‘Reading is the most powerful gift we can give a child: it puts stardust in their imaginations’

2nd November 2016 at 08:01
reading, children's book week, emma cox, literacy, malkin moonlight
Child readers bring more magic to the party. They can imagine the things they will never do. They can make mistakes, experience untold terrors and even die. Children’s Book Week is cause to celebrate, says this English teacher and children’s author

The clocks have gone back, it’s dark as soon as school finishes and, as fireworks flash outside, I am reminded that the things that happen at night are the most magical. It is Children’s Book Weekand I think that one of the most happy, warm, delicious and magical childhood pursuits is reading. Particularly after dark.

A certain sort of book is better read in bed. Breaking the lights-out rule is one of the happy comforts of childhood. Nighttime reading gives a child the license to be safely afraid, warm and comfy in their bed. It lets magic permeate their dreams; it wakes them up with ideas. There are many different kinds of reading for children: sharing a book with a parent, reading in class with a teacher, finding a book in a library – but perhaps night-time reading is the best reading of all.

Imagining a childhood without books gives me a horrid sense of deprivation. I cannot imagine my childhood without the characters I met along the way. The age you are when you first read a book is vital. As a child reader I certainly brought more magic to the party. I believed in absolutely everything, and reading permitted me to do the things that I was not allowed to do, not yet, and let me imagine the things that I would never do – although I believed that I might.

‘Stardust in their imaginations’

Reading is the most powerful gift we can give a child: it puts stardust in their imaginations, the tingle of possibility in their minds, the knowledge of facts in their brains, the crackle of magic in burnt fingertips that have cast wondrous spells. Books give you a best friend who understands when you really need them to. An animal with warm fur who loves you. The belief you are someone special and that you can overcome difficulties, that the world belongs to you and you can make something wonderful of it. You can also make mistakes, you can walk into danger, you can experience untold terrors, and – with fiction for older children – you can even die.

Then you can put the book down and live.

Books are an anchor that show children how people cope in difficult situations and how situations can develop outside our control. They are full of knowledge – and a springboard to developing that knowledge. They offer facts and figures (theGuinness Book of Records is absolutely fought over by boys in our school library who can tell you specific page numbers, facts, data…) as well as opinions about things where knowledge runs out. Books are aspirational – and inspirational, providing an insight into human frailty and human strength. Books are a guide to the galaxy. Books are clever – they show us what nature has achieved. Books are funny – they can be really funny – and some of our most loved children’s authors are the funniest of all.

A bookcase of one’s own

And then there is the power of choosing a book. I remember how it felt when a £5 note fell out of a birthday or Christmas card when I was small. I was never quite so keen on a gift voucher. I liked having real money. I liked spending it on Lego (the first and best instructions that we read) and on books.

I think it is lovely to give a child that responsibility. To walk into a book shop with their own money and spend £6 or £7 wisely. It’s a pick ’n’ mix for the imagination, and they get to keep the book for ever. To fill up a bookcase of their own.

We all remember, either clearly or vaguely, the books that imprinted on our imaginations as children. We often have difficulty describing exactly what happened, but we remember the feeling it gave us. ‘There was this book I read as a child…’

It may be a disappointment to find this book now and read it with an adult brain because the colour might have faded, the sparkle dissipated like the words written by a sparkler. But perhaps it may ignite all over again. The alchemy achieved by the little black shapes on a page – not even proper shapes – that build worlds in the mind and make you someone else for the duration is a glorious, high magic.

Walking around I see teenage boys (in particular) wearing t-shirts to show they’ve not quite come back from the brink of unreality. They prefer the worlds of comic books and graphic novels, and they want this world to know that. They believe in what is right and wrong, in super-powers, special mutations.

Need to read

We need food and water, we need to be warm, we need to have hope, and we need to make sense of this world. We need to dare to dazzle and create, and to step outside of ourselves. We need to take risks. We need to be. We need to read.

We need more children’s book reviews, more people like Adi Bloom and Nicolette Jones, who champion children’s literature. We need more libraries in schools and communities, because if a £5 note doesn’t drop out of your Christmas card, a library means you can still go and choose a book. Learning to love a library means learning to be comfortable in one and being confident in using one, so that when childhood is no more, and you say goodbye to those who love you and head off to university or wherever the world is leading you, you can always find a library. You may think, ‘I’m a little lonely, and this is all a little new,’ but you will gather a stack of books and open a computer and think, ‘But I’m in a library, I recognise this. I know about reading, so a part of me is home.’

In time, reading might turn to writing: in all its different forms, from something as small as a tweet to a doctoral thesis. And it is through writing that wonderful new books will be born that will light the touchpaper of inspiration that ignites the brains of our children.

Between here and Christmas is the time of year when the most books are sold. It is dark, it is cold, it’s time to hunker down and light up the fire of imagination. So ignore the lights out rule and give a child you love a book. It is a magical gift, and a unique one, because once those words are mixed with the power of a child’s imagination…well. No other gift could possibly contain as much.

Emma Cox is the author of Malkin Moonlight, published by Bloomsbury. She is head of English at Exeter Cathedral School.

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Fear of immigrants…

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Joanne Cummins is literacy manager at Chalk Ridge Primary School in Hampshire. She tweets as@BookSuperhero2

In her review of Malkin Moonlight published in the TES, she writes;

…. this theme cleverly mirrors the crisis our society is facing at the moment, with fear and distrust of immigrants seemingly being the overwhelming reason that people voted leave in the recent EU referendum. This part of the book would provide an excellent starting point for a discussion with children about the rights of others and the current immigration situation, and about how they think some of these issues could be resolved.

Given that the debate on “Brexit” now dominates the political landscape, it is clearly an issue close to people’s hearts.

An interview with thebookactivist!

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Amazing Authors in August!

out of office

We wanted to find out what some of our amazing authors get up to in the summer months! Are they furiously writing their next masterpiece, surfing the seven seas, trekking through the Himalayas or curled up in the sun with a good book? Read on to find out more…

Introducing…..

Emma Cox

Summer is finally here! In three words, tell us how are you spending your summer this year?

Writing. Friends. Cornwall.

Childhood memories – what was summertime in your childhood like?

We usually went on holiday to France or Denmark. I remember very clearly, when I was five years old, we were staying in a chalet in France and there was a box of sugar cubes in this chalet. I’d never seen sugar cubes and I wanted to eat them. I wasn’t allowed so I ran away – for most of the day – I got quite far. When I was found and brought back I was allowed to eat them all. I also remember great big ice-creams in Tivoli Gardens, and these wonderful hotdogs with mustard in Denmark, and the Danish pastries in the mornings in the bakeries. I now reflect and realise this is all about food – I was born under a greedy star, what can I say?

Where would you most like to Get Caught Reading this summer & why?

I’d love to be in a hotel called Le Sirenuse in Positano – oh it’s so beautiful by the sea there and the lemons are huge and it’s no distance to Capri and you can watch out for mermaids. It’s the nicest hotel I’ve ever stayed in. Sadly, I’m not there now. Maybe next year. I’d have to sell an awful lot of books to achieve this, however, an awful lot. Best keep writing and wishing.

You create amazing characters in your books! Which one would you choose to spend summer with & why?

I would choose a seagull called Horatio. I like him very much, he’s a jolly chap, and I can imagine him landing by me on the beach for a chat and a bit of moral guidance (which might look a bit odd, but hey ho).

Reading is the ultimate escape! Which book ‘world’ would you escape to for summer & why?

Oh my goodness. The very first thought that springs into my mind is of the hot summer at the beginning of The Bell Jar. Not because it’s cheery! But because I’d love to talk to Sylvia Plath (I always read Esther as Sylvia) and get those free lunches and make up and have a driver take me through a time and place – New York then, imagine! And wear gloves and be proper and eat caviar and avocado and crabmeat. Then come home before she goes properly downhill. Oh, I would have loved to have spoken to Sylvia Plath right then and there. My second thought is the island in The Tempest. But I’d be up with Ariel, learning what the fairies know, not down with the mortals. I want to sleep inside flowers and ride on the bat’s back and learn magic and practice controlling the elements and get a bit better at it each day. What a lovely question.

Summer survival – name the three most essential things you take on holiday?

Sunblock. Imagination. Euros.

Summertime selfie – who would you have a selfie with this summer & why? (Fictional, historical, alive today)

Tom Hardy. Thanks. Is it true? May I? Good. I’ll hold you to this.

Summertime travel – train, plane, automobile or other?

Plane. I just like to get there. I like the bit when you get off the plane and are hit by the heat and the smell of a different country and you think holiday!

Inside or outside – best place to be creative in the summer? 

I can only write indoors. And I prefer writing when it’s raining, so I don’t feel I’m missing out on all the life going on outside. It’s pouring down in Exeter right now, so I am writing! Hurray! 

Stuck on permanent summer vacation? What three books would you choose to have with you?

This would change, but the mood I’m in at present it would be:

For Esme With Love and Squalor – Salinger (that would never change).

The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

It would have to be the Complete Works of Shakespeare – as you could spend a lifetime on those words, couldn’t you? 

Thank you for participating – have a great summer!