Robin Bennett on encouraging reluctant readers
As a child I went away to boarding school at the tender age of seven. However, I loved it. We were poor because my parents basically couldn’t afford the fees – think Ron Weasley in patched bell bottoms circa 1979, when everyone else was in drainpipes and Adidas t-shirts. But I didn’t give a monkey’s butt what I looked like: I was too busy enjoying the relative freedom afforded by a crumbling prep school surrounded by two hundred acres of woods and fields.
It was the holidays that were the problem. I was friendless throughout most of them because we’d moved to France where my parents could now just about afford to buy a roof over our heads but it was about as far from anywhere with other children as it was possible to be. Plus, French TV sucked: in the early 80’s it consisted of quiz shows for retired people and the news. Any children’s programmes were indecipherable Japanese cartoons with people in masks yelling at each other. So, for the first time in my life, I picked up a book and I read.
These were exactly what I needed: I loved dogs – even the disreputable school dog after it pinched my Sherbet Dib Dab. And Danny the Champion of the World spoke to me on almost every level.
In our house we ate porridge for breakfast, cheese sandwiches for lunch and supper was stew. Nothing wrong with that but it was the same every day, which got a bit dull. So my brother and I took to poaching with an old air rifle. Six pigeons and my mother would make a pie with puff pastry and mushrooms, rabbit stewed with creamy sauce and bacon, our own brand Kentucky Fried pheasant. It changed our lives – poached food really does taste better and it was empowering and reading about Danny and his father stealing pheasants changed mine.
I became a reader from that day forward.
Up until then I had stoutly resisted all overtures to get me to pick up a book. This had mainly consisted of well-meaning relatives and teachers shoving copies of The Borrowers or Hornblower under my nose and saying things along the lines of, ‘try this, it’s really good.’
But I don’t think that works: I completely got why you might want to read about heroic sea captains or tiny kleptomaniacs, just not me.
Children read when they are ready and what THEY choose. The trick – well, the only thing you can do – is have books at hand and allow them time to turn to them. You don’t need to take kids to the zoo every day – boredom can be your friend!
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