Keep the Magic Going

Paul Jennings, transcript from the Reluctant Readers Seminar

The other day my wife was having a clean out prior to our moving house. Among the rejected rubbish I found an old, grey, wooden tray. Its paint was chipped and its art deco drawer handles plainly announced its age. It was thirty five years old.

I made it for my mother when I was in Grade Five at Bentleigh West State School.

The old tray has been rescued and it is now resting safely in my study.

The reason I am so fond of the tray is not because I made it (although I do recall that it was one of the few things that I ever did at school which was held up by the teacher) but because my mother was so pleased to get it. She put away her expensive sterling silver tray and placed mine on the sideboard in its place. She used it every day. Even when I was a man of thirty she still brought it out.

Across the nation today, there is hardly a family that has its fridge door free of the drawings and sculptures of children.

They are statements that we value what the children do. And who the children are. They are messages of care.

Children are quick to notice these messages. They are even quicker to notice their absence.

Before and during pre-school, infants are free to dabble, explore, puddle, paste and build. Their efforts are rewarded with delighted smiles and shows of approval. It is the same with books. Children can retell stories, 'pretend' to read books and create their own yarns. Their efforts will be met with approval.

It is only when they enter school for the first time that failure has the chance to rear its ugly head. There is a subject called reading. The teacher is turning over little cards with shapes on them. Everyone is chanting 'a, buh, kuh, duh.' These little cards have no meaning to John. He has learned to say 'guh' when he sees the one with the dirty thumb print but the rest are mysteries. And not very interesting mysteries either.

Suddenly Mum becomes anxious. Instead of reading stories for fun she has become preoccupied with the little squiggles. She even puts her hands over the pictures and demands 'word recognition'.

John is starting to realise that his efforts with books are not valued. In fact the whole process is becoming painful. Being an intelligent boy he avoids pain. And books.

The picture I have drawn is an oversimplification. Nevertheless, I am firmly convinced that the majority of reluctant readers become reluctant readers because of adult pressures and anxieties. The result is children who come to view themselves as poor readers. They regard books as the objects of pain rather than pleasure.

All children need to be given success experiences with books. They need books that they can read and like reading from the very beginning.

In the days of graded reading material children were soon able to identify themselves as belonging to the poor performing group. The materials provided had status. The lower the level, the lower the status of the child reading the material. The bottom group had remedial materials which were immediately identified by their boring and simplistic nature.

Fortunately, in the literature based reading classes of today, we don't have such an obvious success-failure measure as graded books.

There is still, however, a difficult period in the early stages of reading. At home and pre-school, books have been experienced as being full of fun, wonder, laughter and excitement. They are objects of pure pleasure. Books contain magic. The infant teacher has the task of maintaining these perceptions while at the same time leading the child to decode print.

This is the dangerous stage.


In an effort to present books which are thought to be easy to decode we may present them with something which is far inferior to the wonderful stories that have been read to them. The magic has disappeared. The appealing has become appalling.

Coupled with this is the expectation of word for word accuracy. Children are quick learners. More often than not, the real lesson is 'if you take risks you will be punished'. Struggling to identify words instead of getting on with the story is the best way to turn children away from enjoying books.

My definition of a reluctant reader is as follows: a reluctant reader is a child for whom adults have not been able to find a good enough book.

I place the problem back where it belongs on the adults. For too long we have looked for perceptual, cognitive, linguistic and neurological deficits within the child. There may be a tiny number of children who have such problems but most reluctant readers are children who like something different to that which has been provided.

If I try to light a fire and it doesn't burn,

I may curse the matches,

I may damn the wood.

I may blame the fireplace,

But it is I that failed to produce the spark.

When a child does not like reading, it is I that failed to ignite the flames.

Is there reading material which is easy to read and yet compelling in content? Are the materials available, particularly in the infant grades?

The answer is yes. The situation improves every day. There are books which children can already read when they enter school. They already know many nursery rhymes, traditional fairy tales and chants. There are many wonderful stories with refrains and choruses. There are many wonderful picture books which children learn by heart from repeated readings. It is-not hard to give success experiences if word for word accuracy is not required. There are meaningful and easy texts for every taste.

'Matching children and books' is a phrase which I first heard used by Max Kemp many years ago. This is a critical notion. We have to learn that it is reasonable for the children to reject books they don't like. However, the opposite is not true. When children produce or find something that appeals to them we have no right to reject it. I am often surprised by the books which many adults name as childhood favourites. We have to value what the children value. We have to stop throwing their trays in the bin.

The task I set for myself when I started writing was to produce books for twelve year olds which were easy to read but still had a real story. I wanted to hook the child who thinks that books are not rewarding.

I have to admit here that as I had the upper primary and lower secondary readers in mind that I was attempting cure rather than prevention. We are still failing to keep the magic going for some children when they enter school. Reversing this situation is probably where our major efforts should be concentrated. However, if you have a twelve year old who doesn't like reading, the rescue mission becomes very important.

The first mistake we make when we try to help reluctant readers is to treat them as a separate group. For the last twenty years primary school teachers have known that they must teach to a wide range of ability levels in one class. The difficult part of this task is to do it without humiliating the lower group.

In reading, we can overcome the problem to some extent by allowing choice of material to the whole class. This includes allowing the advanced readers to read below their levels on some occasions. Adults allow themselves this choice. Everyone indulges in reading something 'light' occasionally.

As far as fiction is concerned I make it a rule not to force children to do things with books that adults don't choose to do themselves. This is why I would never have questions at the back of a book. Or force children to read books which are of no interest to them. Or stop them reading something in order to work a text that someone else prefers.

Having easy to read books available for all the children in a class helps both skilled and unskilled readers. Books such as All Right, Vegemite! (Factor 1986) are predictable and easy to read because the contents are already known and because rhyming aids decoding. The contents are amusing and sometimes 'naughty'. We might prefer the children to read something of more substance but we cannot deny that these books have child appeal. I have seen them in every room from Prep to lower secondary. There is no stigma attached to the fact that they are easy to read. Because they have widespread acceptance children are not ashamed to be seen with them. The reluctant readers are simply doing what everyone else is.

Reluctant readers want the same books as the other kids. A book for a reluctant reader has to attract good readers or it will fail in its object. To this extent there is no such thing as a book for reluctant readers.

By allowing all students the freedom of choice in a setting where many difficulty levels are provided we remove the adult imposed stigmas previously associated with some reading material and allow all children to be real readers.

An encouraging sign is the slow trend to the acceptance of picture books in the upper school. This is something which should be encouraged Picture books are capable of giving enormous pleasure. It is only the stigma of being seen with them that confines picture books to the lower grades. Publishers and teachers need to encourage this upward trend. The Wedding Chest by Leon Garfield is a bold venture to present an adolescent story in picture book form.

The value which adults place upon particular books is quickly perceived by children. It is therefore important that parents and teachers do not convey negative feelings about materials which some children enjoy.

Adults often prefer the deep and meaningful.

Last year I was asked to give a talk on books that influenced me as a child. The first volume I can remember is one called Struwwelpeter (Hoffman 1848). I managed to obtain a copy and realized at once that the book had not been written for me. It was a collection of cautionary tales, mostly in verse. The book was meant to warn children against thumb sucking, leaving doors open. bad table manners and playing with matches. Terrible things such as having one's thumb cut off happened to offenders. Although I loved the book, it is clear that it was intended to serve the purposes of adults.

Today we are not so blatant. We do, however, use children's books for noble purposes. We hope that they will have themes of courage, honesty, respect for the elderly and so on. I have heard it said that 'people who have nothing to say should not write books for children'. There is an implication here that children's books may not aim simply to entertain.

I don't believe that a writer needs to set out to teach a lesson. The minimum requirement is to tell a tale. Having said this I am the first to admit that every story is value laden. The author just can't help it. The story has to be about something. However, it is perfectly legitimate for the author to seek to amuse or entertain as a primary goal. Children should have laughter as a reading option.

Not everyone likes a sermon. Almost everyone likes a laugh.

Which is easier to elicit a tear or a chuckle? The answer is that both are difficult. Both tug on the emotions. But how are the two genres valued by adults? Is humour seen to be easier and therefore of less value? And how does this line up with the children's perceptions? Children like to laugh.

The simplest little joke, ditty or story can make an enormous contribution to the life of the reader and the community by doing one simple thing. Teaching the reader to imagine. Making a child be someone else for a short time.

Here is the beginning of a story which I wrote a fortnight ago.

The bird's perch is swinging to and fro and hitting me on the nose. I can see my eye in its little mirror. Its water dish is sliding around near my chin. The smell of old bird droppings is awful. The world looks different when you are staring or it through bars.

Fool, fool, fool.

What am I doing walking to school with my head in a birds cage?

Oh no. Here's the school gate. Kids are looking or me. They are pointing. Laughing. Their faces remind me of waves, slapping and slopping at a drowning child.

Strike. Here comes that rotten Philip Noonan. He's grinning. He's poking bits of bread through the bars. 'Pretty Polly,' he says. 'Polly want a biscuit?'

I wish I was an ant so that I could could crawl into a crack. Then no one would ever see me.

Teachers are looking our of the staffroom window. I can see Mr Gristle looking. I can see Mr Marsden looking. They are shaking their heads.

I wrote the first page of this story a year ago but I couldn't think what to do with it. Most of my stories start with one lonely, bizarre image. I didn't know what it was going to be about. I didn't have anything I wanted to say. But I did know one thing. I was consciously doing what I always do when I write. I was trying to make the reader become the boy or girl in the story. I want the reader to have their own head in that cage. I want them to suffer embarrassment. I want them to be rescued. I want them to triumph. I might even want them to lick a fly swat. But above all, I want them, for a brief moment to be someone else.

It is this ability to put ourselves in the place of another that makes us truly human. It is because we can use our imagination to be someone else that we can forgo our own pleasures for the benefit of another. It is because people have imagined that slavery ended. It is because people have imagined that prisoners of conscience are freed. It is because people can imagine that we can hope one day for justice and freedom in the world.

A story can make us be another person in the way that nothing else can. The headlines on television may scream the deaths of thousands of people in another land and it will not even be mentioned at morning tea. But take a good story and you will see that the tale of the death of one person will make thousands of others cry.

Imagination is the food of compassion. We should fear those who lack it.

And we should ensure that all children are able to be someone else in their imagination. The reluctant readers are not just missing out on books. They are missing out on a very special sort of humanizing magic.

The door to this world of the imagination can be through a story that has been written just for fun. We hope the children will move on. We hope that through another book they will share, however momentarily, a few pangs of hunger. We hope that they will learn there is no such thing as a bad nation. We hope that through books they will admire the greatest minds and bravest souls. But they have to start somewhere. If the hook is humour or adventure or fun, let us not disparage it. If a book does no more than teach a child to imagine it has done its work well.

There is another misconception which many adults hold about children's books. They think that easier to read means easier to write. In fact I think the opposite is probably true.

Ask any author of thirty-page picture books. Writing a compelling plot for a book with three lines on each page is agony.

What I am saying here is that we are in danger of putting our stamp of approval only on books that appear to be complex and value laden. These beliefs will convey themselves to children. Books that are easy to read are not of less value.

On a number of occasions I have been interviewed by children's literature experts who have given me a kindly warning. Do I really want it known that I am interested in the reluctant reader? The message is not further elaborated but I know what it is. Anyone who writes to catch the reluctant reader is in danger of putting himself or herself outside of the mainstream of 'proper' children's literature. I appreciate the warnings. It is such a pity though, that they need to be given.

'Child appeal' is not a dirty phrase. Experts who value books on a set of adult criteria alone must take some of the responsibility for the shortage of easily read, high interest volumes which may attract our less able, older readers. 'Child appeal' is the first, and necessary requirement for reluctant readers. I will go further than this child appeal is the first requirement for any children's book.

The magic of a story is not dependent on the number of words used. It does not necessarily need simile, metaphor and alliteration. Magic can be conveyed simply. It can be easy to read. It will never be easy to write.

Are there strategies that writers can employ to keep the difficulty level of texts down? Yes, there are. However a look at books which are written to syntactic prescriptions will reveal that most of them are stilted and boring. No one can produce a work of art following someone else's directions.

Many excellent writers for children have an ear for grammar and little knowledge of the formal rules, yet they manage somehow, to make the text accessible to young readers.

I will now list, with some trepidation, a few of the guidelines I make for myself when I write. There are no unbreakable rules. Once rules are employed the writing ceases to be art. Guidelines, however, sit at the back of one's mind. They mingle with intuition to provide the final result.

Without an original plot and a compelling story, guidelines produce only a sequence of words. Having said this, I freely admit that I douse some guidelines to make my stories as accessible as possible.

Here are some of them.

1. The reader should never be in doubt as to who has spoken. I nearly always change paragraphs for a different speaker. It is important to signal clearly which bit of speech came from which character.

2. Dialogue does not have to be signalled by devices such as 'she whispered fiercely out of the corner of her mouth.' I think I must have read about ten of the award winning American writer, Raymond Carver's short stories before I realized that he only ever used 'she said' and 'he said'. I like a little more variety than this but I'm aware that it makes an unnecessary difficulty for those who struggle. Here is an example from a story called Licked in my next book Unbearable. 'You should stop picking on Andrew at tea time,' says Mum.

'I don't.' says Dad.

'Yes you do.' says Mum. 'It's always "don't do this, don't do that." You'll give the boy a complex.'

I have never heard of a complex before but I guess that it is something awful like pimples.

'Tonight,' says Mum. 'I want you to go for the whole meal without telling Andrew off once.'

'Easy,' says Dad.

3. Pronouns should be used with care. I use the character's names in places where a pronoun might seem to give more variety. There should be absolutely no doubt as to the identity of the person to whom a pronoun refers.

4. Generally speaking passive sentences are more difficult to process then active sentences. 'John was pushed by Mary' takes a little more work to decode than 'Mary pushed John'.

5. Long sentences with embedded clauses may be more difficult to read than two or three shorter sentences. It is not always true that a shorter sentence is easier in some cases a conjunction may signal what is to come. For example. 'John was hungry so he ate the spaghetti' is probably easier than 'John was hungry. He ate the spaghetti.' On the other hand the following sentence is difficult to process. 'The boy in the green jumper who likes to watch horror videos is my friend.' This needs breaking up.