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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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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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Reading to your children

Reading Rule no. 3 Read to them is one of the most important Reading Rules of all. I was reminded of this as I read a recent PISA study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

PISA is the OECD Programme for Internation Student Assessment. It evaluates education systems worldwide by testing the skills and knowledge of 15-year-olds in participating countries.

The PISA in Focus 10 report states that fifteen year old students whose parents read books to them during their first year of primary school show markedly higher test scores than students whose parents read to them infrequently or not at all. The average benefit of teens whose parents read to them every day, or almost every day, when they were 4 or 5 years old was equivalent to six months of extra schooling. Best of all, the advantage gained by reading to children was evident regardless of socio-economic status.

Reading is so important to the development of your child, and reading to your child clearly has numerous advantages. Just remember to follow the advice of Rule no. 3 and keep reading to your child long after they can read independently.

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The Reading Rules in action

Recently I’ve been busy with the wide reading program in the library which has made me consider the importance of the Reading Rules, in particular: No.3 Read to them, No. 5 Don’t be a snob and No. 6 Loosen your filter.

The catalyst has been a short story which I have chosen to read to the boys during the lesson. It is called The Incident and is an old favourite of mine, from Andrew Daddo’s 2002 book Sprung. The Incident is a story about two very naughty little boys who test the veracity of a helmet supposedly once owned by Luke Skywalker. The problem is that they test the helmet’s strength by dropping a brick on it – while the family dog is in it.

This incident is after the story opens with the boys already being in serious trouble – for drinking urine. They also have a distinct problem with honesty and telling the truth to their parents.

Having said all this, the story is written in such a way that the reader (or in my lesson the listener) knows that it is a humorous story and is intended purely to entertain. And it entertains in bucketloads. The boys have gasped, giggled and laughed out loud during this story and have even given applause at the end – a high compliment for high school boys at the end of a lesson.

There are many boys in my lessons who began the year saying they did not enjoy reading or indeed did not enjoy anything much at all about books. But by reading to them and loosening my filter to read something that many teachers would think lacks literary merit (or any merit at all), I am teaching the boys that reading can be fun. And at no point in the lesson has there has been any literary snobbery at all.

I see the results of my efforts in the wide reading program on a daily basis. Not only are the borrowing figures of the boys sky high (1,000 more books borrowed than at this time last year), yesterday I saw two boys who have previously wandered aimlessly around the library actually sitting down engrossed in their books: one was reading I am Number Four, another The Power of Six – both books I have read and promoted to the boys in wide reading lessons.

Everything I do to encourage reading comes back to the core rules and they really do work. There is nothing more satisfying to me than seeing a reluctant reader with a book in hand and enjoying the experience. The Reading Rules really do work, especially if you remember Rule No. 10 – don’t give up.

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How many of these books have your kids read?

Dymocks recently published its list of the Top 51 books for kids. You can see the original list here with recommended reading ages.

I’ve added a few annotations to the list – how many books on the Top 51 list have you and your children read?

 1. The Harry Potter series. J. K. Rowling.

First place is really no surprise and reflects the popularity, quality and longevity of the Harry Potter series. (The first book was released fourteen years ago). Perhaps these are the reasons why the Harry Potter books also rate a mention on nearly every one of my Top 10 lists .

2. The Very Hungry Caterpillar. Eric Carle.

A classic picture book first published over forty years ago. It should be on the bookshelf in every child’s room.

3. The Very Bad Book. Andy Griffiths

This is classic Andy Griffiths, and definitely a book that to which some parents and teachers will need to apply Reading Rule no.6  – loosen your filter.

4. Where is the Green Sheep? Mem Fox & Judy Horacek

This is a great book to teach younger children that despite external differences we are all the same.

5. The Vampire Academy novels. Richelle Mead.

These books are extremely popular with teenage girls which is clearly reflected by their place in this list. They also hold third place in my Top 10 books for teenage girls .

6. The Hunger Games trilogy. Suzanne Collins.

This is a fabulous series, equally popular with girls and boys. The much anticipated movie release due in 2012 will only serve to heighten both the awareness and popularity of the book.

7. Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Jeff Kinney.

Hilarious for all ages and great for sharing at bedtime.

8. Anne of Green Gables. Book 1. L. M. Montgomery.

A classic novel with a delightfully clever and precocious protagonist.

9. Possum Magic. Mem Fox.

One of the more famous Australian picture books. This is the book I send friends overseas when they have a baby.

10. The Tomorrow series. John Marsden

This series makes my Top 10 books for teenage boys and my Top 10 books in the library lists. It is one of the most popular literary series for YA ever written in Australia.

11. Where the Wild Things Are. Maurice Sendak.

A powerful picture about the magnificence of childhood imagination.

12. The Twilight Saga. Stephenie Meyer.

Put aside your literary snobbery (Reading rule no. 5) and celebrate a series that has sold over 100 million copies and got kids around the world reading.

13. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Roald Dahl.

Pure Dahl genius combining every child’s fantasy with a message about honour and integrity.

14. Ten Little Fingers and Ten Little Toes. Mem Fox.

Published only a few years ago, this has quickly become a new Mem Fox classic.

15. The Chronicles of Narnia. C. S. Lewis

The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe is the first and best known of this seven book series. Fantasy at its best.

16. The Magic Faraway Tree. Enid Blyton.

Children of all ages just adore Moonface, Silky and the Saucepan Man.

17. Goodnight Mr Tom. Michelle Magorian.

A beautiful book set in wartime England.

18. Green Eggs and Ham. Dr Seuss.

Loved by all ages, this is the first of a few mentions of books by the celebrated Seuss.

19. The Percy Jackson series. Rick Riordan

This refers to the first series of five books, loved by boys and girls alike. The second series, Heroes of Olympus is proving equally as popular.

20. The Ruins of Gorlan. Book 1 of the Ranger’s Apprentice series. John Flanagan.

This fantasy series has eleven books in it, with another due out in November 2011. Very popular with teenage boys.

21. The Cherub series. Robert Muchamore.

The most recent book in this series is currently the third most borrowed book in the library. I have trouble keeping this series on the shelves.

22. Hairy Maclary from Donaldson’s Dairy. Lynley Dodd.

The very popular picture books about a lovable dog and his friends.

23. The Gruffalo. Julia Donaldson

Another picture book about the power of childhood imagination. Fantastic rhyming.

24. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll.

Always popular, even before Johnny Depp became the Mad Hatter.

25. Artemis Fowl. Book 1. Eoin Colfer.

Artemis Fowl is a 12 year old criminal mastermind. These books have great plots and terrific humour.

26. The Mortal Instruments series. Cassandra Clare.

This series is extremely popular with the boys in the library.

27. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt. Michael Rosen.

A fantastic picture book for reading aloud (Reading rule no.3). This was a favourite in our house when our children were little.

28. Winnie-the-Pooh. A. A. Milne

A favourite of children and adults everywhere.

29. Wombat Stew. Marcia K. Vaughan.

Like Possum Magic, this is another classic Australian picture book, a modern folktale.

30. Obernetwyn. Book 1. Obernetwyn Chronicles. Isabelle Carmody.

Classic fantasy, and in my experience more popular with girls than boys.

31. The Complete Adventures of Snugglepot and Cuddlepie. May Gibbs

This book has never been out of print and contains the most beautiful illustrations in Australian literary history.

32. Stormbreaker. Book 1. Alex Rider series. Anthony Horowitz.

I love the Alex Rider books. Alex is intelligent, decent and funny.

33. Dear Zoo. Rod Campbell.

A picture book for early readers, great for reading aloud.

34. Diary of a Wombat. Jackie French.

I laughed out loud the first time I read this book. A picture book for all ages about a wombat with serious attitude.

35. Oh, the Places You’ll Go. Dr Seuss.

More classic Seuss. No explanation necessary.

36. Grug. Ted Prior.

Over thirty years old, this story set in the Australian bush is still a favourite.

37. Guess How Much I Love You. Sam McBratney

A beautiful book which has become a worldwide phenomenon selling over 18 million copies. I even have a copy in German.

38. Hush, Hush. Becca Fitzpatrick

This book is for teenage girls who enjoyed the Twilight series. It meets the needs of the current interest in the paranormal.

39. Treasure of the Emerald Eye. Book 1. Geronimo Stilton. Geronimo Stilton.

An adventure story for primary aged children.

40. Wolves of Mercy Falls series. Maggie Stiefvater

Fantasy romance series about (in the words of the author) “werewolves and kissing”.

41. The Cat in the Hat. Dr Seuss

My all time favourite Dr Seuss. I learned it off byheart as a child and can still recite most of it. I must have driven my parents mad. 

42. The Hobbit. J. R. R. Tolkien.

Lord of the Rings is more popular in the library, but The Hobbit is an all-time classic.

43. The Witches. Roald Dahl.

Dahl’s witches are the original and the best.

44. Zac’s Moontrip. Book 1. Zac Power Test Drive. H. I. Larry

Primary school boys love Zac Power.

45. Maze of Bones. Book 1. The 39 Clues. Rick Riordan.

Whilst this series hasn’t taken off in the library, it has been incredibly popular elsewhere. Riordan knows how to write great mystery and adventure.

46. Each Peach, Pear Plum. Janet and Allan Ahlberg

A more stylish Where’s Wally, where children read the poem for clues to help them find a character hiding in the illustration.

47. The B.F.G. Roald Dahl

The third Roald Dahl on the list. He is the original and one of the best.

48. The Tale of Peter Rabbit. Beatrix Potter

Peter Rabbit is so cheeky, and Mr McGregor is the classic cranky farmer. Accompanying the entertaining story are the beautiful and very famous illustrations.

49. Magic Beach. Alison Lester

Alison Lester is a prolific writer of picture books and a  favourite of teachers who love her work. This book explores the perfect beach.

50.Little Women. Louisa May Alcott

This book has stood the test of time due mainly to the character of Josephine March who makes my list of Top 10 heroines for girls.

51. Five on Treasure Island. Book 1. Famous Five. Enid Blyton.

I am so glad that the Famous Five made this list! Every child should read adventures involving smugglers and spies, washed down by lashings of ginger beer.

It’s a well-rounded list including a mixture of the old and the new; books for early readers, primary school children and young adults. Adults too actually, as I’ve read most of them. The ones I haven’t are now on my list.

How many have you read?

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A century of reading

To be honest, the title of this post is a little misleading. It refers to my dear grandfather, whom we all called Pop. He died last Wednesday aged 102. Whilst he didn’t spend a century reading, he must have spent the best part of one hundred years with a book of some sort in his hand.

Pop reading

Reflecting on Pop’s magnificent life, one significant aspect that dominates all memories of him was his love of books. He spent much of his life reading. In an age with few screens, he learned by the printed page and he loved the written word.

Whilst he left school at 14, Pop was one of the most well-educated men I’ve ever known. Everything he learned was self-taught through reading and books. He even completed his engineering qualifications by correspondence, back in the days when correspondence was through the post and not online.

My memories of Pop nearly always involve him with some sort of reading material: books, newspapers, journals and his bible. Not only was he well-read, he was widely read. He could quote poetry by Robert Burns, sonnets by Shakespeare and passages from his well-thumbed bible. If there is such a thing as a reading gene, I am sure he passed it on to my mother who obligingly sent it down the genetic path to me.

This makes me consider my Reading Rules and whether they apply to my family history: Pop certainly created the right environment for his children and grandchildren to become readers. Clearly he was the epitome of a reading role model. He did read aloud – passages he found illuminating or entertaining. He would also recite passsages  from his favourite works. Although he lived the majority of his life before ebooks became a reality, he certainly did re-define book insofar as he read anything: the Sunday comics, magazines, newsletters and catalogues. As for not being a literary snob, he found Dagwood and Blondie hilarious, which also meant he didn’t have to loosen his filter too much – Pop loved a bit of toilet humour and could recite a colourful limerick with the best of them. If it was written, he would read it and encourage us to read it as well.

Rule Seven is a bit tricky: remember it’s the 21st century. Pop was someone who moved with the times, and in his day was quick to learn and adopt new inventions. However, he was well into his 80’s by the time the Internet hit our shores, and then well into his 90’s before Facebook and social media became part of our everyday vocabulary. But Rule Eight is a winner, as Pop was quick to ask an expert about anything and everything – he learned by asking and listening and received some very expert advice on reading matter in his time. He made reading routine – it was a part of his daily existence and quite simply defined who he was. And Pop never, ever gave up on anything.

For the best part of a century my dear grandfather demonstrated the Reading Rules to his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren, simply by loving and sharing his passion for the written word.

Goodbye dearest Pop. You will be missed, but your reading legacy lives on in us all.

For a more thorough explanation of the Reading Rules, head over to that page here

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Reading Rule 10

10. Don’t ever give up.

All children reach developmental milestones at different times and I believe that children become true readers in their own time. I know one teenage boy who didn’t become a reader until he was 16 years old and picked up his first Michael Crichton book. I’ve also met a 7 year old boy who had no trouble reading the fifth (and longest) Harry Potter book. If you have followed all the rules and your child is still a reluctant reader, don’t give up. Focus on one rule and persist.

When our children are young we have a great deal of influence on them, and by following the rules we can develop a love of reading in them. Sometime we do need to continue our efforts into the teenage years. It is important not to give up.

Many adults will tell you they didn’t become readers until later in life. Conversely, many parents will tell you their children were excellent readers when little, but gave up reading as they grew up. The fact is, all these people are readers – it just happened at different times in their lives. Sure, there are peaks and troughs. I’ve been through reading droughts in my adult life, but I always return when I find the right book.

Your child will become a reader if you follow the reading rules. In developing a reading culture in your home and encouraging a love of books in your child, you will bestow one of the greatest gifts on your child – the joy of reading. Just don’t give up.

© Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

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Reading Rule 1

Rule 1. Create the right environment.

Readers surround themselves with books. You will visit the home of a good reader and see bookshelves groaning under the weight of various tomes, bedside tables holding a stack of books and the odd book on the coffee table. If you delve inside the bag of a reader, you will often find a well-loved, dog eared paperback. So rule one is simple: create the right environment by surrounding yourself, and your kids, with books.

This may seem like an obvious statement, and a silly rule, but it is not. There are many houses in this country in which there are few (if any) books. In a wealthy, developed country like ours, this is a very odd thing. There are third world countries in which education and knowledge is valued far more than in our society, and maybe we take what is available for granted. But just because books are so readily available in our country does not always translate into these books being taken into our homes.

Children can’t learn to cook without the ingredients, they can’t learn to play cricket without a bat and ball, and they can’t learn to play piano without the instrument.

They can’t learn to read without a book.

It is not difficult to create the right environment – a reading environment – in your home. All it takes is a bookcase, or bookshelf and a nice comfy chair and voila! You have yourself a reading corner and the beginnings of a reading environment.

Books are easy to collect. Yes, they can be expensive, and if you can afford to treat yourself, by all means buy beautiful new books. Make them a treat. When my children were much younger, I used to make a special trip to the bookshop in the school holidays and each of my children was allowed to pick one book. We would then retreat to the local café for a coffee and hot chocolate, over which we would excitedly pore over our new books. It was special time together, and my teenage children still treasure those ‘holiday books’.

However, if money is tight, there are always book sales, second hand bookshops and of course, the local library. You can borrow books, of course, but many libraries have regular sales where they sell off the books they no longer need in their collection at very low prices.

In addition, if you put the word out to family and friends that you’re on the lookout for some books, you may well be overwhelmed by donations. Gradually you will build up your own little ‘library’.

If you make your home a place where books are seen, loved and treasured you are sending an important message to your child: In this house books are valued. That means books are important.

More importantly, by creating the right environment – a reading environment- you are providing your children with the tools to get started.

© Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.


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