Dahl-Dependency: Break the Cycle

I want to state right from the offset that it was Professor Teresa Cremin who introduced the term of ‘Dahl- Dependency’ to me, when she led our INSET training last Monday.

Research conducted as part of the Teachers as Readers Research Project showed that teachers have a ‘limited and limiting repertoire’ of children’s authors, poets and picture fiction creators. The activity we did was to be challenged to name six children’s authors, six children’s poets and six picture fiction creators (writer/illustrators).

Across all categories, the world of Roald Dahl was considerably more well known. 744 of the 1200 named Roald Dahl as an author, 165 named him as a poet and the most commonly named illustrators as Quentin Blake, who collaborated with Dahl as an illustrator.

Teresa wanted to make clear that Dahl’s book are alright. They are! There are some good characters and good stories, but we end up teaching our pupils to be Dahl-scholars more than refined consumers of children’s fiction.

Children’s fiction is a strange business. The commodification of childhood makes the children into a most lucrative market, and this works two ways. On the one hand, celebrities as varied as David Walliams (who I actually quite rate), Cara Delevingne, Russell Brand and George Galloway have dabbled in children’s fiction. On the other, the conversion rate between children’s books and blockbuster films has narrowed; the Harry Potter and Lemony Snicket series have already appeared in full as films, with multiple spin offs. Ransom Bigg’s ‘Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children’ was written in 2011.

It is fair to say that the mass-market of production for children’s culture – in books as in films – is narrow. It is certainly an unrepresentatively slim offer when compared with the diversity that is out there.

Whilst it is sad to say so, most primary teachers are still laymen when it comes to children’s fiction. We endorse and celebrate the same small few authors who we read ourselves as children. We read the pupils the same small group of books that they are most likely to access at home. At the moment, this would be Dahl and Walliams.

A key finding of the work on Reading for Pleasure as part of the Research Rich Pedagogies project by the Open University was that when teachers recognised this, and took action, they were able to make tangible improvements in their practice.

when teachers recognise their professional responsibility to expand their repertoires of children’s literature and other texts, they are enabled to talk about such texts, make tailored reader to reader recommendations and foster reading for pleasure. Without secure subject knowledge and thoughtful appreciation of reading and being a reader, teachers are not effectively able to employ a reading for pleasure pedagogy.

If a child has been reading Where the Wild Things Are, and told you that they enjoyed it and have finished it, what do you say next?

Do you chat a little about it and then guide them to choose something else? Could you direct pupils to other work by Sendak that they might enjoy, or to writers who were influenced by him such as Oliver Jeffers, who wrote ‘This Moose Belongs To Me’, and Mercer Mayer?

Teachers, I would direct all of you to the Research Rich Pedagogies website.

As well as signposting to all of the research that has been conducted by the team on Reading for Pleasure, it gives practical strategies, often with examples and resources, of how to embed good practice in the classroom. And it is a collaborative space; teachers and practitioners are invited to contribute their own ideas, lessons and approaches towards the different strands of the research findings.

What follows now is a set of four reflections on my own understanding and engagement with children’s writers.

I Judge Books By Their Covers

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I judge books by their cover, both literally and metaphorically. Whilst I do not let this initial judgement guide me completely, I am always ready to be swayed by a well-designed cover, some interesting typography or something a bit experimental. One of the favourite children’s books in my ever-growing collection is Noisy Outlaws, Unfriendly Blobs, and Some Other Things That Aren’t as Scary, Maybe, Depending on How You Feel About Lost Lands, Stray Cellphones, Creatures from the Sky, Parents Who Disappear in Peru, a Man Named Lars Farf, and One Other Story We Couldn’t Quite Finish, So Maybe You Could Help Us Out

How could somebody not be drawn in  by that cover? The collection contains children’s short stories by, among others, Nick Hornby, Jon Scieszka, Neil Gaiman and Clement Freud. My favourite in the collection, and one I have used as a subversive bedtime story on several residential visits, is ‘Monster’ by Kelly Link. I shall give you a little extract.

“I had this weird dream last year,” Danny Anderson said. Danny Anderson was from Terre Haute, Indiana. He was taller than anyone else in Bungalow 6 except for Terence. “I dreamed that I came home from school one day and nobody was there except this man. He was sitting in the living room watching TV and so I said, ‘Who are you? What are you doing here?’ And he looked up and smiled this creepy smile at me and said, ‘Hey Danny, I’m Angelia Jolie. I’m your new Dad.”

Who wrote Shrek?

Rummaging through an Oxfam Bookshop I saw a book of Shrek. It didn’t look like this.

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It looked like this.

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If you haven’t read William Steig’s Shrek, you should. It is fantastic, and the humour and the narrative voice are much more subtle and interesting than in the film, as in this gorgeous little page.

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From that, I have started seeking out William Steig’s books whenever I am in a charity shop, and it is properly joyful to see his evocative style of illustrations poking out from behind fifteen copies of the Frozen annual. Gems include CDC? and Wizzil

Share the damn books

Perhaps here I am just externalising my own deficiencies, but I have got myself in the odd position of having a collection of children’s books that I like so much I find myself getting a bit prissy about giving them out to actual children.

I lent out my copy of Noisy Outlaws and started to get palpitations. What I have taken to doing is putting a little message in each cover to communicate what it is I liked about the book and clarifying it belongs to the library of yours truly.

Better teachers than I could, I’m sure, set up a very coherent and dependable library system, but I am a bit too flaky to keep such a thing going with children from different classes over a long period of time. As such, I just give and hope to get them back.

Two books that really changed my life when I was 12 were ‘Sophie’s World’ and ‘The Ringmaster’s Daughter’, both by Jostein Gaarder. When one of my pupils was moving on into Year 7, I was able to get copies of this book for him to send him on his way.

Books as gifts are fantastic. I have a kooky thing going with one of the dads from school where we have been buying books for each other, on and off, for about three years. Even though I haven’t taught his kids for a while, we still ping off a few recommendations every now and again. It is bonding and blethering.

Make Time For Stories

Yeah we know SATS etc, and book scrutinies etc and the binder full of lessons and the ticking of the clock etc but if we are not teaching children to read, then we are failing.

It is the difference, to steal Teresa Cremin’s word’s again (I admit, I had a page of Cremin quotations), between ‘reading in the system for the system, and by oneself for oneself’.

Stories matter.

Making time for stories does not entail restructuring your timetable, in most cases. It is about protecting and guaranteeing five minutes in a day, as a minimum. It is about teachers having enough knowledge as consumers of children’s fiction to be teaching something and to think ‘Hmm, that reminds me of a book I know’. Let’s share it.

When I worra lad, we had a cover teacher who had us throughout my primary years. She was old then, and due to the way time works, she is even older now. She had many features of the ‘scary old teacher’ character that we knew as children but the most memorable thing was that every lesson, every single lesson, would end with ‘If You Should Meet a Crocodile’. We all loved it.

Twenty seconds a day, and it sticks with you.

Perhaps, in some way, the time spent cowering beneath the ‘about-to-snap’ hands of our teacher when I was eight, nine, ten and eleven is what has led me to where I am now, interspersing my lessons with droplets of John Cooper Clarke, Stevie Smith and Spike Milligan.

PS – Make sure you follow the link about the Crocodile – the story behind it is absolutely fascinating. It is like the podcast Serial, as the author – often replaced with ‘Anon’ – tries to work out how everyone knows a poem she wrote when she was a kid in Leeds.

 

LINKS

Research Rich Pedagogies – https://www.researchrichpedagogies.org

My ‘Mr W’s Children’s Books’ Padlet – https://padlet.com/jonny_walker_teaching/MyBookIsNice

The Amazing Bone – William Steig

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3 thoughts on “Dahl-Dependency: Break the Cycle

  1. It’s our responsibility as teachers to read a range of children’s books and, when you carve out the time, it pays off in personal enjoyment and subject knowledge that can help the pupils we teach. I’ve been doing it a bit less recently so thanks for the nudge. I read Jim Trelease’s Read Aloud Handbook years ago. It was a key book for me that got me thinking about books and kids. Independent book shops like, Norfolk Children’s Books, are great for supporting and guiding teachers in their choice of where to start. Thanks for your article.

  2. Completely agree, and have really enjoyed my own reading journey over the last twelve months or so. I’ve deliberately made the effort to read a range of books and #readmyheight in an academic year. I’m not going to get there to be frank, but the impact on the children and the engagement we’ve had has been phenomenal. I’ve now become the ‘go-to’ guy for recommending books to pupils as well! Retweeted this too…

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