Thursday, 27 January 2011

Disenchanted reader

I've just finished reading Enchanted Hunters: the power of stories in childhood by Maria Tatar and I'm feeling frustrated. The quotations and the blurb promise me that she will pin down, analyse and explain the magic of storytelling and the power of reading in children's lives. Hurray! I thought. Therein lies some questions I'd like answered. But it revealed nothing at all but rather repeated the purely obvious: stories allow children to explore situations and other emotions beyond their own experience and allow them to indulge their imaginations by plunging them into fantasy. Perhaps I have not read carefully enough and there's more substance to this than I'm seeing. She has interesting things to say about various books (especially about the child-centredness of Lewis Carroll and Dr Seuss), and I enjoyed the part about how story-telling morphed into bed-time reading over the ages. There's also an entertaining appendix of quotations from different authors about how they first experienced reading. But on the whole, a disappointment, and I didn't follow Maria Tatar's explanation of why she used a quotation from Lolita for the title at all.

I come away with unanswered questions:

Why does the fantastic appeal to children? Why do they love magic and other worlds, time slips and aliens?

Why do many adults lose the taste for the fantastic? Do they gain something else? Is it to do with the fact that the whole world is less mysterious to them? Is it to do with the fact that they have learned to be critical and can no longer suspend disbelief?

Why do I still like to read children's books? Is this childish? Do I read them the same way as I did when I was a child?

Why do some children become so involved in stories? Or perhaps how? Do they feel part of the action? Or is observing enough? Why do reading children seem to get this all-encompassing involvement often, whereas I only occasionally reach this point with a book (I suspect there is a time-to-spare factor here!).

So here's my plan. I'm going to search out some books about reading, about how we read and why we read, and some books about children's books (or I could reread the dozen on my shelves whose contents I seem to have forgotten). And I'm going to think about it. Maybe the reason Maria Tatar didn't come up with any revelation is because there isn't any. So, more on this at a later date, but if you have any answers or can suggest any promising leads in my quest, let me know.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Narrative gluttony

I badly want to like reading aloud. I like the idea of it. I think I should like it. I'm pretty good at it: clear, expressive, entertaining, not too given to doing funny voices (though I'm a sucker for a roars and cracks and whispers and shouts). My children are beyond the picture book stage now, but I never really had a problem with those, apart from the really bad ones that for some reason they insisted I read again and again... and again. Tinky Winky's Bag was one such, and how I rejoiced when it fell apart. Other books have been lovingly taped together, but Tinky Winky's Bag went straight in the fire (an act Robert will not allow me to forget: 'You BURNT a book!'). Clearly, picture books are short, so one does not have to invest much time in reading them, and they have pictures, so there's something to look at other than the words, and something to talk about too. It doesn't feel like an interuption of the story to discuss what is happening in the pictures, it feels like you're adding to it. I don't think it's about the shortness though. I've sat and read piles of picture books, one after another, and not found it arduous.

I think the problem with reading a longer book aloud must be the reading speed. Aloud, each word and each space has to take up a its own moment, whereas in your head the black marks on the page translate themselves into a single stream of thought. I'm anxious for my fix of story and it doesn't come quick enough aloud. Of course if I'm reading aloud, I'm not reading for myself, and I'm not hurrying throught it, I'm knocking myself out to please my audience with dramatic pauses and varying tone, but in the back of my head there's this thrumming 'what happens next?' even though I've probably read it before. Remember how at school when you read a book round the class, and it was so slow, the book seemed to plod, even something gripping like Lord of the Rings or To Kill a Mockingbird. I longed for my turn to read so I could put my all into it, showing off wildly, showing up the other girls, forcing praise from the teacher, but even then the words dragged their feet on the page, so I had to sneakily read on by myself just to get the joy of the story, and oh, how much more plodding it was in class once I didn't even have the anticipation to keep me going.

So now Robert does most of the reading aloud, although I usually suggest the books. It does give me a pang to see them curled up, sharing the book, but I know if it were me reading I'd be thinking 'how many pages to the end of the chapter' and I'd never give in to the demands to read the first paragraph of the next chapter before I stop, as he does. When I do read aloud, it's for practical reasons: to pass time when we're stuck somewhere and everyone's bored; to help someone get back into a book that they've lost the plot of (Watership Down last week, and I'm not surprised she'd lost it, the language is so complex I was having to explain a word or two in every sentence); and often I read to smallest daughter when she's doing her chores to stop her complaining about them, because I can't actually help her or the others would break into a chorus of 'it's not fair'.

I don't think the reading aloud is going to stop any time soon in our hose. All the girls can read and yet they love to listen to stories, any sort of story. Perhaps you don't have to grow out of listening. Maybe the thing that puts you off is the school experience and that's because you're trying to read at the same time as listening. Maybe what you need is just to allow your ears to do the transfering of the story to your brain instead dechiphering those little black marks. Perhaps I should try listening to stories again. I do it sometimes, in the car on Radio 4, but never on purpose, only if the story happens to be there when I'm listening. Do I enjoy it? I don't know; mostly I don't hear a whole story, or I'm thinking about something else, or talking to someone in the car. Maybe if I learn to listen I can slow down my narrative gluttony and relish reading aloud.