I love to read. Always have. I’d rather go hungry than go without a book for long, and I often do miss meals, or at least postpone them for hours, because I’m busy with a good story. Josh is almost as bad. Between us we have hundreds and hundreds of books collected over decades (it turns out that I really am that old, unfortunately) in bookshelves, boxes, and piles in the garage and spare room.
We read to our babies from the time they’re born. They say that children should have had a thousand books read to them by the time they turn five, and ours would have met that goal much earlier. I assume five stories repeated two hundred times each counts? If not, whoever came up with the thousand books thing has never met a toddler.
Our first child went through the gates of primary school on her fifth birthday and came home reading War and Peace. Well, allow me some poetic licence here, but you get the gist. She’s been working her way through the school and home libraries ever since. The biggest weapon in my arsenal of consequences for her bad behaviour is to take away the book she’s reading. Josh was appalled the first time I did that. He usually thinks I’m too lenient but, as a sympathetic fellow book addict, he felt that taking away a book that someone is in the middle of really fits into the ‘cruel and unusual’ category.
So imagine our surprise when Daniel went to school and took against reading completely. Like his siblings he could ‘read’ the complete works of Lynley Dodd and Janet and Allan Ahlberg without even needing the books (like I say, five books two hundred times) so everything was in place and we weren’t expecting problems.
It wasn’t so much that he couldn’t get a handle on the necessary skills, it was just that he didn’t see any reason to. He decided early on in his school career that reading was not something he would ever have any use for under any circumstances and therefore any time or effort spent in learning to do it was wasted. He also felt this way about writing, spelling, maths and a few other trivialities, but that’s a story for another day.
And so began the misery that was homework. The only light relief I ever had was the part in the homework diary that said that for juniors, this should only take twenty minutes a day. That always gave me a laugh because twenty minutes didn’t even cover the tantrum about getting started. Sometimes all of us were having meals postponed for hours.
It’s mostly a blur now but those years featured a lot of yelling, sulking, crying and slamming of doors over homework, and that was just the parents. Looking back we should have called an end to it all much sooner, but when teacher after teacher said he just needed to work harder, to concentrate more, to put more effort in, we believed them.
The first small flicker of light at the end of the tunnel came from Granny, also a teacher but with a bit more experience. She gave Daniel a boxed set of Captain Underpants books. There’s something alluring about a boxed set. I was given a boxed set of The Lord of the Rings for my 21st birthday. Although I have never read them under my own steam (I have had them read out to me in their entirety by Josh who believes they’re, like, really good or something) because they’re wedged so tightly in the box that I can’t get them out by myself, I do like the way there’s a whole box of them. It’s an awesome present.
Anyhoo, Daniel felt the same way about Captain Underpants and allowed Josh to read them aloud each night. In case you’re not familiar with the Captain Underpants oeuvre, it’s genius. If you want to appeal to the young male reluctant reader there’s an obvious choice of subject matter: toilet humour. It works in this case because each book also has appealing illustrations, funny dialogue, an imaginative plot and, best of all, skilful writing. The books are very accessible for children and are palatable to the adult reading them which is a rare and precious combination. There were times when Josh would put Daniel to bed and get straight back to the book by himself to find out what happened next. There were also times when Josh would stop at an exciting moment then tell Daniel to put the book away in his room and go to bed. We would sit in the lounge pretending not to hear Daniel turning pages and READING and we’d wonder if we were hallucinating.
Although he would occasionally give reading a go because he thought he wasn’t allowed to and because he just had to find out what happened next, Daniel’s attitude wasn’t any better in itself and he certainly had no intention of applying his little handful of skills to anything else. Ever.
So Granny gave him a boxed set of Roald Dahl books and a matching set of CDs. He loved the stories and listened to the CDs over and over and over. He occasionally opened one of the books but it still wasn’t enough to overcome his reading aversion.
Meanwhile Josh, more handy than me with getting the books out of the box, had started reading him The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It was the beginning of an obsession, or perhaps the handing on of a torch. Daniel loves The Lord of the Rings. They went on to read The Silmarilion and other less well-known J.R.R. Tolkein works. I’m pretty sure they aren’t aimed at eight-year-olds but there was no stopping Daniel. It was about this time that Daniel’s profile (which used to be called a report before political correctness was invented and it became unacceptable to be clear about what a child can and cannot do) came home from school with a sad emoticon (yes, that is how ‘results’ are now ‘reported’) next to the statement ‘Daniel can listen to stories read aloud for a longer period of time’ and I thought ‘For @#$%’s sake’ and started looking at alternatives to relying on school for his education.
Sorry about that long and complicated sentence. It was a frustrating time. Also a story for another day.
They finished Tolkein in record time (especially compared to me, but then the box is a really tight fit) and needed something else. Daniel still wasn’t reading on his own – I think he tried the sneaking it into bed to see what happens next trick once or twice and found it a whole different ball game after Captain Underpants. A friend told me about a series of fantasy novels called ‘The Ranger’s Apprentice’ so, willing to try anything, I bought the first one. Daniel took it with his usual scepticism but put up with having it read aloud and found that he really quite liked it. He promptly received the next few books in the series for his birthday and was converted. For the first time it was truly a labour of love on Josh’s part to read to Daniel every evening because unlike Tolkein and Roald Dahl, this author didn’t quite cut it on the adult level. There was a slight improvement as the series continued but Josh found it constantly grating on his literary sensibilities and when we ran out of books halfway through the series he was more than willing to sacrifice Daniel’s potential reading progress if only I wouldn’t buy any more.
And then. AND THEN… a friend posted on Facebook about racing her son to read the newest book in a series called Skulduggery Pleasant. I had never heard of Skulduggery Pleasant but filed the name in my memory because, as mentioned above, books that appeal to kids as well as to the parents that have to do the reading are like hen’s teeth. Said friend is a perfectly literate person and I had full faith that if she was so keen to read the book (she won the race on account of being the one with the credit card) then it was worth reading. When I saw the first book in a second hand bookshop for the grand sum of two dollars I said, book, you’re coming home with me.
The rest, as they say, is history. Not only did Daniel love Skulduggery Pleasant enough to start reading all by himself anywhere and everywhere but Josh and Amy love them too and there is squabbling, bargaining, pleading and, well, skulduggery to get their respective hands on the next book in the series. When they were not long started I stumbled across (literally, it was on the floor) a boxed set – boxed set, people – of the next six books in Whitcoulls, half price, and it was the best $45 I have ever spent. And now – drum roll please – Daniel reads. He reads Skulduggery Pleasant and he reads the Hunger Games. He still likes Josh to read to him, it’s their thing, but Josh has to get the story in a sort of waltz formation now – a piece here, the next piece following a big gap where Daniel read on by himself before Josh got home, step back and read the missing bit when Daniel’s in bed.
Daniel’s discovered Calvin and Hobbes and Footrot Flats – not great literature perhaps but they appeal to his sense of humour. He could almost be reading Fanny Hill and we’d still be thrilled every time we find him curled up somewhere with a book.
He’s still picky and when he gets through his current favourites he’ll wait until he finds the next big thing rather than pick up any old book that comes to hand as the rest of us do. That’s okay. We take our miracles where we find them.