Talking About Books

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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.