The Seven Ages of Picture Books

I recently wrote a guest post for the wonderful Picture Book Den blog. If you’re an author, illustrator or reader of picture books the blog’s a great read, as some fantastic picture books authors write for it regularly. This post is an edited version of the one that appeared there.

A selection from the 'Seven Ages'

A selection from the ‘Seven Ages’

My daughter is almost seven, and takes any and every opportunity to read. She will happily get through a book a day, and we make weekly library visits to replenish her supply. Current favourites are anything by Holly Webb, the pervasive Rainbow Fairies, Mr Gum, and the first ‘Little House’ books. Regular readers of this blog will know that she’s flown in wishing chairs and climbed up faraway trees and that she and I are working our way through the Narnia series (almost done). Her reading is fluent and sophisticated; she’s done with picture books.

Or so I assumed. Yet when I read to my children, my daughter invariably chooses a picture book, and listens enraptured. She never says, “too babyish” or “picture books are boring”. She listens to the story and investigates the illustrations with as much fascination as her just-reading younger brother.  I watched her class listening to their teacher reading them a John Burningham book the other day, and I considered this enduring appeal of picture books to older, literate children, and their presence in my adult life. It’s almost as if there are seven ages of picture books.

First age

My daughter’s first ‘reading’ experience was My Bunny Book. It’s a cloth book in bright colours, containing different sound and touch effects – crinkly bunny ears, boingy bunny leaps, strokable bunny fur. It’s tactile, dribble- and rip-proof, designed for chewing, grabbing, scrunching and bashing. The first age is all about wonder, discovery and curiosity, laying the vital foundations for a book-reading life.

Second age

This is the golden age of picture books. Now it’s all about real pleasure and appreciation – sharing books, understanding and discovering the absolute joy that stories can give. It’s the age of “Again!” “Read it!” and “More!” when 12 pages of short sentences or even single words become embedded within a parents’ consciousness, and libraries come into their own. It’s when you don’t just read, but talk about stories, characters and illustrations together, and children delight in discovering that there are other children (human or animal) that are like them.

Third age

My son is learning to read, and loves spotting words when I’m reading to him. In this third age of picture book reading a new world opens up, where a child can take control of their reading, and become more independent in their enjoyment of stories. It also adds another layer of interaction between adult and child – when I read to my son now, we share the experience in a more active way, and he can start to make the telling his own by using a different voice to mine.

This third age is also about stories taking on deeper meanings and enabling children to deal with life challenges and concepts. Of course such issues can be approached using picture books when they’re younger, but it seems that during this third age picture books offer a safe, non-threatening way to explore concepts and feelings that children can’t articulate. Recently, I read my children The Huge Bag of Worries by Virginia Ironside, and I have rarely seen my daughter sit so completely still. I could almost feel the intensity of her interest in it, and it made me realise that perhaps there were anxieties that she felt unable to share which were being addressed by the book.

Fourth age

Now comes the pleasure of picking up a favourite picture book and actually being able to read it to yourself, rather than waiting for someone else to do it for you. The book is there to discover or re-discover for yourself, completely on your own. A child in this fourth age of picture-book reading has moved into that wonderful and everlasting realm of I’m Reading My Book.

Fifth age

This is where my daughter is now, a fluent, voracious reader, working her way through the middle-grade bookshelf. And yet she returns again and again to picture books, perhaps to re-create that security and comfort she felt as a baby or toddler being held close by a parent, when she didn’t have the responsibilities or requirements of school or friendships to manage and negotiate. She enjoys me telling her that Dear Zoo was one of her favourites, or that she loved the Blue Kangaroo books, in the same way as she loves looking at her baby photos.

Sixth and seventh ages

These are the adult ages. The sixth is all about nostalgia – I have shelves full of books that I owned as a child, the oldest being One Morning in Maine, which was given to me in 1973 on my third birthday. Many I have read to my own children, all three of us feeling the specialness of ‘mummy’s books when she was a little girl’. I have my own childhood memories and feelings bound up in them – I often find that memories are triggered by illustrations in a favourite picture book. Which leads me on to the seventh age – the reading of picture books to one’s own children, re-experiencing old ones, and discovering new ones.

I have written picture books, blogged about them, and read them to my children every day of their lives so far. And yet I have underestimated their power. Picture books lay the foundations of our future and become a constant in our lives, as enduring as the seven ages of life itself.

‘We couldn’t wait to get into bed!’ Dads reading to their children

My dad reading to my kids, just as he read to me when I was their age

My dad reading to my kids, just as he read to me when I was their age

Sometimes when I’m planning a blog post, life has a strange way of tossing me a hook. ‘What book have you been read aloud that you loved?’ tweeted the Library as Incubator Project, and I was instantly taken back to evenings lying in bed sucking my fingers, listening to my dad reading his way through the Narnia series, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It must have taken him months to get through that lot – in my memory it took pretty much my entire childhood, as the only other book I remember him reading to me is Watership Down. I should write a post about this, I thought.

The very next day, the reading and writing charity Booktrust announced their campaign to get dads reading more to their children. Apparently only one in eight dads take the lead in reading to their kids, 25% of whom blame working late for not reading stories at bedtime. Thank you Booktrust, for the perfect hook!

What benefits do children get from their dads reading to them? I can only speak for myself, but I hardly know where to start my list. Dad introduced me to some of the literary greats from a very young age – I was only six when he read the Narnia books, and barely seven when he read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. He brought those stories alive for me by virtually acting them out, giving every character his or her own accent and characteristics – when I re-read those books as an adult my dad’s voices were in my head.

It gave me time alone with him, which was rare in our house – I usually had to share him with two brothers and a 60 hour-a-week job. As a result there are tiny memories that are exclusive to the two of us, which brought us closer and that over the years have helped deepen our relationship. By reading me books which some would consider too complex at my age, he widened my vocabulary, my love of language and my confidence in what I was capable of reading and understanding. He gave me an experience that I remember with absolute pleasure.

I did a straw poll among Facebook friends and Twitter contacts about their experiences of dads reading to them, and people broadly echoed Booktrust’s findings – many said that their dads didn’t read to them because of commutes to work or long working days (we are mostly children of the 80s after all). But I also elicited some beautifully-expressed andn obviously fondly-held memories. Books that were mentioned included some stalwart classics – Black BeautyThe JumbliesTom Sawyer, Treasure Island, The Princess and Curdie and The Midnight Folk, plus an American author I’d not heard of called Holling Clancy Holling. Slightly surreally, my sister-in-law’s unreligious and Jewish father read her and her sister the Old Testament…

Those whose dads did read to them used words such as ‘safe and secure’ and ‘comforting and reassuring’ to describe their memories. One talked about feeling scared (hers read ‘Little Suck-a-Thumb’), but that it was ‘ok to be scared with a dad there’. A few remembered the exciting, hilarious or crazy stories their dads would make up for them. One image I especially loved was a dad sitting on the end of the bed each night with a book, glass of whisky in hand. A memory for all the senses!

What I wasn’t expecting though (although it perhaps should have been obvious), was the number of people who said that their dads now read or tell the same stories to their grandchildren, or didn’t read to them but do now read to the grandkids. And of course there are those of us (myself included) who now read their children the books that their dads read them. There is clearly a strong and vital legacy of the ongoing cycle of dads reading, and passing on that sense of safety and security to the next generation. The photo above is my dad doing just that for my kids last spring. What more compelling reason could there be for all you dads out there to read to your kids at bedtime tonight!

Which books do you remember your dads reading to you? And dads – do you read to your children now?

Sid naps in a pit: making a din about phonics

My son has finally started bringing ‘real’ reading books home. I say ‘finally’, because he has been absolutely desperate to read ever since his sister learned. I put ‘real’ in inverted commas, as his book the other day made me start questioning our whole approach to reading in the UK.

So here I go, wading into the ever-raging argument about synthetic phonics. With my educator hat on I’ve been fascinated by the issue for a long time (so shoot me). Since my own children started to read though, I have found myself developing new opinions as a parent, and as a writer who wants to engage kids in books, stories and language.

I have a theory: not that many people, least of all the government ministers who advocate its use so emphatically, actually understand much about synthetic phonics, or indeed how children learn to read full stop. And yet a quick Google search will find it alternately heralded as the bedrock to our children’s educational achievements, and reviled as the root of all literary evil.

Many years ago I did a Masters at the Institute of Education called ‘Literacy learning and literacy difficulties‘. It was all about how young children acquire literacy – what goes on in the brain as they learn to read and write. I was taught by some of the most renowned early years’ literacy experts in the country, if not the world. These were people at the cutting edge of research into literacy development. And yet they would regularly remind us of two things: 1) English is a difficult language in which to read and spell and 2) we don’t know how children do it (or rather, we have a great deal of knowledge about how children do it, but as every child is different, there is no conclusive way of saying ‘this is how children learn to read and write’, and no one way of teaching them).

Enter ‘synthetic phonics’ (the ‘synthetic’ bit by the way, is nothing to do with phonics being manmade or prone to irritation, but because we ‘synthetise’, or ‘blend’, the letter sounds). In the UK this is how schools are required to teach children to read, from about six weeks in to their school career. The UK government is adamant that this is the only way to get children reading, to the extent that they ‘match funding’ for schools who choose teaching programmes that meet a set of criteria for phonics teaching. The motto on phonics is ‘first and fast’, so that children rattle through the letter sounds (not the names – that comes later) and very quickly learn to blend or put the sounds together to form words. Bingo – by Christmas in their first term they are reading. By the end of Year 1 (when children are 5 and 6), there is a statutory ‘phonics check‘ (aka ‘a total waste of time’, in my humble opinion).

Now, I am lucky enough to have two children who love books, love reading, want to read and have done and are doing so quickly and relatively easily. On the face of it, phonics works, as it does appear to have quick results. For children like my children.

But what if you have a child for whom reading does not come so quickly and easily? Or a child who is more like my son, who understands the mechanics of phonics, but sees words much more holistically and therefore knows what certain, unphonetic words say, just because he has seen them many times and knows their shapes (‘the’, for example, or, bizzarely, ‘desert’). Broadly speaking, there are two routes that need to develop for a child to become a fluent reader: one is certainly phonetic, but the other is visual. If one route is more developed than the other, a child will not read fluently until the other route has caught up. If, for example, a five year-old’s visual route is highly developed but their phonetic route doesn’t develop in the same way for another eight months, that child will struggle to read phonetically – which means that they will not learn to read by Christmas.*

Why does all this matter? Surely the most important thing is that kids learn to read, and that teachers have a method by which to teach them. Synthetic phonics is proven to work, so where’s the problem? Well I have a couple of problems. Firstly, the method doesn’t take into account that the Reception year (that is, the first year that children enter school), will contain children who are almost a year apart in age (because of the school year in the UK going from September 1st to August 31st, a just four year-old could start school at the same time as an almost five year-old). Secondly, the method assumes that all children develop the phonetic route to reading first and most easily, and that they all develop it at the same time – and yet, how could this conformity be, given that we’ve already established that some children are a year younger than others? There is a world of developmental difference between that just four year-old and almost five year-old.

But there’s another issue that goes beyond basic development. My son’s recent reading books have only contained phonetically-spelt, two or three letter words. This means he is reading sentences like ‘Nan sat in a pit’ and ‘Sid nips in’. He could decode these words but then got very upset – “I don’t understand. What’s a pit? Why did Nan sit in it? What is nips?” At one point Sid’s sister Sal sits on a pin that Sid has strategically placed on the sofa and boy does she get ‘mad’. Apologies to anyone reading from north America, but we don’t use ‘mad’ in this country when we mean ‘cross’! This insistence on purely phonetic reading is leading kids to read stories that aren’t just dull, but use words that they rarely encounter. It limits rather than widens their vocabulary and exploration of language.

It also, I should say, leads to some shocking spelling (I am a card-carrying pedant about spelling). My daughter’s spelling is improving, probably because she now reads so voraciously, but last year all her spellings were phonetic. This is fine to begin with, but at some point children have got to learn that English rarely sticks to phonetic rules! Sometimes you just have to know how a word looks to spell it right.

I asked a few friends with similar-aged children for their experiences and opinions on phonics, and had a really interesting response. For some, it ‘really worked’ and their child can read. For others, especially those with children who don’t take to reading so quickly and easily, it has become a frustrating and at times miserable process. I was interested in the experience of one friend who now lives in Spain, who says that her son’s school aren’t particularly focussing on teaching them to read, despite Spanish being a purely phonetic language (although perhaps it’s because it’s purely phonetic that they don’t need such a focus?) Another friend who lived in the US last year, says that her daughter was baffled by phonics on returning to the school in the UK and still uses (non-phonetic) songs taught to her in America to help her with spellings.

I would be interested in what you think of the issue, wherever you live. Are we the only country that is so obsessed with a purely phonics approach? Are we setting ourselves up for a generation of adults with ropey spelling and limited language use? Yes, phonics works, for some children, on one level. But where is the joy in reading that Sid sits on a pin in a pit and Sal is mad?

*I should add – when I talk about children who struggle, I’m not talking about those with identifiable special needs, either literacy-related or any other. I mean children who have no particular special need, who nonetheless are not ‘reading by Christmas’.