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Give Children Books that Actually Relate to their Lives, says Terry Deary

You won’t get kids reading by giving them books that say nothing about the life they’re actually living, says Terry Deary...

  • Give Children Books that Actually Relate to their Lives, says Terry Deary

I don’t remember learning to read, but my parents tell me that I started by decoding the back of a ketchup bottle at breakfast.

I’d certainly got the hang of reading by the time began school; most kids did back then, because, honestly, you were stuck if you didn’t. This was the early ‘50s, and there were 52 of us in my class – what were the teachers supposed to do?

School was workmanlike. We were drilled in handwriting, reading, mental arithmetic and arithmetic. We did times tables. And comprehension tests – one of the most evil inventions in history.

They’re utterly mindless; either you know the answer or you don’t, and if you do, the most it shows is that you’ve been paying attention. Absolute idiocy. Comprehension tests should be burnt.

By the time we got to juniors, school was all about getting through the 11+. You learnt nothing, except how to succeed at tests; 50 out of the 52 of us passed the year I took it.

I remember the envelope dropping through the letterbox, and how pleased my parents were when they opened it, but at the same time, I knew that passing had been expected of me.

We had a system at school, whereby at the end of every term you had an exam and a report. You were graded in order, from one to 52.

One year I came third, and the comment on the report was, “Terry can do better”. That was typical of the schools round our way at that time. Talk about tough love.

I was born in a brutal slum area of Sunderland, and I’d work every Saturday in my dad’s butcher’s shop from a very young age, but then my parents moved to a better area of the city, primarily for my education.

It meant I was having this ‘middle class’ experience of school, but there was poverty all around me in the evenings and at weekends. We had no books in the house, so I didn’t graduate from reading condiments for a long time.

I found a couple of titles on a dusty old shelf at primary school that I liked – The Ladybird Book of British Birds, and Enid Blyton’s Island of Adventure – but that was about it.

And at the grammar school, we were given books for the sole purpose of being examined on them; texts that were just completely inappropriate for a working class teenager in the north of England. I read Tess of the D’Urbervilles at 13, and it meant nothing to me.

And now, by accident, I’ve ended up in the world of books, of literature. It’s not where I belong, and in terms of my life’s ambition, I’m a total failure; I wanted to be a country and western singer.

But here I am – and actually, coming from a family that’s a mixture of Irish and Scottish, I absolutely believe I have a storytelling gene. The first time we were asked to write an essay, at secondary school, the topic was, ‘my hobby’.

Everyone else wrote something like, ‘‘My hobby is stamp collecting. I have 250 stamps and my favourite is…” I loved trainspotting, and I wrote my piece of work as a story.

I can still remember how it started, after 60 years: “The train stopped on the bridge, and I looked down into the murky waters of the river Tyne…” I got 17.5 out of 20 for that essay.

And yet the greatest sin, almost unforgivable, was that no one – no one – at school said to me, “You have a talent; use it.” Because boys in the north don’t like books.

And they definitely don’t write them. So that’s my audience now. I don’t write for literary children; I write for non-readers, for the child on the street.

For dyslexic children, who will struggle and struggle to read something if they have the motivation; if it’s something they really want or need to know about.

It’s not sexist to say that boys, generally, like non-fiction – there’s research that confirms it.

And then schools try and teach reading through fiction, and sigh, and say, “but boys don’t like reading”! I’ve written about 315 books, and about half are fiction; I do get pleasure from writing stories.

But the most important person is the reader, always. Which is why I would always say to teachers – you won’t get children accessing the curriculum through books they don’t enjoy. Let every child read what interests them. And burn any reading schemes; I’ll provide the matches.

Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories celebrated 25 Horrible Years in 2018 and his spooky new fiction for readers aged 9-12, Wiggott’s Wonderful Waxworld: Terror Train, is out now (published by Scholastic).

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