When we were on holiday this summer, my son bought a book for the first time in his life. To say I was gobsmacked is something of an understatement. He is fourteen now, and since we finally gave up with the tradition of bedtime stories a couple of years ago, he hasn’t read a single book to himself. I’ve tried to tempt him in every way I know how, still giving him a book or two at Christmas, placing some interesting-looking volume beside him on the desk for the moments when he’s hanging about in World of Warcraft, offering to read (in some desperation) while he’s on the computer. But no, nothing has shaken him from his book-free stance. I wondered what on earth could have induced him to part with his cash. Which author had finally broken through his indifference? I asked if I could look inside the bag.
‘Sea Fishing Properly Explained?’ I murmured incredulously.
‘Yes,’ said my son. ‘I thought it looked quite good.’
As far as I was concerned only one thing was properly explained, and that was how come I’d been unable to guess his literary interests. Still, when we were on holiday one afternoon as the rain poured down, I did manage another mini-coup. I’d taken along a couple of books that would do for family reads, among them the magnificent David Sedaris. Surely no one could fail to be moved by his account of rendering his hamster unconscious by the adroit addition of vodka to its water dish, and then placing it in the freezer, to see whether it could be resurrected with no memory of life as an alcoholic. This did indeed prove to be a crowd-pleaser, but the next story I had to skip, as it concerned Sedaris’s older brother and his excessive use of expletives.
‘You can’t expect your mother to read a story like that out loud,’ I explained. ‘And if I bleeped the worst of it out I don’t think there’d be enough left to make sense.’
We moved on, but later I found my son reading the story to see what he’d missed. Naturally this provoked any number of cunning plans in which I began, but refused to continue with, all kinds of unsuitable books – A Clockwork Orange, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, just about anything by Bret Easton Ellis, well, suggestions on a postcard, please. I keep hoping my son will return to reading one day and in the meantime you may imagine that I do plenty of modeling in his presence.
Yesterday I felt very nostalgic, putting together a book list for my colleague who has a nine-year-old son. Oh, those were indeed the days of fabulous reading. I would read to my son every night, but I particularly loved it when we’d got beyond picture books and could read a proper story. One of the first books we read together was The Wizard of Oz, which is by no means a fusty old classic, but rather a thrilling and compulsive read as Dorothy and her companions encounter all kinds of dangers on their route to the Emerald City. Then there was the magnificent Anthony Horowitz with his comedy detective duo, the Diamond Brothers, and later the boy spy Alex Rider. The great thing about reading to children is that they are completely uncritical and you can experiment. Horowitz is a wonderful author for multiple nationalities, which means multiple accents. I was always game for this, although I do recall one impossible encounter between a Russian spy, and a South American hitman that took place at a Scottish airport. For a brief while, in the confusion, everyone was Welsh. Thankfully, it seemed to pass by unnoticed.
One summer we broke the back of Harry Potter, reading volumes two, three and four. My son liked the main characters well enough, but what he really appreciated were the antics of the cheeky twins, Fred and George. He loved a book that would make him laugh, and he loved the fierce pull of an exciting plot. One of the last authors we regularly read was E. E. Richardson, whose horror stories were low on gore but high on that don’t-dare-read-on/can’t-put-it-down factor. We had to decide in the end to read them after dinner, because they were too scary for the hour before bedtime (I was as much behind this policy decision as my son). Although he was always pushing, pushing me to read just one more chapter, let’s get past the exciting bit, I’ll never sleep otherwise, and so on. Obviously I was a complete sucker for this technique and many nights ended in the triumph of a far later bedtime than was acceptable, because we had to see our characters to safety.
On the whole, my son felt the lack of plot, and whilst he enjoyed pretty much everything we read, he baulked at books that didn’t have a real quest at their center. ‘When is the thing that this book’s about going to start happening?’ he kept asking during one particular book, the second in a series in which the author was obviously struggling to find a story. But the great exception to this rule was a book called Framed by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s about a small town at the foot of a mountain in Wales where nothing ever happens. Except that the mountain contains the safe vaults in which the treasures of the National Gallery are stored in times of crisis. The pictures end up in the mountain again, and by various routes and means they start to have a positive and ultimately life-changing effect on the lives of the inhabitants. It’s an utterly charming book, funny, engaging, wise. ‘You know, nothing seems to be happening,’ my son commented at one point, ‘but I just don’t want it to end.’
My husband used to tick me off because these were the years when we parents were supposed to listen regularly to our children read. I did try sometimes to get my son to kick us off, but let’s face it, I hogged the bedtime reading session. I loved reading, he loved listening and we were too content to really make the effort to alter that. But there was one set of circumstances that made us swap around. The very nature of children’s books means that all too often, something agonizingly touching happens – children are reunited with lost parents, beloved family pets die, losers, loners and outcasts find themselves treasured and protected. Every so often my voice would get wobblier and wobblier, until I risked a glance up at my audience to see if I’d been rumbled. I would usually find him, peering over the wooden slats on the side of his bed, a look of indulgent patience on his face. ‘Shall I finish that for you?’ he’d ask kindly, and stretch out his hand. Really, it was David Sedaris and the expletives all over again, only in a different context. If I want him to read, I should learn from this. He will read the things I won’t – no wonder Sea Fishing Properly Explained looked so good…