I was very pleased and proud to be appointed the Children's Laureate. It is a role that everyone takes seriously - although I couldn't help taking a little frivolous pleasure in the fact that you get a large ornate silver medallion to wear around your neck. I'm very much a woman who loves her flamboyant jewellery.
We've had three illustrious medallion men and women so far: Quentin Blake, Anne Fine and Michael Morpurgo. They've all worked very hard during their two year laureateships and achieved a great deal, very much raising the profile of children's literature and illustration. When I got made the Laureate last May, everyone asked me what I felt I wanted to achieve.
Various plans and strategies suggested themselves. One was to rush all over the country talking at conferences organised by librarians and teachers and book groups, but this is mostly preaching to the converted. I did take on twice as many talks to children, trying hard to reach the sort of kids who aren't great readers as well as all the lovely browsing bookworms. I've given a talk to many hundreds in London's Hackney Empire, chatted to small groups of looked-after children, done a bumper summer seaside event open to everyone, and shivered all over Scotland in a frosty January. Over the next few months there will be talks in schools, libraries, art centres, theatres, churches, even in the heavenly hothouse of the Eden Project.
It is not quite enough to talk the hind legs off a whole herd of donkeys, in person and on television and radio. I wanted to promote something specific. I had a long-term plan of a touring author exhibition, a way of helping the thousands of children across the country who are Doing A Project on a particular author, but soon realised that this is going to need a lot of funding. The excellent Booktrust is in very promising negotiations with the Arts Council, but probably the exhibition won't get under way until the medal goes to someone else in 2007.
So what to do now? Something simple, easily effective, positive. How to to get more children to be keen readers and to stay reading for pleasure for the rest of their lives? Then I happened to be talking to a group of children and mentioned bedtime stories. These were middle-class cherished children living in a leafy suburb, but not a single child could remember ever having been read a story by their mother or father. Quite a few had story tapes, which are splendid but they're no substitute for a real warm, loving human being cuddled up beside you, reading you the story there and then.
So this is my new obsession. I want everyone to read aloud to children, all children, from the age of nought to 11. I'm saying it over and over again in public, and shall soon start stopping one in three unwitting people on the street, like the Ancient Mariner. (Now that would be a cracking poem to read aloud to older children, though you'd certainly hope for a drop to drink by the time you got to the end of it.)
Lots of parents and carers already read to babies and toddlers, partly because of the excellent Bookstart scheme where new mothers get sent wonderful brightly coloured picture-books. It would have been a thrill to be sent a similar pack when my daughter was little and we were desperately short of money. We borrowed most of our books from the library, but when a book becomes a particular favourite you want to have it on hand all the time. Well, most books. It has to be admitted that many little kids get obsessive about the one totally naff, ill-written, cruddy book in their collection and insist you read it again and again. My daughter, when small, adored a very twee pink book about a little girl called Mary. I got so sick of reading tales of mincing Mary in her little frilly frocks that I fantasised about chucking her headfirst in the dustbin.
It doesn't really matter at this stage whether you're reading nursery classics or not. It just has to be stories that your children actually like. My background was not very bookish. I didn't encounter Peter Rabbit until I was an adult. I started off with Pookie, the white rabbit with wings, certainly not a patch on Potter, but I loved it when it was read to me, and soon knew the story off by heart. My parents didn't go in for reading aloud in a big way. But when, at the age of six, I was ill in bed for weeks and forbidden to read by the doctor in case it strained my eyes, my Dad read aloud to me, heroically hacking his way through all three Magic Faraway Tree books and then with a wild literary leap started in on David Copperfield. I found this stirring stuff and sat bolt upright in bed hearing about poor little Davie being whipped by Mr Murdstone. I can't read Dickens now without hearing my father's quiet measured voice saying the words.
Children do not need grand performances with loads of expression and a different funny voice for each character. Maybe we've all got a little over-awed by the professional performances of actors on story tapes. Children just want to hear someone they care about telling them a story. Of course, it's good to ham it up a little with babies and toddlers. It's fun to play games with the story, to stroke the picture of the puppy, to pretend to lick the giant ice cream, to wave goodbye to the characters. It's wonderful to act out Where the Wild Things Are and roar those terrible roars together, and then prompt your child to order you to Be Still! But past five or so, when you get on to longer books, it's too tiring to do a spectacular performance, and maybe distracting or embarrassing for older children in the family. An ordinary pleasant talking voice is all that's required.
Some people think it is weird to suggest that it's very rewarding to carry on reading aloud long after your children are fluent readers. I think it's such a lovely cosy family thing that it's worth perpetuating as long as possible. It doesn't have to be at bedtime. Any time is good for a story. Reading to yourself is a big effort at first, and most children start off with short simple books a little below their comprehension level. If you read aloud to a six-, seven- or eight-year-old, you can tackle really meaty, juicy, nourishing books that might be too daunting for them to plod through themselves. Yes, some children are irritatingly fidgety even when they're absorbed in a story. They certainly don't need to sit up straight, hands clasped, while you're reading. They can crayon, build stuff, cook, whatever.
You can launch in on your childhood favourites, maybe when your child is around nine, tackling classics such as Little Women or Black Beauty or The Secret Garden. If you're lucky, there might be a chance to read Jane Eyre or Great Expectations together when they're 12, before they slope off into the surly secret world of adolescence.
There are all sorts of brilliant suggested stories in Great Books to Read Aloud but they're just a random choice to get people started. Let's all get reading to our children so that they're hooked on books for life.
'Great Books To Read Aloud' by Jacqueline Wilson is published by corgi books on 4 may 2006, paperback £1. www.greatbookstoreadaloud.co.uk
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