Inspiring Young Readers

posted on 27 Aug 2019

When is a book not a ‘proper’ book?

I am often to be found happily browsing the Children’s section of large bookshops trying to make a decision about my next capture. My advantage is that I can buy whatever I choose without having to account for myself. This is not the case for most children who, even if they are ostensibly spending their own money or book token, or who have been promised a book as a special treat, will have at least one adult trying to influence their choice. I very much enjoy overhearing these conversations and am often sorely tempted to interfere with my advice of ‘Just please let them have any book that they really desire, especially if they have passionately argued their case!’

Let me give you some recent examples overheard in Blackwell’s Bookshop in Oxford:

A boy aged about seven runs noisily towards a large display of Mr Men books, shouting: ‘I need a Mr Noisy and a Mr Greedy’!

Now, I am no fan of these popular little books by Robert Hargreaves, but felt my hackles rise when his dad saunters up behind him offering his opinion:

‘Hey mate, you’ve got enough of those already – find something different for a change. How about something about pirates – you love those’

‘No, I don’t want any pirate books. I need more Mr Men books. I love them. Please’!    

A bit more negotiating goes on, which includes some tearful pleading from the boy.  I am sad to say that he eventually is steered towards buying a pirate book, even though he doesn’t seem the slightest bit interested. Dad knows best. As they take the book to the till, he looks back longingly at the much coveted display of books. This boy was a collector in the making and needed to be encouraged surely? I tried to reassure myself that he might now want to start a new Pirate book collection instead, but why not as well as his original choice?

A girl aged about five is looking at a selection of books with her enthusiastic grandma who has clearly offered to buy her something. She is momentarily distracted with some of the ones that are being strongly recommended, but then notices a display of sticker books nearby:

‘Can I have that Mermaids sticker book please?'

 ‘Well I don’t think that mummy will want you to have that, she wants you to have proper books’

‘But it is a proper book – it’s got pictures and words in it!’

Along comes her mother to join the discussion:

‘You need books with stories now that you are a big girl. You can practice your reading’!

‘But I can read the sticker book and make stories with the stickers …’

Needless to say she is persuaded away and towards buying a picture book with a mermaid theme. I agree that sticker books are a different experience from reading a story, but they do encourage imagination and creativity so are a perfectly valid choice.

A family of two parents and four boys aged between three and ten arrive, all looking keen to make their book choices. The tallest one walks past all the displays on offer determinedly aiming for the attractive stationery section of the shop. There he spends some time looking at the beautifully designed notebooks and selects one with a shiny peacock pattern. He opens it very carefully and looks closely at the creamy paper, strokes his fingers across and then experiments with placing the attached scarlet ribbon onto different pages. He closes it with a satisfied sigh and takes it across to his parents who are looking at books with his brothers:

‘I want this one please’

‘It’s very pretty, but you need to choose a proper book to read, go and put it back before it gets dirty’.

‘But I want to write in it. I don’t want another book’.

‘Well you can’t have it. Don’t be so silly. Come and see what lovely books there are here’.

He stands his ground for some time with me silently cheering him nearby. His exasperated parents continue to ignore his pleas and his dad eventually frog marches him back to the stationery display where the book is placed back in the rack. His younger brothers all go to pay for their new books and I am pretty sure he didn’t get one at all. I was outraged and nearly offered to pay for it myself to encourage this admirer of beautiful objects!

 Part of the dilemma for parents and other adults might be that there is just too much choice on offer and that certain books get promoted more than others. Don’t get me wrong – I understand that adults are there to encourage and recommend books but sometimes I believe that children know what they like best and will obviously really treasure that purchase. Anything that encourages a love of books, reading and writing should surely be encouraged?

Karen Argent

August 2019

(image by:  Brett Jordan)