Most children now prefer screens to books but it is possible to nurture a passion for print
My eight-year-old daughter, Flora, is a bookworm. She reads everywhere: in the bath, at the table and, if she can get away with it, at night under her duvet with a torch. At least twice to my knowledge, she has injured herself walking along the pavement while reading. “I’m OK, Mummy,” she told me brightly, the first time she did it, stepping back from a lamp-post in surprise.
It is World Book Day on Thursday, a day when children everywhere are encouraged to celebrate books and take pleasure in reading. This year it focuses on the joy of sharing stories with others, but I feel sad about how necessary it is – and how surprised people often are to see Flora enjoying a book in public.
When she reads in restaurants, for example, waiters tell me how rare it is to see a child immersed in a book, instead of glued to a phone. In small shops, she often quietly tucks herself away in a corner to read – and then, when I call her to leave the shop with me, the assistants will intervene and beg me not to disturb her further. “Look at her, she’s reading,” they’ll whisper to me, in a tone of wonder, as if I did not have eyes.
Flora Ferguson, with some of the storybooks that are shaping her world. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian
At first, I found this quite strange. Flora’s behaviour seems entirely normal to me – perhaps because I was a bookworm myself, as a child in the 1980s. I, too, had a torch and knew how to use it – and I remember having a few lamp-post encounters of my own. Like Flora, I could open a book and shut out everything that was happening around me. It was effortless and magical, and I think not that unusual at the time. A survey of children’s reading habits from 1977 shows 75% of 10- to 14-year-olds in the UK were reading for pleasure. By 1999, when I was in my late teens, this figure had risen to 79%.
But things are different now. And when Flora reads in public, it often attracts attention. Last summer, an elderly lady approached us in a park because she’d noticed Flora sitting reading for nearly half an hour. “It’s just not something you see nowadays,” she said, beaming with happiness. “I didn’t think children read like that any more.”
Bookworms like Flora, it seems, are dying out. Research by the National Literacy Trust in today’s Observer reveals that just over half (53%) of children read for pleasure in 2019, down from 59% in 2016. Only a quarter read daily, compared with 43% in 2015. The majority of children of all ages now prefer screens to books, another recent survey found.
When Flora writes her own stories, her robots, dinosaurs and wolves are always female
So how do you raise a bookworm in 2020? Personally, I started by prioritising my own pleasure. While my husband didn’t mind reading Flora the same books each night, I found it too monotonous. So I scoured charity shops and school fairs and built up a large collection of picture books I genuinely wanted to read to her – a mix of current bestsellers and classics. And that’s when I started to notice a pattern.
All the picture books were heavily dominated by male characters. It was rare to meet a female heroine – rarer still to encounter a female enemy or predator. It didn’t seem to matter how recently the books had been published, most of the characters were male – especially if they were powerful. And the male characters spoke more often.
Eventually, I would carry out a big piece of research on this topic, first for the Observer and then for the Guardian. But at the time, I merely decided to swap all the pronouns in her books. Shockingly, I did it with a pen, so that anyone else reading those books to her would read them that way, too.
It has had a noticeable effect. To this day, when Flora writes her own stories, her robots, dinosaurs and wolves are always female. She writes about brave female heroines going on adventures and fighting scary female adversaries. Her imagination has not been restricted by her gender: she writes the stories she has read.
I strongly believe that swapping the sexes in these male-dominated books helped her, from a very young age, to enjoy reading; to see herself more easily in the books I was reading to her and identify more with the main characters. And, unlike other children, she never had a favourite book. Instead of “again”, her typical request was “more”.
When she was about three, we suggested she “read” her picture books to herself when she woke up, hoping we might get a lie-in past 6am. Surprisingly, it worked. She couldn’t actually read, but she loved piecing together the stories she knew from the pictures she adored. A desire to make sense of text – to have the power to read all by herself – started to develop.
To inspire her, I loaded up an old smartphone with audiobooks of classics I had loved as a child, such as Winnie-the-Pooh and The Secret Garden. At home and on long car journeys we would listen and enjoy them together. The most successful download was The Enchanted Wood, the first of Enid Blyton’s Faraway Tree series, which we tried shortly after Flora turned four. She must have listened to that book at least 10 times. I soon became sick of Blyton, and introduced Roald Dahl, followed by Edith Nesbit and Richmal Crompton.
I discovered LibriVox audiobooks, which offers free downloads of out-of-copyright books such as Heidi. It didn’t seem to matter that some of these were written more than a century ago and she couldn’t understand every word. Context, tone and expression helped her figure it out.
We also read to her every night, revisiting the worlds of My Naughty Little Sister, Alfie, Elmer and Milly-Molly-Mandy and throwing in everything by Quentin Blake, Jane Hissey and Julia Donaldson.
By the time Flora started learning to read at school, she had a wide vocabulary and a strong understanding of plot. That made the process easier.
When she struggled, I told her that being able to read was like having a magic key – it would open up new worlds – and I think she understood what I meant. Instead of just reading aloud, she would make her own “audiobooks”, recording herself reading to me and then listening back, following the text with her finger. It seemed to make reading more fun for her.
We started taking books with us everywhere and became frequent visitors to the library
The year she finished reception, I bought her the gloriously funny Frog and Toad Treasury by Arnold Lobel and incentivised her to read every single story aloud by the end of the summer. She was so proud of herself when she managed it.
That September, I did go as far as stopping any television, apart from Newsround and the occasional film. I also banned smartphones and tablets, except for audiobooks. I tried to ensure that she had some downtime each day, time that wasn’t filled to the brim with after-school activities. Then I bought The Enchanted Wood and waited for the inevitable: “I’m bored, Mummy.” When it came, I handed over the book, hoping the familiarity of the text would make reading a chapter book on her own less scary.
It was like lighting a match. Aged five, she plunged headfirst into silent reading. Her hunger for Blyton in particular knew no bounds. Luckily for her, the charity shops are full of them.
Flora with her treasures. Photograph: David Yeo/The Guardian
We started taking books with us everywhere and became frequent visitors to the library. I got used to spending an hour there, allowing her to pick and choose. She discovered collections like Horrid Henry and the Rainbow Fairies series that way and got hooked on them, too. She read every book by Roald Dahl twice, then devoured everything by his heirs David Walliams and Andy Stanton. Funny authors make her laugh out loud: she received Diary of a Wimpy Kid for her seventh birthday, and hasn’t stopped reading and re-reading the series since.
Collections of silly illustrated poems have also gone down well: Don’t Bump the Glump! by Shel Silverstein is a firm favourite, along with Edward Lear’s nonsense rhymes and funny poems by Michael Rosen. Thawing Frozen Frogs by Brian Patten – recommended by Phoebe Waller-Bridge in the New York Times – was another big poetry hit.
I’m sure she doesn’t comprehend everything she reads, but she doesn’t care and neither do I. She reads for pleasure because she loves books – and I suspect always will. After all, she is a bookworm.
Six ways to get your children hooked on books
1 Share the pleasure of reading. Read books aloud to each other or download audiobooks and listen to them together.
2 Encourage reading for pleasure in any form – it doesn’t matter what they read, as long as they enjoy it.
3 Take them to the library and give them lots of time to choose the books they like.
4 Charity shops can also be fun places to browse for books.
5 Allocate your child some space and time for reading when there is nothing else to do.
6 Take a book or two with you wherever you go.
(Source: The Guardian)