‘Making’ Readers

Books (Drama)

I’ve been reading since before I was three, and books have always been sacred to me (then, Hinduism taught me that they really are sacred!). Books helped me to make sense of the world I knew I didn’t fit into (and often believed I didn’t belong in). They gave me new words, opened up new arenas, showed me things, taught me things, gave me different perspectives, nudged me towards decisions, instructed me, and even annoyed me.

I had books for my girls before they were born, and read to them several times a day. Reading was never ‘just’ about books – it was about signs, menus, cards, posters, advertisements, magazines, and timetables. Yet, I still managed to produce a non-reader. I couldn’t understand how she had no interest in reading and tried everything to get her  to love books. The library was (and is) a place we visit for pleasure. The Kindle is stuffed with books that might interest her, our home has shelves full of books, boxes full of books, bags of books, tables littered with books and yet – and yet – she doesn’t read.

I tried everything to interest her in books; I continued reading, and talking about books, and sharing bits in books I was reading. I presented a trip to the library as a treat (well, it is!); I got her books in different genres; I got her graphic novels; I borrowed audiobooks from the library, and played them in the car when we were all together. Believing that there is no difference between a reward and a punishment, I never tied reading into getting ‘treats’ (reading is a treat itself).

Niggling away at the back of my mind was a conviction that reading was difficult for her. But was reassured, on a number of occasions, that her eyesight was so good, she could nearly see around corners, and she definitely wasn’t dyslexic. A few years ago, however, she was diagnosed with Irlen Syndrome, and the difficulties I knew she had with reading were finally recognised.

It was too late, however. She hadn’t learnt to love reading; she’d learnt it was difficult and time consuming, and painful. She could read – she just didn’t choose to.

One day, I realised that the problem wasn’t hers, it was mine. Books had been such a relief for me – such a joy, such an escape, such a wonderful gift, that I wanted to give that gift to my children. A gift, however, is only a gift if it brings joy to the recipient. I was pushing something on my child that she really didn’t want. Unpacking what I wanted her to get from reading, I realised it boiled down to four things:

  1. Love of story.
  2. Storytelling skills.
  3. Increased vocabulary.
  4. Pleasure.
  5. Critical thinking skills.
  6. Critiquing abilities.

Then, I realised that she could get all these elements are available from things she does enjoy – films, television programmes, and live theatre. And I was reminded – one size does not fit all; there is more than one way to skin a cat; as a parent, I need to provide access to what my children need – not what I want them to need, or what I think they need; my children are ‘of me’, but they are not ‘mine’; not everyone is a ‘reader’ and that’s okay.

 

My daughter can read, she just chooses not to. If she needs information that can only be accessed via text, she can navigate that text. In much the same way as I can sew – I just choose not to. If I need to fix, create, or mend something, I will drag out the sewing machine and set to. I’d much rather, however, pull my knitting close, and enjoy that. Knitting does for me what sewing (or other crafting) does for other people. Theatre, films, and TV programmes do for my daughter what books do for me. And that’s okay – we have plenty of shared passions and interests to provide us with common ground and opportunities to strengthen our relationship. What’s far more important is that we already have the ability to read each other like books.

 

On Publishing

A few weeks ago, Alison Wells posted something on Facebook that made me think. When I mentioned it to Alison, she told me that I’d actually mis-read what she’d written. Never mind! What I thought she’d written made me think…. Confused yet? 🙂

 

Increasingly, I’ve been wondering what one has to do to catch the attention of a half-decent publisher. I was published for  the first time when I was 12. Since then, my work has been published in anthologies (the first when I was 17), magazines, newsletters, newspapers and (in another month or so) an academic journal. I have written for television – magazine programmes, dramas and a soap for teenagers – and I have been commissioned to write plays and musicals.

 

For the past four years or so, I have been trying to find a publisher for my book because I don’t want to self-publish. While I know there are many good reasons to go that route, there are many reasons why I don’t feel it’s the right way to go with this particular book. It’s a memoir, called Gullible Travels and (ostensibly) it deals with the 10 years I spent in Asia. I do a lot of stupid things in the book and I realised that, in order to explain why, I needed to explain where the seeds of stupidity were sown. I was adamant I was not going to write a tome of misery lit. And I didn’t. I came up with a literary device that tells the back story in a dramatic way, but without being dreary, or disturbing the narrative. The book has been edited, read by beta-readers, read by a proper editor and edited again. And then again. And then once more, to be sure, to be sure. I am very pleased with the manuscript I now have.

 

I do not have an agent and, if I’m honest, my attempts to attract one were a bit on the half-hearted side. I don’t meant that when I contacted agents I was half-hearted – far from it! Any agent I contacted I did so because they had been personally recommended to me or because I was familiar with their work and how they treat their writers. I only contacted agents with whom I felt my work and I would be a good fit. There are many agents that I’d love to work with, but they don’t represent the memoir genre (I just mis-typed ‘gene’ there – was it really a typo?!), so I’ve left them alone (save for following them on Twitter 🙂 ).  In a way, I’m lucky, because many publishers will accept unsolicited and un-agented submissions in this genre, where they won’t in others. So, really, it’s not the end of the world that I don’t have an agent.

 

I’ve approached publishers directly. Some have passed without reading a word of the book – which is fair enough. Some have asked me to send them the full manuscript – which I do with cautious excitement. In the interests of full disclosure, I was very excited the first time but after that disappointment (‘Your story is fascinating, but it doesn’t fit our current list. Good luck placing it elsewhere’), I’ve tempered my emotional reaction to a request for a ‘full’. I draw hope from the fact that no one has written back to say ‘You are delusional. You cannot write.’  or any variation on that theme. I draw hope from the fact that many, many good writers were rejected countless times before their books found homes. I am aware that this is the one project I have not shelved (I have written two other books that I couldn’t even find now on the desktop if I went looking for them!) so I feel in my gut that it has merit and I really should stick my shoulder to the wheel and work a bit harder to get it published.

 

I think part of the difficulty for me – and people like me who have not published a full book of their own work before – is that publishing is a gamble. We are asking publishers to take a gamble on our work. We are asking them to predict the future. We are asking them to know what will sell in the future based on what has sold in the past. That’s a hard thing to do. Last night, I was listening to The Green Room on Newstalk with Orla Barry. She was interviewing writer Joe Lansdale and he nailed it:

‘They get scared because it isn’t familiar,’ he said, when talking about bringing something new and fresh and different to the party.

And, for that, I can’t blame them. But I wonder what one has to do to convince a publisher that you have readers for your book? That you have people who want to read what you have written. For example, at an international conference on trauma about a month ago, I read from my memoir for the first time. I topped and tailed what I was reading with ‘academic stuff’ and then I read various extracts from the book, bridging them to reveal where I was in my history, so as not to confuse my audience.

 

The reaction was better than I could possibly have hoped for.  I spoke the final word of my 20 minute presentation. And there was silence. Now, 150 years ago, I trained as an actor, so I knew that this was a good thing. After about 3 seconds someone just went ‘Wow’. And then the applause kicked in. I was thrilled. I had given birth and my baby was not ugly.

 

Later, several people approached me and asked where they could buy copies of the book. Those were squirmy moments for me when I had to admit that, actually, they couldn’t because it wasn’t published. This was met with disbelief.

‘Why ever  not?’ one therapist asked.

‘Are they afraid?’ asked another, bluntly.

I had no answer. I still don’t.

These delegates – therapists, counsellors, doctors, mental health professionals and academics – wanted to read my book for themselves, but some also wanted to offer it as ‘bibliotherapy’ to their clients. They really believed that my book would help their clients and passionately wanted to get their hands on it. I had to disappoint them.

More than one person has said to me that I am just ahead of my time, and because of that, I make people uncomfortable. Now, I don’t think I’m a maverick or a trail-blazer or a thought-leader. I do think, however, that I have written a book that could be very useful to a certain cohort of people, and very entertaining to another.

 

A few weeks ago, I happened to be talking about the book with a young woman who works in the theatre and is in her late twenties. I was musing about the possibility of turning (part of) Gullible Travels into a play. Her enthusiastic response was:

‘Please do! I’d go and see it!  And I’d love to read the book, as well. Will you keep me up-dated?!’ I was surprised that she’d be interested in the content. I was wrong. It clearly struck a chord with her. Similarly, it has struck a chord with a man who survived Belsen (he was in tears listening to me read and he thought it was fiction). 

 

So I have people who want to read my book, it has been trialled on real live people who thought it was worth reading/listening to and I am happy to do whatever I can to promote it. I just don’t know what to do to get the attention of a publisher. Maybe I should make a video of me reading from my book and stick it up on You Tube?  Maybe I should say that, if you’re a publisher and you’re reading this, I’m a safe bet. There are more than just my three best friends who want to read Gullible Travels. I already have an international audience waiting to read the book (or listen to it on audiobook!).  Or maybe I should just upload the thing as a PDF here (with a paypal button beside it!) and let whoever wants to read it go right ahead? 🙂

 

If you have thoughts, comments or advice, please pop them in a note below. Thanks!

Encouraging Your Children To Read

This piece first appeared in the May, 2012 issue of  Easy Parenting 

Reading is the greatest gift you can give your child. Not only is it fun, it is vital. Reading opens up whole universes to children – and can help them make sense of the one they’re already living in.

Some children love reading and take to it like the proverbial duck to water, but others need coaxing.

Of course, some children do have difficulties with reading that have nothing to do with motivation or desire. If you are concerned, get your child tested for dyslexia, dyspraxia, myopia or other optical difficulties.

If you sense your child is just reluctant to read, however, there are a few things you can do:

Confidence

Books can be intimidating. Maybe your child isn’t progressing with their reading because they worry about getting it wrong. I know this was true for my eldest daughter. I despaired over her reading until I realised that it was a confidence issue. Rather than try to read something that might be difficult – and fail – she decided it was better for her not to even try.

Once I figured that out, I invested in a few workbooks that started at the very beginning and progressed. Ishthara knew she could read the alphabet and she knew she could do the simple exercises in the workbook. So she took great pride in zipping through them. Very quickly, she built on what she already knew and it wasn’t long before her confidence soared – along with her reading fluency.

Routine

For some families, bed-time is not conducive to story-time. If that’s true for you, is there a time that might work better? First thing in the morning, perhaps? Or – if you work at home – the middle of the afternoon? When dinner’s cooking? Immediately after dinner?

Reading isn’t just about books, though, and can be incorporated into every day – when you’re driving, ask your child to spot signs with the name of your destination on them. In a restaurant, offer your child a menu and ask them to select their own meal. Have them read the instructions to a board game you’re about to play. Hand them your shopping list and ask them to help when you’re in the supermarket.

Or imitate the Finnish, who have the highest literacy rates in the world. Part of this is because all television programmes are subtitled (in Finnish). This encourages children to read along when they’re watching T.V. Our government hasn’t adopted this practice yet, but there’s nothing to stop you putting on the subtitles every time you switch the telly on.

Genres

Finding the genre your child enjoys most is a great way to find the door into reading for them. One happy day, my eldest chanced upon a book by Karen McCombie and fell in love. Since then, she has read many of Karen’s books and joined her fan club online (more reading!).

We’ve also discovered that Ishthara devours books based on fact, and books that are more ‘real’ (like the Breadwinner trilogy); while Kashmira loves books about animals as well as books with elements of time travel and the odd ghost.

Don’t dismiss comics either. In other countries they are referred to as ‘graphic novels’ and are for all ages and reading levels. As the recently-deceased Maurice Sendak (author of ‘Where The Wild Things Are’) said: ‘Kids don’t know about bestsellers. They go for what they enjoy.’

Resources

Use your local library. Ask the children’s librarian for recommendations. Libraries often have writers visit them – and some have workshops for children. Getting your child involved can add a new dimension to reading.

Rather than feud with your child over screen time, incorporate reading into it. For instance, one hundred classics – including ‘A Little Princess’, ‘Alice in Wonderland’ and ‘Treasure Island’ – are all available on a single cartridge for Nintendo DS®. The Internet, too, can be used to your advantage in your quest to instil a love of reading in your child. Check out http://www.bookadventure.com to start with.

Finally, remember that you are your child’s biggest resource. Lead by example – discuss books, share facts you’ve discovered through reading, and let your child/ren see you reading whenever you get the chance. 

Ishthara &Kashmira Reading