Category Archives: Reading matters

We need another Harry Potter.

It is nearly sixteen years since the publication of the first Harry Potter novel and few would argue the immense impact of J.K. Rowling’s series in every corner of the globe. Indeed, there are some young Muggles who cannot remember a world without the famous boy wizard. Whilst the success and cultural influence of the Harry Potter series is undeniable, of late there has been a noticeable shift in the place young Harry and his friends occupy in the hearts of the young.

Harry Potter

The first hint I had of a waning preoccupation with Harry surfaced upon the release of the final movie back in 2011. During a wide-reading lesson, my class of Year 7 boys were discussing the upcoming film release with much anticipation. During the ensuing discussion, I discovered the majority of boys had not read the final book in the series and furthermore, had no intention of ever doing so. They all reported quite cheerfully that they had been waiting for the film’s release to “see how it ended”. Thank you, Hollywood.

Apparently this reluctance to read the actual book is not restricted to boys. A recent change of school now sees me enjoying wide-reading lessons with girls and, much to my dismay, I have discovered a similar avoidance of Harry. The prevailing reason given for not bothering to read the books is “we’ve seen the movies; we don’t need to read the books”. Again, thank you, Hollywood.

Regular readers will know that I am a fan of the movie tie-in, as it frequently sparks eager interest in a book. A fortunate side-effect of the hoopla surrounding certain blockbuster films is often the rush of fans to the bookstore, impatient to read the book and/or series. The Hunger Games is a recent example of this movie-inspired hype.

Sadly, the rush to read Harry Potter appears to be at an end. The story has reached saturation point and as such has created a disturbing predicament for both educators and parents: like Neville Longbottom’s cauldron in potions class, Harry Potter has gone off the boil. The exhilarating whizz-banging blast of spells has faded away to a sad fizzle.

At the height of its popularity, the Harry Potter series was nothing short of a phenomenon. Rowling’s imagination, clever characterisation, warm wit and resounding themes captured the hearts of readers and non-readers around the world. Children ran around playgrounds shouting Expelliarmus! and Wingardium Leviosa! College students created their own Quidditch league, Hermione made going to the library cool, and the word Muggle entered our lexicon forever.

Indeed, there was a time back in the early part of the 21st century where it was hard to find anyone who hadn’t read some or all of the Harry Potter series, or at least expressed the desire to read it. In short, Harry got both kids and adults reading. And as my Reading Rules explain, often all it takes to trigger a lifelong reading habit is enjoyment of and engagement in one book – and Harry Potter was certainly the trigger for a generation of readers.

The majority of these Harry Potter readers are now in their twenties, members of the so-called Generation Y. They grew up reading the print editions of Harry Potter, eagerly anticipating the release of each subsequent book. Later, they were the first fans at the midnight screenings of the films, resplendent in their Gryffindor scarves and Death Eater masks.

Despite receiving bad press for various traits, Gen Y is an incredibly smart and articulate group. I am constantly blown away by the intelligence and critical thinking abilities of this generation – the Harry Potter generation. Of course Harry Potter didn’t create these smart kids – but maybe their habit of sustained, deep reading had a profound influence on the way they turned out.

The world of reading has undergone significant changes and challenges since these Gen Y readers were children. Today’s children often read from a screen and not from the printed page. Whilst I maintain that any reading is good reading studies are beginning to discern a difference between reading from a screen and the printed page, as this Scientific American article reports. Indeed the National Literacy Trust in the UK believes that children’s reading progress is hindered by Kindles and e-books.

Further studies into the long-term effects of reading from non-print sources are clearly needed. But it is irrefutable that a child reading an e-book from a connected tablet such as an I-pad or Kindle Wifi has to compete with many distractions whilst reading – checking social media sites, online chatting and gaming. The ability to become totally immersed and absorbed in a good book is lessened by constant distraction – and this must detract from the enjoyment of the reading experience. Does this lack of immersion and subsequent lesser enjoyment of the reading experience explain the decline in reading among our children? What will be the societal result? Will reading decline to such an extent that we become a post-literate society?

Since the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in 2007, the final book in the series, there has been a void in the reading world. Yes we’ve had the Twilight craze, but this was far more popular with girls than boys. John Green is arguably the most successful author for teens at the moment, in large part due to his clever marketing via social media (a big hello to any nerdfighters out there). Green is undoubtedly an exceptional writer. His novel The Fault in our Stars is being made into a movie, and there is a currently great deal of online hype about this. But few adults will have heard of either the author or the book. Perhaps the nearest rival we’ve had to the Harry Potter phenomenon in recent times is The Hunger Games. But with sales of 26 million against the 400 million of Harry Potter, the comparison is almost embarrassing.

It’s clear that nothing comes close to Harry. And that is a problem. Because anecdotally most educators will tell you that this generation is not reading as much as previous generations. And when they do bother to read, many of them are reading e-books. More studies need to be done on the effect of reading from screens and personal devices, but all teachers will tell you that nothing beats sustained reading and it is difficult to become immersed in an I-pad when Facebook, Twitter and Angry Birds are beckoning.

We need another Harry Potter! We need a new series which will tap into the imagination of children (and adults) around the world. And we need a few years between the publication of the book and the release of the inevitable movie so that kids have to make an effort and read the damned book first! Will the next J.K Rowling please step forward?

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Family holiday reading.

This time of year is a joy for avid readers. Here in the southern hemisphere we are blessed with summer holidays where we visit the beach, laze around the pool, or enjoy the test cricket during these long, relaxing summer days – which all adds up to the perfect environment in which to indulge in a little reading.

It is a time of year where I can read for pleasure, not work. In my Christmas stocking this year there were two very different books, both of which I requested and both of which I have already devoured.

The first was by my favourite holiday reading author: Maggie Alderson. everything changesHer latest book, Everything Changes But You did not disappoint. Set in England, it investigates a problem experienced by many individuals and couples in the modern world: the tyranny of distance. The plot revolves around families, relationships, love and secrets and as is usual with Maggie Alderson’s work, I devoured her book in two days. Bravo Ms Alderson. (For those who would like to read more of Maggie Alderson’s work, I would highly recommend one of my favourite summer reads of all time: Shall We Dance? which is mentioned here).

The second book in my Christmas stocking is one which I have been eagerly anticipating: the sequel to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall: Booker Prize winner Bring Up the Bodies. bring up the bodiesI finished this late last night and feel bereft at the end of this reading experience. This is one of those books where the reader savours every word, every nuance, every morsel offered by the author. Bring Up the Bodies is the second book in the trilogy exploring the life of Thomas Cromwell. This volume covers the fall from grace of Anne Boleyn in the court of Henry VIII. Though dense in its subject matter the tension is palpable and Mantel manages to neatly convey all the treachery, danger and subterfuge of Henry’s court.

During this holiday season my family has joined me in indulging in my favourite pastime. Husband has finally discovered Lee Child’s Jack Reacher series and is speeding through each book faster than I can supply the next. Teenage daughter no. 1 has just finished the sublime Jasper Jones by Craig Silvey (this will feature in a future post about Australian novels) and teenage daughter no. 2 is currently knee-deep in Rick Riordan’s The Mark of Athena.

Happy holiday reading.

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The great reading drought of 2012.

Books have played a major role in my life for as long as I can remember. They have been my friends in times of loneliness and my solace in times of suffering. They have accompanied my on every holiday and their pages hold the treasured memories of my youth. So it was rather unnerving earlier in the year to find that I had lost the desire to pick up a book and I virtually stopped reading.

The reasons for this still remain unclear. The logical explanation of course is that as I am surrounded by books all day at school, and as I read constantly for my work and this website, I finally became overwhelmed by the surfeit of books in my life. Perhaps like the chef who comes home and makes a simple sandwich for dinner or the plumber who can’t be bothered to change a leaking tap, this teacher librarian finally came home and decided she couldn’t bear to open the cover of yet another book.

Strictly speaking, I did actually open the cover of a book. Many books. I even started reading numerous books. The trouble was I could not develop the slightest interest in any book, leaving countless novels discarded, unfinished and heartbroken. Like a shallow flirt I casually read a few chapters before tossing each and every book aside. Alarmingly, the number of books I discarded began to outnumber the books I actually finished reading.

There were a couple of successes. In September I read and finished The Reluctant Hallelujah (you can read the review here). In the October school holidays I read Anna Karenina, but this was no true victory. I first read Tolstoy’s masterpiece some twenty years ago so re-reading it was more like catching up with an old friend rather than forging a new relationship. For just as there is no need to establish an old friend’s background and history at a reunion, the same can be said of a re-read: the plot, characters, language and even the rhythm are stored somewhere in the recesses of your reading past. Reading and finishing Anna was a hollow victory; meanwhile the pile of books I began and failed to finish kept on growing.

Beginning to despair, I turned to an as yet unread author and page by page my dejection was cautiously transformed into elation. Success! Within a couple of a chapters I was thoroughly hooked. With eager joy I began to look for stolen moments in my day when I could sneak away with my new friend and at night I read far too late, eagerly turning the pages to inhale more of the story. And when I eventually turned the last page of the book, I felt bereft and mourned the loss of my latest literary companion.

The bewitching book that broke my reading drought was Kate Morton’s The Secret Keeper.

Kate Morton is an Australian author who has had international success beginning with The Shifting Fog (also known as The House at Riverton). The Secret Keeper is best described as historical mystery, alternating between the story of famous actor Laurel Nicholson in 2011 and the life of her mother during the Blitz in 1941. Despite the historical label, Morton does not weigh the story down with historical detail; the perfectly researched history simply adds a natural supportive structure to the narrative. And the narrative is superb.

I became absorbed in the intertwined lives of the characters and the secret which is introduced early in the piece. About two-thirds of the way in I thought I had solved the mystery, but to my delight I was totally wrong and the twist was surprising yet totally satisfying, allowing all the pieces to fall into logical and satisfying place.

Morton is a discerning and gifted writer who cleverly unravels the plot, piece by piece, displaying an astute insight into the foibles of the human character and the secrets hidden deeply in the past of all families. This was my first taste of the sublime Ms Morton’s talent, and it has whetted my appetite for more.

Bless you, Kate Morton for breaking my reading drought.

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The role of the family in the reading habits of children.

Earlier this week, the Australian Bureau of Statistics released an interesting report which examined the important relationship between the family and the reading habits of children.

Photo by Alec Couros

This article used data from Growing Up in Australia: The Longitudinal Study of Australian Children (LSAC) which is a major study following the development of 10,000 children and families from all over Australia. The study began in 2004, looking at families with 0 -1 year old children and 4- 5 year old children. These same families and children were the studied six years later in 2010.

Data from the LSAC indicates that there are three major influences in the development of a child’s reading habits: having books in the home, visiting the library and reading aloud.

The children in the study had their engagement in reading measured using a time-diary which recorded the sequence of all activities the child engaged in during the day prior to being interviewed for the study. Various factors affecting the reading habits of children were mentioned in the report, such as the education levels of parents, family type and the language spoken at home. You can read the full report here.

The most interesting part of the report for me is that of the Family Reading Context, which discusses the influence a child’s family can have in determining their reading habits later in life. The following factors were most relevant:

  1. Children who lived with 30 or more books when aged 4 – 5 were more likely to enjoy reading at age 10 – 11 years than those who lived in households with fewer than 30 books.
  2. Visiting a library when aged 4 – 5 years was positively associated with children’s engagement in reading at age 10 – 11 years. Children who had visited a library when aged 4 – 5 years were more likely to enjoy reading than those who had not.
  3. Children aged 10 – 11 years who were read to when aged 4- 5 years were more likely to enjoy reading.

Whilst this study does not really provide us with any new information in children’s reading habits, it helps to reinforce our beliefs about the important strategies in how we get children to read and become readers. Interestingly the above three findings relate well to the Reading Rules, especially Reading Rule no. 1 Create the right environment; Reading Rule no. 2 Be a role model; Reading Rule no 3. Read to them and Reading Rule no. 8: Ask an expert.

Every day in my work I am reminded of the power of reading. Just last week there was a public speaking competition in the library, and one of the speakers, an articulate and confident young lady, gave an impassioned speech about her love of books and reading. This made me quickly scan the faces of the entrants from my school and I noted that every one of them was a regular library user and regular reader. I have no doubt that there is a direct correlation between their reading habits and abilities as confident public speakers.

Developing positive reading habits is the key, and as the LSAC report illustrates, it all starts with a few simple routines in the home.

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The brilliance of Artemis Fowl.

Artemis Fowl series

by Eoin Colfer,

Penguin Books, Australia.

 

Now it’s common knowledge among fans that the boy himself, the genius anti-hero Artemis, is brilliant. However the brilliance to which I am referring is that of Eoin Colfer’s series itself.

I was forced to read the first book in the Artemis Fowl series in 2002 when I was a teacher librarian at a boys’ school in Sydney. A group of Year 8 boys persistently nagged me to read me to read a book they had loved, which they described as ‘a fantasy book about fairies’. I politely declined, explaining that I hadn’t much enjoyed reading fairy books since my childhood Enid Blyton days. After deciphering the Blyton reference, the boys persevered (as they do), so I succumbed (as I do) and took Artemis Fowl home on a Friday. I spent that evening and weekend enjoying the most gratifying young adult reading experience I’d had since Harry Potter.

Artemis Fowl, the title character, turned out to be a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind who has cunningly secured the fairies’ book of secrets, and the fairies led by Captain Holly Short of the LEPrecon Unit are out for revenge. These are not your common bottom-of- the-garden Blytonesque fairies. No, these fairies are of the weapon-toting ass-kicking variety and I loved them as much as I loved Artemis Fowl. Full of clever writing with a great plot, packed with suspense and plenty of dry humour, I knew this book would be a success.

And what a success it has been. In the ten years since my first reading, the brilliant Irish author Eoin Colfer has written another seven equally brilliant books in the series. I now work in a different school to the one where I was first introduced to my friend Artemis, but these books have been just as beloved in my current library as they were in the other. The graphic novels which are being gradually published are also hugely popular, and Colfer’s website for the series is a favourite among the boys.

And now we are at the end of the series which Colfer has referred to as “Die Hard with fairies”. The eighth and last book, Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian, was released this week. This will be met with great sadness from my little Fowlites, but I have no doubt that like other beloved series, Artemis Fowl will be re-visited many times by its vast legion of fans.

Recommended for ages 11+

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“Reading is a majority skill but a minority art” – Julian Barnes.

In this National Year of Reading I just had to share this beautiful reflection by prize-winning author Julian Barnes. In it he discusses the important role that books have played in every stage of his development, and his thoughts about the future of the book. My favourite part in this section is where he says: There will always be non-readers, bad readers, lazy readers – there always were. Reading is a majority skill but a minority art.

He goes on to discuss the differences between reading from the printed page versus an e-reader (you can read my extensive post about that here). Being the supreme wordsmith that he is, Mr Barnes is able to beautifully articulate the simple yet subtle difference between the two: books look as if they contain knowledge, while e-readers look as if they contain information. Bravo, Mr Barnes.

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The pleasure of reading

How sad I feel for those who have never experienced the joy of reading, the pleasure of escape, the feeling of being transported into another world by carefully constructed typewritten words upon a page.

I am currently in the throes of a blissful reading experience thanks to a recommendation I spotted online. First Tuesday Book Club is celebrating the 2012 National Year of Reading with a “10 Aussie Books to Read before You Die” promotion.

Journalist Annabel Crabb (herself a sublime wordsmith – make sure you read her weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald) made a recommendation  in her usual charming and erudite fashion, voting for the Grand Days trilogy by Frank Moorhouse:

Thanks to Ms Crabb, I am now rapturously residing in 1920’s Geneva, following the exploits of the vibrant, witty and beguiling Edith Campbell Berry as she undertakes employment in the fledgling League of Nations.

Moorhouse is not to every reader’s taste; however I am blissfully in the midst of a reading affair with his novel, stealing away into a hidden corner with him whenever opportunity arises. I only wish it were possible to convey the sheer pleasure and simple delight of this experience with professed non-readers.

(If your child or teen proclaims to be a non-reader, don’t forget my Reading Rules, which will encourage all reluctant readers to enjoy the wonderful world of books).

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