Reading Teaching Reading

How children’s literature can offer models of reading attitudes and behaviour.

(Another piece of writing unrelated to the Great War, this is something I wrote a while ago, and came across when moving files to a new computer. I thought I’d put it online in the hope that it might interest a few people. Many of the examples are a bit old-fashioned, and some parts of the survey are a bit skeletal, so perhaps others will come up with newer and better examples of books that teach children how to read.)

Most children learn to read; relatively few these days become readers. Real readers, that is, taking deep pleasure in books, exploring them avidly, immersing themselves, learning and growing through their reading. Reading with pleasure is an activity that can seem natural and unproblematic to those who take it for granted, but it is one that many children never master. They can piece together the words and sentences, and manage average scores in their SAT tests, but feel no compulsion to go seeking enlightenment and joy between the covers of a paperback. “He’s not a reader,” some parents and some teachers will say, rather sadly, and even pityingly. Yet other children no more intelligent, no more generally motivated or curious, eagerly want to master the complex of skills involved in intelligent reading, and enter the world of books with enthusiasm.

How do they learn? This can seem a mystery. Teachers can give the same guidance and encouragement to two children. One will take avidly to books; the other will regard them with at best dull tolerance. Nor is it just a question of the home background (teachers’ favourite scapegoat). Brothers and sisters can vary remarkably in their attitude to books.

What do all real readers have in common? Nothing more perhaps than exposure to books. It is a truism that the best way to improve reading skills is by practising reading, but I want to float the idea that it can be books themselves that teach children to read, by presenting models of reading behaviour that some children will pick up on and emulate. This will lead to more reading, and the discovery of other models, and other reasons for reading. Reading, therefore, is a self-reinforcing activity. One of the least acknowledged joys of reading is that in the world of books the bookish child stands a chance of being given the pleasure of recognising himself or herself as reader portrayed in a positive light. In books children can discover children for whom reading is a joy (sometimes a forbidden one), children for whom reading is useful, and children for whom it is the gateway to the sublime and an invitation to wonder and terror. The hints are there for those who are ready to take them.

The following are some of the types of reading behaviour found in a fairly wide (though rather old-fashioned) range of children’s books., all the texts mentioned have at some time in the last century or so been presented as children’s literature. The types are in no particular order, except that I start off with the worst.

A.The inauthentic reader

Many children never get beyond the type of reading encouraged by reading schemes – reading to please an adult. This is most gruesomely presented as admirable in Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy: “When he was quite a little fellow he learnt to read; and after that he used to lie on the hearthrug, in the evening, and read aloud – sometimes stories, and sometimes big books, such as older people read, and sometimes even the newspaper; and often at such times Mary, in the kitchen, would hear Mrs Errol laughing with delight at the quaint things he said…”

B. The obedient reader

The oldest model of reading activity to be found in children’s literature is probably the instructional. Victorian tracts for young people (sometimes advertised as “Literature suitable for presenting to children and servants”) contain an obligatory scene featuring the encounter between the hero (generally a child) and a book. The book contains a grim warning anecdote or a generous promise of heaven, and the child heartwarmingly decides upon a path of virtue. The reader is thus given a strong hint about how she should be reacting to the tract that is currently before her own eyes.

The obedient reader’s apotheosis must be in that most horrible and pious of all children’s books, The History of the Fairchild Family, by Mrs Sherwood. Here Charles Trueman, “one of the most pious little boys in all that country” who was first glimpsed reading a devotional work, dies according to the book:

“Charles turned his dying eyes towards Mr Somers, and answered, ‘I know that my redeemer liveth; and though after my skin worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God’ (Job xix 25,26)

“The little boy spake these words with difficulty… after a while his eyes half shut, and he fell into the agonies of death…”

Some of today’s fundamentalist sects issue literature that follow a similar pattern, though less terrifyingly.

C. The afflicted reader

In the notorious Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin, for example, young Jenny is confused about her unusual family circumstances until she is comforted by a text that explains about homosexuality. The young reader is invited to find similar comfort in the book he\she is holding. Deenie, heroine of a Judy Blume problem-novel, scours encyclopaedias for details of her illness. Karen, in Blume’s It’s not the End of the World feels better just for ordering “The Boys and Girls Book about Divorce”, let alone reading it.

D. The independent reader

Alice in Wonderland was probably the first consciously subversive children’s text. Alice spends a great deal of time reading, and remarking that the texts she is confronted with are either confusing or absurd. Characters offer explications that are unexpected or tangential. The model of reading presented is one in which the reader can formulate her own response to the demands of the text. Take it or leave it. The adult world (represented by adult texts) is something that the young reader may make up her own mind about.

E. The sceptical reader

The majority of the people that Huckleberry Finn meets on his journey down-river are governed by some text or another (from romantic codes of honour and sentimental poetry to the dogma that slavery is right.) Huck puts all these to the test and finds them wanting. No text is to be trusted. Even Tom Sawyer contains some “stretchers”.

F. The hedonistic reader

East in Tom Brown’s Schooldays “luxuriously devouring” an early number of Pickwick. (cf Gosse Father and Son)

G. The immersed reader

In Alison Uttley’s The Country Child, Susan “put her fingers in her ears and lost herself in Swiss Family Robinson. Later “She lay thinking of Swiss Family Robinson, imagining further adventures in which she was the resourceful heroine, forgetful of the terrors of the day, heedless of the morrow, and so she slept.”

H. The romantic reader

Ann of Green Gables reads inspiring books of ideal types, unaware that she is performing a similar function for her readers.

I. The inspired reader

A good number of Richmal Crompton’s William stories begin when William and his friends read about (or hear of, or are taught) some new concept – Civil War, Television, Dictators, etc. The children then interpret these ideas in terms of their own lives, living the text. The comedy comes from the conflict between the world of everyday village life, and the large rhetoric from which their inspiration has been drawn. The reader is positioned above this conflict, and is invited to be amused by the naivety of characters unaware of contradictions. At the same time, the reader is invited to identify with the Outlaws’ anarchic spinning away from the “correct” reading. The same pattern is found in the Bash Street Kids comic strip in the Beano each week. Teacher almost always begins with an original idea – knitting, meatalwork, dinosaurs – and then the children take over, causing totally unintended chaos.

The March family in Little Women use The Pilgrim’s Progress as a common inspiration, but in a way that alleviates that book’s heaviness whilst gently reinforcing its morality.

J. Text as means of escape

Billy in Kes finds the potential for a richer life not only through his falcon, but through his (stolen) book on falconry.

The history which is little more than an enthralling pageant for Eldred and Elfrida in E.Nesbit’s The House of Arden becomes a chance of escape for poor crippled Dickie Harding in Harding’s Luck.

Probably the most attractive picture of the escaping reader is in David Copperfield, who finds:

“a little room upstairs…which nobody else in our house ever troubled. From that blessed little room, Roderick Random, Peregrine Pickle, Humphrey Clinker, Tom Jones, the Vicar of Wakefield, Don Quixote, Gil Blas, and Robinson Crusoe, came out, a glorious host, to keep me company. They kept alive my fancy, and my hope of something beyond that place and time – they, and the Arabian Nights and the Tales of the Genii, – and did me no harm; for whatever harm was in some of them was not there for me. …

“..I consoled myself under my small troubles (which were great troubles to me), by impersonating my favourite characters in them – as I did – and by putting Mr and Miss Murdstone into all the bad ones – which I did too. I have been Tom Jones (a child’s Tom Jones, a harmless creature) for a week together…”

K. The imaginary traveller

Books in which children enter a different world. Sometimes, as in E.Nesbit’s The Magic World, or as in some of the stories in her Five Children and It, this literally involves entering a book, or a world found in a book. The heroes and heroines explore the world, question it, linger, and eventually leave it. They are often at odds with the ruling ethos of the world (which may be tyrannical) but obtain something valuable from their stay there.

Imaginary worlds are often presented as dreams , or as magical, but are generally essentially literary. When Wendy and the Darlings follow Peter Pan to the Neverland, they find characters from their story-books – pirates, fairies, Indians.

L. The historical sightseer

Since Scott’s Waverley, historical novels have offered as the main medium of identification a figure whose original sympathies are more with the modern age than with the romantic (and usually doomed) past on display. Sometimes the figure is a participant, sometimes an observer, but always he\she tells us how to read and interpret the past. Jim Hawkins in Treasure Island is the model for countless later child-heroes, introduced to an adult world of dangers and responsibilities, who characteristically do more observing, and listening, (and overhearing) than acting. Generally they have to choose between rival father-figures; as in Treasure Island, these are often the centres of rival systems of discourse. Jim must choose between the moral seriousness of Doctor Livesey and the attractive easiness of Long John Silver.

M. The practical reader

Noel Streatfield’s busy heroines have little time for books as providers of personal pleasure. When Garnie reads The Secret Garden to the Fossil family in Ballet Shoes, they need to be doing something practical as they listen. For Posy and Pauline, texts are material for their acting and dancing, as useful to them as engine manuals are to Petrova.

Harry Potter is not much of a reader, except of his text-books. In J.K.Rowling’s series, the task of reading is often delegated to Hermione, who has proved a wonderful role model for swotty girls all over the world.

Reading is even more definitely deputed to the girl in Michael Morpurgo’s Private Peaceful. While the boys of the Peaceful family are aware of little but their victim status, Molly reads her employer’s newspaper and discovers that “some Archduke – whatever that was – had been shot in a place called Sarajevo”, an event that will have far-reaching consequences for the family.

N. The unique reader

In Alan Garner’s The Owl Service the patterns on the china have special meaning for the heroine alone.

O. The unreliable reader

Adrian Mole sets the example of reading avidly, but continually misinterprets what he reads. He obtains enjoyment from books despite an incomplete understanding. This mirrors the situation of young readers of Sue Townsend’s books, who will not get all the jokes, but will use the easy diary format to skip through the text, looking for things that can be understood and enjoyed, and almost inadvertently learning a great deal on the way.

P. The untangling reader

E. Nesbit’s Bastable books the reader is addressed directly, and made aware of his or her role in seeing through the language of the not altogether reliable narrator. The surface of the book is an obviously unreliable narrative, presented by Oswald, though he pretends he’s not the author. The reader is asked to pick up clues (sometimes quite subtle), and interpret figures of speech (especially euphemism) to see through the misleading text to a just picture of the events depicted.

Q. The decision-making reader

The Fighting Fantasy adventure game-playing books make normal strategies of identification explicit. The events of the story are presented as problematical, and the reader is positioned so that he/she has to make conscious choices between narrative alternatives.

R. The reader belonging

In Stalky and Co texts (always unserious ones, in contrast to the importance which Kipling ascribed to their function) become part of the characters’ shared language, culture and value-system. The Uncle Remus tales, the pantomime of Aladdin, the Savoy operas, and Jabberwocky are crucial to various stories. The mythology of these shared texts reinforces bonds between the group, and provide a way of distinguishing between in-group and out-group. (The theme is developed in his story for adults, “The Janeites” about the freemasonry of Jane Austen devotees, crossing class barriers.) I don’t know any modern books that detail the ways in which television comedy programmes (especially anarchic and rude “alternative” ones like Little Britain) perform the same function for modern teenagers (boys especially).

S. The Normative Reader

The heroines of First Term at Malory Towers wonder whether boarding school will be like the school stories they have read – and, of course, Enid Blyton ensures that it is precisely like the essence of all of them, with no original element added whatsoever.

T. The puzzled reader

Jim Hawkins reads the cryptic message on the back of Flint’s treasure-chart:

“Tall tree, Spy-glass, Shoulder, bearing a point to the N of N.N.E.”etc. He notes that, “brief as it was, and, to me, incomprehensible, it filled the squire and Dr Livesey with delight.” He picks up clues in just the same way that the young reader of Treasure Island must when he thrills to the half-understood but delightful vocabulary -“marooned”, “stockade”, “foc’s’le”, or gradually discovers the meaning of the Black Spot or Silver’s moral nature.

U. The sharing reader

Mary helps Colin in The Secret Garden by sharing with him the secret of the garden, the Hindustani lullabies that soothed her when she was young, and, also significantly, books. “The scene Dr Medlock beheld when he entered his patient’s room was indeed rather astonishing to him…Colin was on his sofa in his dressing-gown and he was sitting up quite straight looking at a picture in one of the garden books and talking to the plain child who at that moment could scarcely be called plain at all because her face was glowing with enjoyment.”

V. Reading for insight

In a mystery story, a discovered document can solve the enigma and explain the motives of ambiguous characters and reveal for certain who is good and who is bad.

Reading reveals the terrible truth.

W. The horrified reader

Ghost stories can feature a reader appalled by the revelations of an ancient document, much as the reader should be enjoyably appalled by what he or she is reading.

X. The transgressing reader.

Reading can be a forbidden pleasure, as when Alison Uttley’s Susan secretly buys A Thousand and One Nights to read under the bedclothes. In Tom Sawyer, Becky Thatcher reads the secret book in the teacher’s desk, a sin totally endorsed by the author.

Y. The informed reader

Mona in Elizabeth Enright’s And Then There Were Five not only finds that Shakespeare helps her to find a point of reference for her own feelings about the hot weather, but is able to re-direct her reading enthusiasms towards cookery books -“From Hamlet to omelet in practically no time at all.”

Z. Zero

To complete the list, I looked at a few books specially written to encourage reluctant teenage readers. In none of them did anyone read anything at all, not even a newspaper. Not one of the books led to anything beyond themselves. What a pity.


  1. Sally Dugan
    Posted April 9, 2009 at 11:09 am | Permalink

    Fascinating piece on the A to Z of readers. To X: The Transgressing Reader, I would add the idea of the way readers identify with the ‘wrong’ role models – eg female readers who read The Three Musketeers and identify with one of them – or (and this is my particular area of research), readers of Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1905) who like to think they are Sir Percy Blakeney the glamorous rescuer, rather than one of the helpless damsels in distress

  2. Elisabeth
    Posted May 14, 2009 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

    Discovered to my relief I can just be Elisabeth.

    I’d like to add, or contrast, Enid Blyton’s The First Term at Malory Towers, in which the heroines wonder if school will be like the stories, with Antonia Forest’s Autumn Term.

    The twin sisters, arriving at the school where they have three older sisters, all of whom distinguish themselves in some way, resolve that they will have a glowingly successful first term. They do, but in quite unexpected ways. Their plans fail and there is moral complexity. The subtlty of this and of the characterization is always a delight.

    Do your categories cover this kind of learning?
    and complex characterization.

  3. Posted May 14, 2009 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    If the twins have formed their ideas from school stories, but have these contradicted by reality, then maybe they become sceptical readers. But I never intended my categories to be exhaustive. There are many many roles that books can suggest to readers.

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