white boots

The Pleasures of Reading …

It has to say something about a nation’s priorities – observing what is first released out of lockdown.

And I am sure that I am not the only read-aholic to notice that one of Italy’s first actions was to allow bookshops to open.  How wise and entirely appropriate!

Switzerland has approved beauty salons and flower shops and are following up next month with secondary schools, libraries, museums and zoos. In Greece, hairdressers and small shops appear to have been among the early returners whereas in England we have been led to understand that our hair will languish lengthily until well into July.

Our estate agents, however, are back to work with prescribed and very strict guidelines to follow. And garden centres. And everyone is still squabbling about schools.

This week has been my fourth week of teaching online – and although I am getting used to it, I don’t like it any more than I did at the start.

Staring at a screen for so many hours (and I am lucky and only have to do this two long days a week)is very tiring and only having the resources that I manage to get into my computer and then ‘share’ is very frustrating. I am used to turning to shelves and shelves of books when looking for selections for my students and now I’m more reliant on what they have in their possession.

Which has been revealing …

Of course I am all too aware of the decades and decades that have passed since I was a child and early teen and dedicated to the books of Noel Streatfeild and Ruby Fergusson and Lorna Hill and Pamela Brown et al.  I know that my reading was very comfortably middle class. And that, even if the family being portrayed was a little hard-up, it was all very genteel deprivation with said families living in vicarages with loving parents and cheerful siblings and obliging dogs.  Even the orphans did well, finding themselves taken in by relations living in huge houses with a string of entertaining cousins in support.

And the children were, almost entirely, happy for the most part. They had aspirations, of course – otherwise, where was the story? But their hopes and dreams were for rosettes at the local Gymkhanas, auditions for ballet schools, drama schools, first place in the skating competitions and other similar worthy, respectable ambitions.  It was not all plain sailing for them, but there was the consolation of success ensured at the end of the novel.

And for us readers as well.

Pauline Fossil found her Hollywood contract, Posy her place at the Russian ballet school and Petrova got to stay home in the Cromwell Road with Great Uncle Matthew. (a very dubious outcome viewed with our contemporary eye, leaving a young girl in the sole care of an old man who had just arrived home after years of roaming …)

Harriet earned her white boots, Lala was granted permission to stop skating and don’t even get me started on the good fortunes of Veronica who earned her place at Sadler’s’ Wells and still headed home to the cousins in  Northumberland for the holidays …

The books my 11 to 13 year olds have been sharing with me this week have had nothing of the solace of these tales.

Almost without exception, they have involved episodes of social anxiety, death, murder, profound unhappiness, thwarted love, and – well, rather a lot of misery in general. Not a rosette or a ballet shoe in sight.

The young protagonists of their books live, you could say, in the real world. They are interested in boys at what seems from my ancient and aged viewpoint to be a remarkably young age. They are mini adults, really, and thus meeting the challenges that were not part of the cloistered worlds of the fictional heroines of our youth.

Or they are living in an entirely different world – a parallel universe – an alternative reality – where cruelty, physical and emotional challenges and precipitate situations appear to be the norm.  Simply surviving against the odds of a violent environment seems to be the goal.

Of course fashions in fiction – both children’s and adults – change constantly. And the very existence of anything even called children’s fiction would have been bewildering to our grandparents’ and great grandparents’ generations. Just as a category called YA – Young Adult – was something unknown to mine. We simply graduated onto Jean Plaidy (where sex in the bedchamber was subtly introduced)and Catherine Cookson with her assertive and resourceful young women surviving against poverty stricken odds.

And after that?

I remember reading L.P. Hartley’s ‘The Go-Between’ in the summer of 1969 and thinking that I had finally left my children’s fiction reading behind. Next was ‘Jane Eyre’ then I stumbled across Thomas Hardy and ‘The Mayor of Casterbridge’ – although it was years before I really understood and appreciated the true tragedy of the novel. I found Somerset Maugham’s ‘Of Human Bondage’  (who reads Maugham these days?)a brief dabble into Daphne du Maurier then moved swiftly on to Margaret Drabble and Lyn Reid-Banks with a sidestep to Arnold Bennett’s ‘The Old’s Wives Tale.’

In other words,  my progression from children’s fiction to adult was managed quite comfortably without the training stage of YA novels that is available these days. I simply moved cautiously from one area of the library to another, jettisoned my children’s membership ticket in favour of an adults’ and I was away.

I have heard a lot of people say that they are finding it hard to concentrate sufficiently to read in these strange times and that they are hardly reading at all. The habit is simply eluding them.

Which seems curious – given the endless amount of time available that is usually squandered in other ways.

But perhaps they simply need their reading habits to be kick- started again in an acceptably accessible way.

And what would I recommend for this?

Above all, leave the fiction of current 11 to 13 year olds alone – don’t think retreating to contemporary children’s novels will be an easy ride – you will find it far too emotionally demanding.

Instead, if at all possible, lay your hands on a consoling tale from the fiction of our youths. A tale of skating boots. Or Jill’s success at the Chatton Show. The Blue Door’s venture with their theatre company.  Veronica and Guy and Marella et al in Northumberland.

Go and live with Pauline and Petrova and Posy and Nana in that rambling house on the Cromwell Road.

You will soon be hooked back into the wonderful world of reading, I can guarantee it.

And once, eventually, finally, England decides to see the opening of libraries and book shops as a priority, a matter of extreme urgency, you will be free to roam in a world of never-ending delights.

No virus – however strong and virulent – can interfere with a love of reading!

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