice of words, not something that children usually do when they’re reading for pleasure. Reading for enjoyment tends to involve page-turning – a sumptuous ride through the pages of a plot to find out what’s going to happen next in the story – that’s natural. Most children tend to think that poetry is more suited for dissecting – for looking at the choice of words and the emotions they elicit.

But passages of prose can be equally painstakingly written. Dissecting the passage in Oliver Twist following Bill Sikes’ murder of Nancy, the reader can explore the thrill of seeking out how Dickens portrays guilt, playing beautifully with imagery of light and dark as the sun reveals the extent of the crime:

“It lighted up the room where the murdered woman lay. It did. He tried to shut it out, but it would stream in. If the sight had been a ghastly one in the dull morning, what was it, now in all that brilliant light!” (Chapter 48, Oliver Twist)

Dickens also shows Bill’s frantic state of mind, the horror of the deed, his to-ing and fro-ing, his sleeplessness, his inability to eat or drink – all implications of his guilt.

I first read Pullman’s His Dark Materials Trilogy with a gripped delight and page-turning fury, whipping through Lyra’s compelling adventure with a hurried urgency. Yet examining a piece in detail, Northern Lights Chapter Six, shows just why it was such a gripping read. The prose sings with carefully crafted words. Pausing again over vocabulary such as ‘snicked’, juxtaposing ‘spitting’ and ‘cuddling’ in the same sentence, and the force of verbs including ‘launching’, ‘bowling’, ‘tangling’, ‘dodging,’ ‘darting’ consecutively in the extract. The words themselves are exciting, but put together they add up to something captivating and enthralling.

Once you start to delve into the book, and work out what questions it makes you ask, and how it makes you feel – a whole new appreciation and level of understanding of literature starts to emerge. And for those students preparing for comprehensions, literature exams, I hope that, as well as acing your exam, the extract you’re given spurs you into revisiting it, but this time in the book in which it was intended to sit – as part of a longer piece of outstanding storytelling.