Monday 23 July 2012

On Being a Reading Omnivore by Penny Ives

Hello, my name is Penny Ives and I'm a children's book author and illustrator. Maybe you're seen some of my stories on Cbeebies? The last one was Celestine and the Penguins, published by Templar and was read by Lulu in January 2012.
You can find my website at (Amendment to the 'About' section of the website: one of our goldfish died and sadly, Fishy now swims alone.)

Mr and Mrs Duck from Celestine Drama Queen (Templar Publishing)

On Being A Reading Omnivore

When I was nine or maybe ten, I spent hours in the wood shed at home, writing dismal songs and poems. My companion was our equally joyless dog, a barrel-chested Basset Hound who hated everyone except my father. She was there under sufferance, the gloomy mother of eight fat puppies, indifferent to both their hopeful whimpering and my hopeless verse.

Encouraged by our school teacher Miss Grayson, I laboured over long descriptions of life on a desert island or the delights of sunny Spain (real imagination called for here, having only travelled as far as Wales) and the glories of an evening summer walk.

But why I trusted kind Miss Grayson’s judgement, I can’t imagine. In the purgatory of our sewing class, wasn’t it she that cooed approvingly over our crocus embroidered tray cloths speckled with blood? Sleeping Beauty had nothing on us when it came to the pricking of small fingers. And didn’t she make equally rapturous comments over my felt cat, with its blocky little body and fixed green eyes bulging dangerously from an over generous stuffing of kapok?

Supposedly buoyed up by my questionable needle work skills, I applied the same technique to the weekly creative essay. Every sentence was packed with as many adjectives as my vocabulary would allow until the lines rolled over and gave up, the evening summer walk weighed down with, “…in the warm, dusty air, a splendid, shimmering pheasant picked his royal way into the flaming, brilliant red of sunset.” Surely, Miss Grayson had been tempted to put a line, black as a raven’s wing, through that lot?

It may come as no surprise that I moved seamlessly on from the descriptive limits of The Famous Five stories by Enid Blyton, where I had dreamed of being Anne (blond, with two brothers and a bicycle - I had neither) via James Bond (a paperback found in a holiday caravan), The Yellow Triangle ( my mother’s library book), A Puffin Quartet of Poets (price three shillings and sixpence) to Lawrence, Laurie Lee and Orwell and anything else I could lay my hands on in our small town library. At last, I realised that language didn’t have to be as purple as a blackberry stain but could be refined and wonderful, sensuous and thrilling.

So when I heard the other day that infant school children will be taught only using phonics and that the letter “Z” won’t be included until they are quite ready for its dizzy sound, regardless of whether they have already begun to recognise words and happen to like the word ”zoo”, my heart sank. A year or two into school, my own life had been blighted by Janet and John, a dull pair if ever there was and here we are in 2012 with a letter z-less world, cut backs in budgets and the closure of local libraries.
Without my English teachers, the library and the freedom to buy whatever I liked with birthday book tokens, how thin and flat my childhood would have been - no quirky EH Shepard drawings, no peppery voice of Mary Poppins.

And now, as a writer (albeit not a very good one), I try to resist the lure of the adjective and put a line through them before either the editor does or my readers fall asleep with boredom.



Moira Butterfield said...

It's an interesting point on how important the positive encouragement of an adult is to children taking their first reading steps. It opens up a few thorny questions, doesn't it. Will a child be seriously put off if forced to take tests on everything they do? I think so.

Juliet Clare Bell said...

Thank you, Penny. I hope that it doesn't actually go that way and that commonsense prevails in schools. We've just given out copies of a mini 1 Zany Zoo (by Lori Degman and Colin Jack) to all children in the infants and lots in the juniors in our school in Birmingham and when they go back in September I'll make a point of reading that and any else with a Z in it! I do think most schools will find a way around it...

Moira Butterfield said...

Ha ha! I like that direct action, Juliet! Let's all add zzzzzs prominently into our writing! Bee story coming up.

Jane Clarke said...

Thanks for your post, Penny. It made me laugh.

Paeony Lewis said...

I'm terrible at pronoucing words and I suspect I need a few lessons in phonics. I hope everything will settle down and reading is taught in a variety of ways to cater for different ways of learning.
Ho hum, if the letter Z is left too long then children will pronounce it the American way as they constantly hear it on TV (I correct my daughter!).

Moira Butterfield said...

I agree, Paeony. Different children need different approaches. On another note - I,like Penny, devoured any printed material I could get my hands on as a child. Nowadays, when I meet a child like that, I feel a sort of secret 'I know who you are' kinship with them.

Enid Richemont said...

What the hell's wrong with the letter Z??? That's zozzeracious zozzling zip-zopping zero-rated ZWADDLE - but then, I speak as a totally confirmed Zzzzeddist (the language of honeybees is good enough for me).

Anonymous said...

Hi Moira,
I think so too. Tests to see if a child can "de-code" dop, bok, flup and tuk at seven years old doesn't sound that like an enticing invitation to the world of stories and poetry.
Penny x

Anonymous said...

Daer Juliet,
You're right I'm sure. I hope there's always time for a teacher to read a wonderful story and time and money to invite authors into schools.
My own son is dyslexic and loved words and stories until he started school. Phonics were crucial in understanding written text but he was very unhappy at times. I read to him until he was in his teens in an effort to share books with a long or complicated narrative. Motorbike maintenance manuals are tops now!
Penny x
PS I am not anonymous- just can't seem to send replies any other way.

Anonymous said...

Hello Jane,
Glad it made you laugh as it took me ages!
Penny x

Anonymous said...

Dear Paeony,
There is some irony in that your name is a tricky one to spell.
Mine is easier but still causes problems-
Penny x

Anonymous said...

Dear Enid,
It always amazes me that besides buzzing, bees can wave their legs and prance up and down to show other bees where the best flowers are. Although sadly, I've noticed today, bee language is quiet in the garden due to heavy drizzle!
Penny x