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.


What has the library ever done for us?

Lego library

Even lego figures go to the library.

There’s a lot of anxiety about libraries here in the UK. Like all the most valuable social resources in this country, they are under threat of closure through ever-decreasing lack of funding and the current vicious cuts in public spending. Library closure is rarely off the agenda, but it’s usually in a local context – now closures are becoming a national reality. In advance celebration of National Libraries Day on February 9th, I wanted to add my voice to the clamour of dismayed outrage, and relate how a library literally (ho ho) helped save my sanity.

It was only when I started to plan this post that I realised how consistent a backdrop to my life libraries have been. I still have a special pull-out from the Boston Globe in 1973 about  Boston Public Library, which features a photo of ‘child receiving individual attention’ – that child being me! (Incidentally Boston Public Library was on my ‘to do’ list while on holiday in New England last summer, and my heart actually started to beat faster when I stood in their incredible children’s section, 38 years after that photo was taken).

Exterior shot of Boston Public Library

Boston Public Library, July 2011

Libraries are about borrowing books (for free! That bit still floors me with its glorious embodiment of socialism), but they are about so much more. I have revised for and sat exams in libraries; I have written assignments, dissertations and Important Documents in libraries. Pre-internet I searched newspapers in libraries for job vacancies, and saved on heating bills by writing job applications in libraries. As a writer I have read my books to groups of children in libraries – I feel a personal affection for the libraries which have played their roles in the story of my life so far (with the possible exception of my university library, which was absolutely freezing, even in the summer, and where I would work wearing fingerless gloves and a large scarf).

Now I know the library has a role beyond providing books (free ones – did I mention that?), large tables and eager small children. Three years ago we moved out of London to a small town where I knew not a soul. I was on maternity leave with a baby and a toddler, I had left my closest friends, my support network of other mums, my work, my house, the last ten years of my life, the city that I loved. My brother was seriously ill. As if trying to increase my feelings of isolation, the phone company seemed completely unable to synchronise technology so that a phone and the internet worked in our home for a month after we moved in.

Long days alone with tiny children have defeated tougher women than me. By 10am I had been up for over four hours and had exhausted every ounce of creative play in my body. We’d done snacks, we’d done DVDs, we’d covered the entire bottom floor in jigsaws. I felt like Leia in the Star Wars scene where the walls of the rubbish chute start closing together, except there was no R2D2 to stop the walls squashing the brain cells out of my body. So every day at 10.30am we went to the playground, and then to the library. The library shimmered on the far side of the park like Oz, waiting to give me back my brain. Stepping through the doors was like walking into a huge hug. After an hour we would return, my brain restored, clutching new books to take us through the afternoon.

In the evenings I returned to the library alone, this time making my way upstairs to the computers and free (there’s that word again) internet. I would stay there until closing time, emailing my friends and re-connecting with the world I had left behind. Then I would cycle home, calmer and satisfied and able to face the next, year-long day.

I honestly believe that at a lonely and stressful time of my life, knowing that I could go to the library whenever I wanted for however long I wanted, with children and by myself, helped me cope without succumbing to depression. It helped me establish a routine in a new place. It became the familiar, the constant. It gave me a connection; to my old life and to my new one: after six weeks of daily visits, I met the person who became my first friend in this new town, and we – and our children – remain friends today.

Libraries are our nation’s collective sanity. They are therapy when you can’t afford therapy. They are the most accessible and non-judgemental institutions in existence. If we lose our libraries we don’t just lose potential knowledge, we lose the future of our country’s mental good health.

Me being read to, Boston Public Library 1973

‘Child receives individual attention’.     Boston Public Library, 1973

Update: there was such a tremendous amount of interest in this post! As a result you can read another piece by me about writing in libraries, published by the very lovely people at the Library as Incubator Project.

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’.

All the book’s a stage

Let’s say, just for this sake of this blog, that I had to choose the three things that I love above all others. These would be my kids, reading and the theatre – not necessarily in that order.

The last decade has seen a real explosion in children’s books being adapted for the stage.   Of course this is nothing new – we’ve always had the classic favourites: Peter Pan; Wind in the Willows, and, of course, fairytale pantomimes at Christmas (although I’m not sure that pantomimes can – or even would want to – be dignified with the word ‘adaptations’). The theatre just seemed to sit up and take notice of books for children and young adults in a much more dramatic way (sorry) in the 90s and 00s.

I first noticed this trend with YA novels when the National Theatre in London started to adapt them for its Christmas show, almost as if they realised that there was this whole potential audience out there that they hadn’t bargained for. Here was a way of selling tickets to young adults, their parents, their schools and to other adults who also read YA novels. Publishers had already cottoned on as they’d started to refer to YA novels such as Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights as ‘crossover’ books, bringing out versions with more ‘adult’ covers (and more adult prices), supposedly to stop people being embarrassed at reading ‘children’s books’ (personally I have always read my children’s and YA books in public with pride, but I digress). The National Theatre staged His Dark Materials based on Pullman’s trilogy in 2003/4, followed by the magnificent Coram Boy in 2005/6, culminating of course with the unsurpassable War Horse in 2007which continues to run. The RSC‘s children’s cash cow finally came with Matilda, on which I shall gush unreservedly another time.

Before I had children I spent much of my life at the theatre, so when I had toddlers I was delighted to discover the increasing number of theatre adaptations of picture books which seemed to appear everywhere. There’s the high profile stagings of the most popular – The Gruffalo, The Tiger Who Came to Tea and We’re Going on a Bear Hunt – but I have also seen some incredibly good adaptations of picture books on a much smaller scale. The Little Angel Theatre in London’s Islington, for example, has been quietly and innovatively staging shows for children for over 50 years. A while ago we saw their adaptation of Eileen Browne‘s picture book Handa’s Hen, and I still maintain that it was one of the most beautifully staged shows I have ever seen. It captured the simple beauty of the book (which has exquisite illustrations), but also went beyond the restrictions of the page and created a whole new dimension to the story.

I am not a dramatist or a playwright, but I am fascinated by the process of adapting children’s books into plays. The adapter shoulders such an impossible responsibility. You must adapt a form that has been written to exist in a particular way, i.e. statically on the page. In the case of picture books, images and words complement one another, and one could not work without the other – they set the tone together. You must recreate these static images in a medium that relies on movement and space.

You are also taking an experience that most often takes place intimately – either in private, or between a child and parent/carer, and trying to interpret the response to that experience of a young child – and who knows what goes on in a three year-old’s head most of the time? You are then setting up a different kind of response, i.e. that of the child to a play, while – and this is essential for me – not losing the essence of the original book and experience of reading it.

Add to this that the average picture book for young children probably takes no more than about five minutes to read, and yet you must fill at least half an hour of stage time without deviating too far from the original story or concept. You must delight and engage a demanding, impatient and distractible audience, while at the same time not boring their parents to death. You can’t let down the child who asks for ‘We’re Going on a Bear Hunt’ to be read to her fifteen times in a row and falls asleep with it on her pillow.

And yet I am continually astounded by the quality of children’s theatre and the sensitivity that goes into adapting picture books. So many adaptations that I’ve seen have treated both books and children with such respect and interpreted the stories in such endlessly creative and clever ways. I’m pathetically sentimental, so I’ve often become tearful watching my children’s responses to adaptations of favourite picture books, probably because I also invest so much myself in those adaptations (I agreed to see Coram Boy with reluctance, as I was so nervous about them messing up such an incredible book).

I will end though, with a story. In 2003 I was on a train travelling south, not long after I had first read Skellig (all posts lead back to Skellig), which was haunting my thoughts. I sat opposite a guy who was reading what looked like a script. When he put it down on the table I could see the title – Skellig. It seemed like fate – we started chatting – he was travelling from Newcastle to London to audition for the part of Michael in the Young Vic’s forthcoming production. We talked about the book, about his acting and my writing. At Kings Cross we wished one another luck in our dreams and went our separate ways.

A few months later I dragged a friend along to see Skellig at the Young Vic. I told her the story of the actor on the train, and we speculated about whether he’d got the job. He had, and he played the part to perfection. My friend had a lot more chutzpah than me, and persuaded me to hang around the stage door afterwards to congratulate him. I was horrified – he was successful – he wouldn’t remember me, a random passenger on a train many months ago. Out he came, laughing with his actor friends, saw me, and gave me a hug. “Of course I remember you!” he cried, “You’re going to write lots of books!”

Books and theatre – two of my great loves creating one of the nicest experiences I have ever had.

(And if you want to look him up, he’s called Kevin Wathen).