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23 April 2016

Bribes, brothers and books on the road: how I learnt to love reading

Sometimes, it takes a surprising turn of events – or even the promise of a reward – to start someone off reading.

By Philip Maughan

Anna Leszkiewicz on learning to read the words meant for her brother

As a young child, I was surrounded by words. Quite literally – big labels with thick, rounded letters peered down at me from most rooms. “Window” read a sticker on the window, “door” read one on the door. The walls were labelled “wall”, a table “table” – everything bore its own name. Those stickers are the only fuzzy memory I have of our first house.

This is apparently how I first started learning to read (I feel like I can remember the dizzy revelation when it clicked that the stickers carried meaning, but maybe I’ve just been told the story too many times). My mum labelled everything not for my benefit, but for my brother’s – he is three years older than me, and has cerebral palsy. At five, there was still a possibility that he might learn to read or even speak, and my mother and his carers spent hours sat with him and a packet of flashcards. “Does this say cat or dog? Cat?” My mum would ask, holding one up, waiting for him to look her in the eye as an affirmation of the correct answer. “Dog?” She was utterly taken aback when I started chiding her for not knowing the difference herself.

Because my mum’s attentions were often with my brother, I spent a fair amount of time alone as a young child, reading stories. But I also remember my family being tremendously supportive of that interest. Aunts and uncles thrust books on me that my older cousins had enjoyed; one of my brother’s carers  loved chatting with me about what I was reading, as did my mum’s oldest friend; my mum spent hours with me rewriting “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” as a play based on the life of my Irish grandmother (“Clover Green and her Nine Children”). I don’t think learning to read bestowed any greater humanity on me – my brother never was able to, and he has far more spirit than most. But I have all these people to thank for encouraging me to study English, and generally indulging the nerdy habits I still use at work today.

A young Anna displaying an uncharacteristic lack of interest in books.

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Philip Maughan on how he came to love books late – then couldn’t stop. . . 

The ability to read is a wonderful thing. As with most wonderful things, you can have too much of it. Before I was 16 I didn’t have any of it. The town I grew up in had one uninspiring bookshop. The famous one. I used to pass it on the way to buy guitar strings from a man with beautiful black false nails. Up to that point, my only interests were video games, forming bands to try and impress girls and making my way through endless bars of terrible quality hash.

Which is one reason why reading was so transformative, when I finally got round to trying it. I don’t remember reading a single book before Sixth Form College but when one of my bands started playing gigs away from home, a friend bought me Catch-22 by Joseph Heller. I didn’t understand much of what was going on but I wanted to. I was intrigued. I bought James Joyce’s Dubliners, Salman Rushdie, Harper Lee and J D Salinger from charity shops while on the road, not because a teacher told me to, but because nobody I knew seemed interested in books and I figured I could make reading My Thing. By the time I got round to applying for university, age 20, books were an immovable part of my life.

But then I read too much. After graduating (in English), I got a job in a theatre, working only in the evenings so that I could read and laze about all day. I didn’t socialise much, which is a big danger for young people who get bogged down in literature: you spend so much time inhabiting the lives of others, you forget to start living your own. I’m over that now. Reviewing books has become a fun though economically disastrous element of my “career” as a journalist, and even though the “books are my bag” crew leave me cold, as do the recurring self-important essays about how reading makes you a better person (maybe, but so does working in a fucking food bank), there is one thing that niggles.

Endless data confirms what I know from experience: that if you are a white boy in a semi-urban coastal town in the UK you have about as much chance of succeeding academically as you have of scoring decent weed. This is a shame. Literacy is important for all sorts of reasons, but beyond serving the economy or enabling you to empathise with others, it shares that magic quality that belongs to all art. It can change your life.

Phil on the road.

Barbara Speed: American Girls, proper books and me

In early 1997, when I was five years old, my family moved almost 5,000 miles across the world to the US. In my memory, this wasn’t as disruptive as it sounds – I’d started school once a few months before, so being asked to do it again seemed par for the course. 

There were perks, too. Soon after arriving, we visited a colleague of my dad’s, whose daughter had something called an American Girl Doll. They are about one foot tall, with beautiful hair, and come with sets of period-appropriate clothes and a book telling the character’s story. Here was the American dream: a toy like the ones I’d loved at home, only bigger, brighter, and with infinite reams of accessories available for purchase from American Girl shops

For my parents, this new obsession no doubt posed a quandary. The dolls were pricey – they currently retail at $95  and my birthday was still nearly a year away.

I didn’t know this at the time, but I lucked out when my mum researched the company’s founder, the improbably named Pleasant Rowland, who runs a reading foundation and had said (contrary to her own business interests) that no girl should have an American Girl doll until they were able to read the accompanying book unaided.

The book, it should be mentioned, was far out of my range.  It was a “chapter book” (the kind I’d pompously pick up and pretend to read) which is currently recommended for reading ages 9+. Meanwhile, I was a disinterested reader, who would cry to get out of it. I remember bawling at the sight of a particularly hated Noddy book. To be fair to my younger self, moving across the world may also have been a bit of a distraction.

And so the challenge was set: I could have the doll if I read a certain number of “proper” (i.e. non-picture) books, which would be marked by stickers on a chart on the fridge. It’s telling that I seem to remember the total as 50, while my mum reckons it was closer to 20.

The author unwrapped her doll.

It took me around two months to get through the list, which included the book for my chosen doll. We ploughed through the adventures of Samantha, a Victorian-era orphan living with her posh grandmother, together  my mum, who now writes about books daily, recalls it as “turgid, and not particularly well written” (sorry, Pleasant). I can vividly remember the day my doll arrived in a crisp white box, wearing a smart Victorian smock and bow in her hair. I played with her obsessively for closer to a decade than I should really admit.

And, crucially, I kept reading. My mum says my ability changed completely over those months: “I honestly think you just suddenly realized that if you could read fast, you could read great stories for yourself. You wouldn’t have to read boring simple books or persuade people to read to you.” I would go on to collect armfuls of library books every couple of weeks throughout my childhood.

In the end, this story doesn’t prove much beyond the fact that I was a materialistic, and probably pretty lazy child. I clearly had reading ability, but couldn’t be bothered to develop it, and experienced none of the barriers which stand between many children and lieracy. Meanwhile, the ethics of rewarding children for developing basic skills are doubtless complex.

But I also think there’s something to be said for figuring out what captivates individual children – whether it be a catalogue of expensive doll clothes, or animals, or Ancient Egypt – and gently showing them that reading can be a window onto that and all sorts of other worlds. I suppose my parents were just unlucky that my particular obsession cost almost as much as raising another, real child.   

Pleasant Rowland runs the Rowland reading foundation.

Barbara and Samantha.

This post is part of the New Statesman’s Literacy Week.