Of the many roles performed by the children’s or school librarian perhaps the most mystical is that of matchmaker: matching books with readers. Joy Court*, reviews editor of The School Librarian, describes the specialist children’s librarian mantra as ‘The right book for the right child at the right time in order to achieve the aim of every child reading for pleasure’. In the US this process even has its own name – readers’ advisory – and has traditionally been taught in library schools.
And why is this pairing so important? Because the right book might be the one where you stop thinking about the process of reading or the number of pages you have to get through and read for the story, read for pleasure. It might be your ‘turning point’ book, representing the point where reading turned from a chore to a preferred way to spend leisure time. For the lucky ones the transition comes early in their reading lives, and they are lucky because the benefits of reading for pleasure are manifold. The Department for Education, the Reading Agency and the National Literacy Trust amongst many others, list benefits both educational and personal, from reading attainment to mood regulation. So clear is the value of reading for pleasure, it is recognized in the National Curriculum, which states the aim of developing children’s ‘love of literature through widespread reading for enjoyment’.
Author Neil Gaiman describes the process and benefits of crossing that threshold to reading for pleasure (in the context of fiction) with more colour:
The drive to know what happens next, to want to turn the page, the need to keep going, even if it’s hard, because someone’s in trouble and you have to know how it’s all going to end… that’s a very real drive. And it forces you to learn new words, to think new thoughts, to keep going. To discover that reading per se is pleasurable. Once you learn that, you’re on the road to reading everything
With his 100th anniversary today (13 September) it is seems appropriate to single out Roald Dahl as one of the authors whose works were involved in the turning point of many readers. His popularity for young readers is clear from his sales which worldwide are estimated at over 200 million units and his appeal, in spite of competition from the likes of David Walliams and The Diary of a Wimpy Kid remains strong: The Great Mouse Plot published for World Book Day in March reached the Official UK number one spot, selling over 32,000 copies, and he remains Number 10 on the public libraries’ most borrowed authors 2014-15 list.
As with Enid Blyton before him, adults writing about Dahl’s work for children express reservations. Even his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography acknowledges this: ‘Beneath Dahl’s robust caricature, simple morality, and rich comic invention, critics detected an undercurrent of vengeful sadism and black misanthropy’. However some of these reservations undoubtedly account for the books’ very appeal. The tales contain rudeness and subversion and anarchic use of language (prompting his very own OUP dictionary). His young heroes and heroines are often the underdog, but sometimes feisty, usually resourceful and generally know better than their adults.
Dahl’s work demonstrates something else not to be forgotten in the issue of reading for pleasure – looking for pleasure too. How many memories of those ‘turning point’ books are accompanied by iconic illustrations such as those by Edward Ardizzone in Stig of the Dump or Lauren Child’s own interpretations of her irrepressible Clarice Bean? Dahl’s stories are inseparable from Quentin Blake’s illustrations, which balance the darker sides of the tales with lightness and humour. Child-eating giants are frightening but manageably so when they also look somewhat bumbling.
Illustrations can set the tone of a book before a word is read. In the illustrations here Children’s Laureate Chris Riddell makes the scattiness of Fortunately, the Milk…
immediately manifest, and how sassy is the stance of the queen in the Young Adult picture book The Sleeper and the Spindle? No one will expect a conventional ending to that story.
Because of this, the illustrations help young people choose their own reading material. They can also give hints or reassurance on plot developments for new readers, and sometimes save reading energy by taking on the story themselves. A picture painting a thousand words is a valuable helping hand when you are developing your reading stamina but don’t want the story to slow down.
School and children’s libraries are clearly are not the only places people meet the books that turn them into readers, but they are very important ones, run by staff who use reviews, blogs, social networks, contacts with publishers, their own leisure reading time and most of all conversations with readers, to keep themselves informed of what is new and good in publishing for young people. If you have a memory of a book that led you to reading for pleasure, in honour of Roald Dahl and all the other authors responsible for the books that make us into readers, why not share it, then visit your library to explore what the turning point books of today’s new readers might be. There are some cracking ones out there.
*Joy Court is Chair: CILIP Carnegie & Kate Greenaway Medals and Reviews Editor: The School Librarian Journal
Illustrations by Chris Riddell from Neil Gaiman’s Fortunately, the Milk… and The Sleeper and the Spindle