Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Aug 2016

Confessions of an Eavesdropper

As you might imagine, I spend a lot of my time looking at books in the children's sections of bookshops whilst hunting down new captures to add to my collection. It is sometimes rather depressing to overhear conversations between adults and children and realise that buying books isn't always the pleasurable experience I might like to think. I often hear parents say ' no that one is much too easy for you' when a child goes to pick up a picture book and the other day I had to stop myself from interfering when a very grumpy woman berated her grandson who was helpfully pushing in a couple of books on the shelf to make them lie flush with the others. ' How many times have I told you not to touch things in shops? I'm not standing for any more of your nonsense' The poor child dared to reply ' But I was just trying to tidy the shelf' and she physically hauled him out of the shop! 

I suppose that I am waiting for an opportunity to offer good and useful advice as does Meg Ryan in ' You've Got  Mail' when she reels off all the Noel Streatfeild titles for a customer who is asking a baffled young salesperson for the 'shoes' series. The scene takes place when she visits the new flashy bookstore that has put her own cosy little independent shop out of business, the message being that staff need to know and love books wherever they work. I have so far only been able to offer this kind of advice once when a mother was looking for something with her teenage son but their response was to look rather startled, and then to ignore my advice anyway.

There are always plenty of bookshops to visit in Hay on Wye and I suppose that the customers there are not necessarily typical, in other words they may belong to one of the book loving tribes like me. I am often the only adult without a child in tow in the children's section and so was rather charmed when a family of adults burst enthusiastically into the the back room of the very lovely specialist Children's Bookshop. I'm not sure if there is a collective noun for such people but this group consisted of a very elderly couple with sticks who stood next to one another and remarked in hushed shaky voices ' Do you remember this one?', 'I used to read this Heidi book to Jess - she loved it' and so on. They were accompanied by two well-heeled women in their late sixties, both sporting what I like to call storybook untidy buns ( hairstyles that is)! To explain: these suggest a lack of attention to personal vanity, are a bit scatty and are people who have a focus on important pursuits like reading books and writing, the mother in The Railway Children is a good example. These two kept swooping on different sections in the shop and pulling one another across to look 'I haven't seen that ' Little Tim' for years ', ' I adore these myths and legends' etc. I left them to their evident pleasure with a big smile on my face, resisting the urge to claim companionship.

My next satisfying moment was to come across a mother in the children's section of another shop sitting down next to her daughter, who looked to be about seven. She was showing her a copy of ' Pippi Longstocking' and telling her all about her adventures. I loved the way she said 'She's a bit like I was when I was a little girl, and she's a bit like you too!' Just a few words to encourage a shared interest and the child physically leant in closer to enjoy looking at the pictures. Seeing this special moment was trumped by the arrival of another girl of a similar age who was followed by her mother and grandmother. It is no exaggeration to say that this one gave a loud shriek of pleasure, pointed up at a shelf and exclaimed 'Look they've got all those Michael Morpurgos!' Evidently this was her favourite author because she then started to tell her grandma all about the ones she had already read, and why she liked them. The other little girl looked across at her, her mother asked the Morpurgo fan if she could recommend one to start with and another very important book conversation began. And so I moved on feeling even more encouraged.

As I've already explained, Hay is not a typical place because many people will be visiting precisely to graze around the bookshops at their leisure. Nevertheless, I did have another pleasing experience in Waterstones when visiting Bath the other day. I was looking in the very well stocked Young Adult section when four girls aged about sixteen drifted across. Their conversation about books was so knowledgeable and enthusiastic as they talked about their favourite authors, recommended new titles and spent ages trying to decide which ones to buy. One of them looked to be in agony over her final choice because she only had enough money to buy one. I really had to restrain myself from offering to buy one for her in exchange for doing a book review for The Letterpress Project website. 

I must remember these positive bookshop moments when I am eavesdropping in the future. They need to be set against my frustration at young children and their parents often being lured by familiar, safe options like the Mr Men series and ones with TV tie ins like the Peppa Pig series. But more importantly, I must definitely not interfere as buying any children's book is surely better than none. 


Karen Argent


August 2016