The Man on the Stair

Paul Jennings, "Magpies", September 1988

 
Not being able to read well can be a nightmare. Ever since I first started teaching twenty-five years ago, I have been interested in the problems of the reluctant reader. When my book Unreal was launched a few years ago, I hoped that reluctant readers might perhaps dip into it. During the book signing session at the book launch a lady pushed her way to the front and said, "My grandson John doesn't read. He hates books. Write something in your book that will make him read it." I tried feverishly to find the magic sentence and eventually scribbled a few words. They were, "Dear John, when you have finished reading this book Grandma will give you thirty dollars."

Of course I was being facetious and I think the lady forgave me. The love of reading will never be developed through money, stickers, stamps or other bribes. Reading will only become a habit with children if the experience is intrinsically rewarding.

If there is one thing that unites us as teachers and parents it is the desire to encourage children to read. Be we student, teacher, author, parent or professor we want to learn how to bring good books and children together.

Why? Because we know the importance of books in our own lives. We know that a book can inspire, can change lives, can give direction, can address bigotry and unkindness, can take a reader into the mind of another, can ease suffering and spread happiness. We know how a good book can fill the sleepless night so much better than a valium tablet.

How pleased we are when we see a child giggling at a book in front of the fire, or surreptitiously reading under the desk, or staying up all night reading under the blankets. What a wonderful problem it is to have a child who can't take his or her nose out of a book.

How sad we feel then when a child cannot or does not read. We know, if he or she dislikes books, that they have suffered a great loss. The problem of the reluctant reader is one that is often addressed at a conference. I have a strong conviction that anyone who writes for children must have as their first aim a desire to encourage children to read.

We still have in many schools and education resource centres, collections known as remedial readers or books for reluctant readers. Although I have written a number of these texts myself, I now believe that there is no longer a need or a place for them. Remedial texts are based on the assumption that there is something special about them that good reader's don't require. This usually means that they have a "high" interest level and a low difficulty level. There is an assumption that only "experts" can control difficulty level. This is wrong. Every children's writer (at the primary level at least) controls difficulty level. Some authors know how they do it and some don't. But they all do something that makes the book accessible to young minds. There is nothing wrong with an author controlling the readability level of a book as long as that control, whether intuitively or deliberately done, comes from within rather than without.

The slower readers in schools do not need a special section. Rather, the whole class needs a choice of books with varying readability levels which will appeal to advanced and reluctant readers equally.

Books with lower readability levels should not be tagged for any special group. All children need a mixed diet, just as adults do. One of the very encouraging signs in schools today is to see the gradual breaking down of stigmas attached to certain types of books. It is very pleasing to see picture books gradually making their way into the upper grades and books from the upper school in the hands of some younger children.

A book with a low readability level may be accessible to a reluctant reader but it will need something else as well. The one, essential ingredient in a piece of fiction for a reluctant reader is the same ingredient that an advanced reader needs: a good story, well told. If the book doesn't move the reader, the reader won't move the book no matter how easy it is to read.

Sure, let's reduce the difficulty level so that our slower readers have something they can manage. But then let us subject the book to the critical test. Will it attract advanced readers? If the answer is "no" it is not good enough.

A writer is not wasting a good plot by aiming at reluctant readers or writing it in a simple style. The book, how- ever, should not be solely directed at the reluctant reader. Why should it? The reluctant reader is more demanding than the good reader and is more difficult to please. He requires a better yarn, not a worse one. Any book that works with reluctant readers will work with advanced readers as well.

There is a paucity of good fiction written at a reading level of about age eight. Ask any publisher and they will tell you that there is a hole in the market which lies between the picture book and the full blown novel. Junior school teachers will tell you the same thing. The hole is there because, for some of us, it is harder to write with less words than it is with more. It is also there because some adults value the long to the short and the complex to the simple. It is great to have alliteration in a book. It is great to have metaphor. It is good to have detailed characterisation but it is not always necessary to include every stylistic feature and it is sometimes more painful for a writer to exclude these elements than it is for him to include them.

We may dispense with some stylistic features but what we cannot dispose of, however, is a good yarn.

I have a little list which I use to remind myself of the things kids like to find in books:

1. They like to be moved, whether to laughter or tears.

2. They like quick rewards. Children are not long stayers as far as reading is concerned.

3. They like a surprise.

4. They like food, and treasure and money.

5. They like to see the underdog become the top dog.

6. They like to see the baddy get punished.

7. They like to recognise themselves, their own fears and their own embarrassments and their own world.

These elements are all important be the book aimed at reluctant readers or enthusiastic readers. Both groups deserve the best. And both groups will reject books that fail to deliver.

I am not going to discuss all of the features on my list but I would like to examine a few of them.

The first relates to the real world that children today live in and the fears and hopes that they face at school and home.

Books can help children deal with their fears. They can unmask the man on the stairs. Remember him in that frightening little anonymous rhyme?

As I was coming down the stair

I met a man who wasn't there.

He wasn't there again today

I wish that he would go away.

In one sense we know that the man on the stair is there. He represents our deepest fears and anxieties. For some he is the death of a loved one or perhaps one's own, silent grave on the hillside. For me he is the voice that tells me all the way during a flight that the plane is going to drop out of the sky.

Oh, how I wish he'd go away.

Some others do see our own particular man on the stair but most don't Spike Milligan sees mine. "It's not the flying that I worry about," he said. "It's the crashing."

Those of us who know that the man on the stair is only there if we think he is are very fortunate. There is a group of people, however, who see a man on the stair and they are sure that he is real. This group of people, of course, is children.

How well I remember lying in bed at night with the light off. Aged seven. There is a shadow on the wall and it is a man who has come to get me. My voice is strangled by the cold clutches of fear I want to cry out, "Mum, Mum, there's a man in my room." But I lie trembling and silent. I know that the quietest rustle will bring him leaping upon me. He may not have seen me. He may not be sure that I am there. I try to still my thumping heart. My legs are numb with Pins and needles but I dare not move. In the distance a train rumbles warmly by. For a moment I am comforted and from my lonely blankets I see the driver, face yellowed by his dials, peering along the tracks. And then he fades away. And leaves me alone. With the shadow on the wall. The man on the stair.

What is our responsibility to our readers in regard to these terrible fears of childhood?

Firstly it is our responsibility to remember and to know, to see and understand the world that our children live in. I myself feel a particular responsibility because besides writing funny stories I write spooky ones. If a primary aged child reads a story and then lies awake trembling then I have hurt rather than helped. I am partly let off the hook by the fact that I write fantasy which, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, is a particularly honest form of literature. It says to the reader, "I am going to take you to the stars. I am going to introduce you to gnomes and dragons. I am going to make you jump and shiver. But in the end it is all a dream. A dream conjured up by two fertile minds: the reader's and the writer's."

There is also a difference between "horror" stories and "spooky" stories. Horror leaves the reader feeling that the world is an evil and dangerous place. Spooky is benign because in the end it was all a misunderstanding and there wasn't really anything to be afraid of at all.

In this regard the writer of children's books must be very aware of the strength of the imagination that children bring to a book. In one of my stories A Dozen Bloomin' Roses I tell the tale of a young man who takes a bunch of flowers on the train. He thinks that all of the passengers are smirking at him and he hides the flowers behind his back. The sliding doors of the train close on the flowers leaving the blooms on the outside. The embarrassed boy, clinging to the stems behind his back, tries to act as if nothing has happened. When the train reaches the station the door opens and he brings out his hand to reveal a bare bunch of stems. In humiliated horror he flees the laughter of a vindictive passenger by running into the train tunnel and is killed by an oncoming train. Later, the flowers, bearing an image of the dead boy, emerge from the tunnel to work justice on the mocker. Shortly after this story was published I was approached by a teacher who said that she wished I had not let the boy die. "I keep seeing him," she said, "in the tunnel with the train rushing down. He throws up his arms and is dashed beneath the wheels and crushed terribly in an avalanche of blood."

All I wrote in the story was,

There was a low rumble and then a scream.

The train rushed out of the tunnel. As it slowed I noticed a bunch of broken flower stems wedged on one of the buffers.

I protested that what the reacher saw was not what I wrote. "I know," she said. "But that's what happened to the boy."

We have to think very carefully about where we take the minds of our young readers and remember that they may see more of the scenery than the writer did.

One way that authors can help children to deal with the man on the stair is to shine the spotlight on him and reveal him not to be so terrible after all. It is easier to deal with your foe if you know him. Many children are afraid of the death of a loved one or of themselves. We have some fine books which take this as their theme. Katherine Paterson's Bridge to Terabithia, Doris Buchanan Smith's A Taste of Blackberries and Eleanor Coerr's Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes to name just a few. All of these books deal with this topic in a gentle and sensitive way.

I would like to suggest, however, an additional approach: we can deal with the man on the stair by laughing at him. When we do this we laugh at ourselves and our fears and gain power over them.

One of the abiding fears of childhood and adolescence is to be excluded from the group. To be different. "How embarrassing" is a constant phrase used by my own children. Clothes must conform absolutely. The school skirt must be a certain number of centimetres above the knee or one is a dag or a dork. The teachers can run around with tape measures, they can confiscate earrings by the kilo, they can measure hair length, but they will never win. The power of the peer group is just too strong.

When the hero or heroine suffers embarrassment the reader may find it funny. The boy who has to run home naked after his clothes have been stolen bumps into the lady next door as he flees in panic. The readers laugh at him and in doing so laugh at themselves and their own fears of exposure. Of course, in the end it all works out and the hero gets the last laugh.

Children easily recognise their own fears in a book. This one is very common. I am driving one of my teenagers to the local disco and it is raining. About two blocks from the door my daughter says, "You can drop me here, Dad." I keep on driving. Her voice becomes more strident. "You can drop me here, Dad," she squawks. "It's raining," I say. "It's no trouble to drop you at the door." By now her voice is a shout. "Dad, I want to get out here." I am tempted to drive her all the way to the door where the gathered crowd are smoking and laughing and (worst of all) looking. And they will see her get out of her dad's car. I am tempted to take her all the way there and say in a loud voice as she steps out, "Have you got your hanky, Jenny?" But of course I don't. I do what my father did and let her out round the corner where the sight of her mouldy old father won't embarrass her.

If my heroine in a story acts like this at the disco, the thousands of kids who do the same thing smile when they read it. They laugh at her and in doing so they laugh at themselves too. This is why we remember one of the great comic sketches of all time: Basil Fawlty beating his own car with a branch and telling it that it has had its last chance. How many of us have wanted to do this? That's why we laugh. We recognise ourselves.

"Bleak humour" (I prefer this term to black humour) is when we laugh at a situation which in real life would be tragic or frightening. Despite the fact that it can sometimes be in bad taste, bleak humour does serve a purpose. It gives us power over our own fears. Death is often the subject of bleak humour and the jokes help us to cope with our own mortality. It's not often used in children's books, but it's very common in playground rhymes. Children like it. That's why Roald Dahl's Revolting Rhymes or June Factor's Far Out Brussel Sprout are so popular.

Here is a little bit of my own. In Tonsil Eye 'Tis in Quirky Tails my hero has found that an eye has grown on the end of one of his fingers. He finds that this is useful because he can put it in places which are difficult to access and have a look around. His own ear and mouth are the first places he thinks of. To his horror the boy sees a terrible little face grinning at him from behind his own tonsils. He tries frantically but unsuccessfully to lure this pest out by bribing it with hundreds and thousands but it is too smart and always finds its way back inside.

After I read this story to a group of children, a friend who was listening said,'"That's a very creepy story, Paul. There is something terrible about a little man hiding behind one's tonsils."

Of course there is. His name is streptococci, or measles, or a cholesterol filled artery. We all fear the hidden enemy within. Laughing at him helps us cope. Children like bleak humour just as adults do and it can serve the same purposes for them that it does for us.

Some people feel that bleak humour is an inappropriate form to use with children. I don't agree. As George Bernard Shaw said, "Life does not cease to be funny when someone dies anymore than it ceases to be serious when someone laughs." John Cleese tells us that "most of the trouble in the world comes from people denying their dark side and projecting it on to others." Bleak humour helps us to cope with it.

As children grow older, adults seem to feel that humour is a less relevant genre. Picture books, which have historically catered mainly for very young children, contain a lot of humour. Junior books for the middle school contain less. Books for adolescents are mostly serious and funny books at this level very rarely win prizes. Look in your bookshop at the humour section. It might represent perhaps one percent of the total titles for older readers.

This attitude to humour seems to be based on an expectation that we will laugh less as we grow older. Humour in literature is undervalued by adults, particularly in books aimed at older children. In part, I think this attitude comes from the notion that childhood is a preparation for life and that as one enters the teens one should put mirth aside. I reject this notion. Childhood is not preparation for life. Childhood is life. It should be enjoyed and savoured for what it is. And a good laugh is an important part of it. Perhaps if adults had a few more laughs they would need a few less bombs.

Humour is an especially good hook to use with reluctant readers. They are no different to anyone else in this regard. Humour moves the child in a beneficial way. Any good book must move the reader in some way or other. This is the gift that the author has for the child.

I have mentioned just a few elements which might be included in a good story. They are used as examples of the great purposes which children's books may serve. Reluctant readers need books to serve their needs just as much as good readers do.

Children who read hesitantly do need simply written books but they do not need simple books. They need prose that will provoke tears, or laughter, or curiosity or wonder or fright or dreams or rage or peace. They need books that will move the mind and stir the soul. Anything less is not good enough for a competent reader and is nowhere near good enough for a reluctant reader. It is my hope that we can get out there and give our reluctant readers the best books that we can. It is true that children can't live forever in a world of dreams. But none of them should ever have to live in a world of nightmares. Our task is to provide every child with books which provide both the entrance to a world of dreams and a safe passage past the man on the stair.