Canadian Writers and
Illustrators on Literacy
Cora Taylor takes us back to her family of "quoters," Monica Hughes describes learning to Inscribe cuneiform symbols onto clay tablets, and Paul Kropp asks whether we have illiterate young people or just a great number of children who don't much like to read!
Reading, writing and the imagination--what are the links that unite them and how do those of us who work with books and children foster them? In this special issue devoted to literacy, Canadian writers and illustrators from across Canada attempt to answer the question, "What is the relationship between writing for children and literacy?"
Literacy is defined in many ways, but few of our contributors are content with the concept of basic "telephone book" literacy. All hope that their books enrich children's lives by allowing them to escape the confines of the everyday, to explore other worlds, other times, other ways of being, and to return to this world with greater vision, understanding, even empathy.
It is this role of broadening horizons, both inner and outer, and exposing children to writing as art, not just as something taught in school, that children's literature does so exceptionally well. In an age when large numbers of people in Canada reach adulthood without basic literacy skills, it is all the more important that we introduce our children and young people to the best and most accessible writing and continue to promote Canadian authors and illustrators.
I would like to quote Martyn Godfrey, who captures so poignantly the crucial role of literacy in our society: "literacy is more than finishing a book. It is self-esteem and self-respect." I would also like to thank all the writers and illustrators whose contributions made this feature possible, and I encourage all of us to take as our rallying cry in the fight against illiteracy the following statement by William Bell: "The best route to literacy is through literature."
Come back with me, if you will, into the world of my childhood. Here, in an isolated village in the Annapolis Valley of Nova Scotia, you will find a place without electricity, without radios, without television or computers. There is no library.
But come into my home. We are the children of a horse-and-buggy doctor, privileged children in that community. We have books. We have a mother who reads to us, and when she is too busy to read, she tells us stories while she peels apples, churns butter, or mends our clothes.
It is not until I go to school that I learn that most of my playmates have no books. No books! They have never gone down a rabbit hole, never flown to a Never Never Land . . .
I felt a great pity for those children then, and I still feel the same pity for the children of today who may be so deprived. Perhaps that is why I became a teller of tales--tales of the forgotten, of unsung Canadian heroes, of lost legends, of forgotten bits of our history.
Perhaps some children may follow me into an exciting, unknown world of Canada's past.
Abraham Gesner. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1980.
William E. Bell
I can't add much to what has already been said about literacy and its importance to a complete life in our civilization, except perhaps a personal note.
Literacy is one of the avenues by which we can travel to the world of the imagination: a world where we may find a secret garden; a man who learns through his own pain to keep Christmas well; a very last first time--a world where animals talk, where war is obsolete, where every child is beloved, where every flower or tree or cave is a clue to the whereabouts of wonderland. As a child I spent many hours in the world of the imagination; far from being a route to escape, journeys to this world always bring us back refreshed to the so-called real world we inhabit.
Now that I am a grown-up, chronologically speaking, I find that I am making some attempt to create worlds of the imagination for readers that I cannot see and will never meet. I do not think I would be able to do that but for the hundreds of authors who showed me how without realizing they were doing so.
While being able to read is clearly of utmost importance for all sorts of "practical" reasons that no one would deny, the best and most important result of literacy is the enrichment it can bring to our lives. And the best route to literacy is through literature.
Crabbe. Irwin, 1986.
After I moved to Newfoundland with my family in 1985,1 began tutoring an illiterate woman whom I'll call Ruth. Ruth was twenty-six and lived with her parents in a village not far from St. John's. Ruth had never gone past grade three in school and was so nervous and lacking in confidence that she literally shook when we sat down to work at her kitchen table with the TV blaring and the telephone ringing intermittently.
After a month of twice-weekly lessons, Ruth turned off the TV before I arrived for our lesson and advised callers to phone back. After three months, Ruth could look up numbers in the yellow pages, read some want ads, write postcards to friends in Vancouver, read a menu, road signs and billboards --in short, all those things most of us do as a matter of course. After six months she was able to read grade 5 level books. At the end of the year, after our sessions stopped, Ruth began attending a once-weekly night school in her community in order to keep up her skills. She still attends night school sporadically and goes to a neighbour's house for help with her homework.
Despite her earlier headway, however, it is doubtful that Ruth will ever progress much beyond her present reading level. This has less to do with ability than it has to do with her impoverished environment. In all the times I was in Ruth's house, I never saw any newspapers, magazines or books despite the fact that Ruth's parents and siblings can all read and write. Nor, despite the encouragement of the social worker and myself, did her parents help her by listening to her read or by reading to her on a regular basis. Reading and books were not part of their environment, not from lack of money, but from an attitude that these activities belonged somewhere else, in institutions. Reading had been separated from Ruth's day-to-day experience. It seemed to have no tangible connection with her life at home.
I know a girl whom I will call Anne. When Anne was in grade 5 she was diagnosed as having a learning disability. She had difficulty concentrating and following verbal instructions. She added her way through multiplication and became skilled at adaptation and compensation so that one way or another, she usually managed to come up with the right answer. After her learning problem was unmasked, she was put in a resource room at school and began the slow process of catching up. By the end of grade 8, Anne was back in the regular classroom. After that, she never looked back.
Anne is now nineteen and is in second year university, majoring in anthropology. I am convinced that in addition to hard work and determination, what saved Anne from dropping further behind and possibly dropping out of school altogether was, quite simply, books. Anne loved books. She was surrounded by books, and she loved nothing better than to go to the bookstore or the library. From the time she was a baby, she had been read to. Long after she learned to read herself, she still liked being read to. She enjoyed the rhythm and cadence of the language. Anne read in the bathtub, on the bus, in bed. She was seldom without a book. For her it was a tangible connection with reality.
The point of this familiar story is that Ruth might have become Anne had she been brought up surrounded by books, if reading had been made central to her day-to-day existence. She might have made the connection, early on, between the printed word and control over herself and her environment. She might have read herself a better future.
Because I have written books for children, I have been fortunate to have criss-crossed this country many times reading and talking to children. I have become somewhat of a zealot about this because I believe in, and am excited by, children making the connection between who and what they are and what they read. Though these visits are done at some expense to my writing, I never for a moment doubt that the future of our country--politically, economically, culturally--lies in our children's ability to appreciate, interpret and evaluate the written word. Every time I visit children in libraries and schools, my conviction in the importance of these visits is underscored. For me the connection between books and our children's future isn't abstract, institutionalized or impersonal. It is very much a part of my life, not only as a writer but as a mother. Anne, I am proud to say, is my daughter.
Girl of the Rockies. Ryerson, 1968.
The first question is "Can you read?" The second question is "Will you read?"
To answer yes to the first question you have to be born lucky. You must find yourself living in a part of the planet where there is peace, where there is money, and where there is time. If you are lucky enough to wake up in a place like that, you will be taught by some civilized, sensible person to read.
What I, Brian Doyle, can do for those who find themselves unlucky and wake up on a part of the planet where there is death, poverty and no time at all, I do not know. What I can do in my own lucky part of the planet is try to encourage a yes answer to question two.
My publisher, Patsy Aldana, and I believe we can do that by not talking down to the young reader and by respecting the young reader's insight, wit, ear for language, sense of irony, innate wisdom and ability to perceive that fiction, like experience, is never over explained.
If there's stuff between the lines, the young reader will say yes to question number two.
Angel Square. Douglas & McIntyre, 1984.
At the age of five, l received a most precious gift: a key. A key that opened doors to a world of imagination, of day-dreaming, of wishes and of recognition of myself. A key that I have used over and over again to escape, to live, to learn, to cherish and to feel. A key that I will never lose because it has become an integral part of myself, a habit, an addiction.
It was, of course, the key that opens books: reading. But I didn't know that when I received this key, it would also permit me to share my personal dreams and fantasies, my fears and joys with children. I didn't know that this key would permit me to do a job that I love: writing and illustrating books for children.
So, now it's my turn to provide the books that will be opened by the keys of children that I have not met. What a challenge!
Angel and the Polar Bear. Text and illustrations. Stoddart, 1988.
Several of my titles are high interest/low vocabulary novels. The response to these works is extremely rewarding to me.
A well-written letter from an eleven-year-old telling me how much she enjoyed my popular Teeny Wonderful stories is a thrill. But nothing can compare to a note from a reluctant hi/lo reader. Here's an example. I have edited the length, but not the mistakes.
Trevor shows us that literacy is more than simply finishing a book. It is self esteem and self-respect and a necessary step for a positive future. Trevor failed to give his last name or his school address. If Mr. Klaus is reading this, please say thank you to him.
Alien Wargames. Scholastic-TAB, 1984.
Novels in "Series Canada"
Novels in "Series 2000"
I learned to read when I was four years old. I can remember very little of the learning process and have no clear recollection of the time when I could not read. Thus, it is very hard for me to imagine what it must be like to be without the gift of literacy. I can only envision it as being crippled, unable to use a part of oneself that others take for granted. To be deprived of the ability to read is to miss out on one of life's greatest magics.
In Cowboys Don't Cry, my first young adult novel, Shane explains what books mean to him. I'll let him tell you about it in his own words:
And suddenly I found out something special about books. They're a place to escape when you can't really go anywhere. As long as I kept reading I could just make myself disappear into the story and not be scared or worried or lonesome, nothing--I didn't even have to be myself anymore.
I hope that 1990 is the year when many people will share, for the first time, the wonderful worlds that await us all inside books.
Bull Rider. Collier Macmillan, 1989.
Children see the world around them as exciting and filled with creatures and objects of the imagination that fuse to form a more stimulating environment.
This imaginative, playful world forms the foundation of personality and sociability. It enables the child to cope with the problems and fears the real world generates.
Reading can expand both knowledge and imagination. It is therefore important that a child not only learn to read but be introduced to good books, books that reinforce a positive self-image and stimulate the imagination further.
In illustrations it is important that the picture not only complement the text but give it an added dimension, which makes the book more aesthetic in its appeal to the young reader. A taste in art as well as literature can then be engendered.
Good books can lead the child into new worlds of unlimited dimension and wonder. Television tends to impose its own vision and imagination on the mind, restricting its freedom, range and interest. It provides only limited stimulus to creativity. Books, on the other hand, allow the reader to participate in the story, embroider the plot, and broaden the capacity to exercise vision and intelligence.
The Blue Raven. Text and illustrations. Macmillan, 1989.
Literacy: the ability to understand and inscribe the symbols by which humans communicate with one another.
I have a powerful memory, even today, of the school where I leaned to inscribe cuneiform symbols on to clay tablets and to interpret the meaning of hieroglyphics. At the age of nine it was very clear to me that I was re-enacting a magic that mysteriously joined the storytelling of early humans to the books of today.
Books to be read-aloud from. That was very important. And libraries where I could discover my own dreaming--in history, adventure, biology, or the future.
We moved from Cairo to London and then to Edinburgh, and I found Edinburgh a sad grey city until I discovered the Carnegie Library. But there, in the great nineteenth-century adventurers, were the colour and excitement I craved. There were Jules Verne, Anthony Hope, Robert Louis Stevenson, Stanley Weyman, Alexandre Dumas. Curled up in the corner of the top flight of stairs in our tall granite house, I found the Hero, the Quest, the Sacrifice; I was part of high adventure on tropical islands, breathless intrigue in Europe, time machines and voyages under the sea. Through books the world was mine!
The Beckoning Lights. LeBel, 1982.
I know I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but I can't resist putting my two cents in yet again for humour as a means of promoting literacy and reading. We all have specialized tastes, but practically everybody likes to laugh, and it stands to reason that people are going to do more of the things they enjoy. We have a tendency to short-change comedy as being frivolous and unimportant, and I urge everyone to reconsider. Literacy is one of the most important issues of the 1990s, and if humour is going to encourage our kids to read more, then I assert that comedy is a very serious business indeed.
Beware the Fish. Scholastic-TAB, 1979.
I'm still suspicious of the word "illiteracy," much as I remain suspicious of the concept of dyslexia. Illiteracy smacks too much of Toronto Star editorials and United Nations statistics --neither has much to do with reality. Dyslexia sounds too much like a kind of virus, and is often seen so by students who quite happily proclaim, "Sir, l suffer from dyslexia," as if I could give them an antibiotic to provide an immediate cure.
I suspect we have very few real illiterates or dyslexics in our school systems, but a great number of children who don't much like to read. This may not be entirely their fault. Our culture --and theirs--pays much more attention to movies, television, videos and rock stars than it does to literature. As parents, we spend as much each year on golf clubs as we do on children's books, so the task of turning nonreaders into readers is prodigious.
For ten years now, from Burn Out to Baby Blues, I've been writing novels for kids who don't much want to read novels or anything else. While many of the titles have found their way into elementary school core curriculums, their real purpose stays the same. And the most heartwarming letters I get, often crumpled and misspelled, say something like, "It was the first book I ever read all the way through"-- enough to warm any author's or teacher's heart.
Cottage Crazy. Scholastic-TAB, 1988.
Novels in "Series 2000" Baby Blues. Collier Macmillan, 1989.
Novels in "Series Canada"
Implicit in the notion of literacy, it has always seemed to me, is the phenomenon of connection: the writer first connects with her own reality, memories, way of seeing, emotional furniture; then, if she is lucky, connects with her readers, who in turn make connections to their own lives, feelings, experience.
Reading, while done in delicious solitude, is not a solitary act. It is a connecting act, one that links one person to another, many others, even a worldful of others. And if only we can "connect," can we not then hope for a world in which those terrible disconnections--war, poverty, ignorance--no longer exist?
As a homely illustration, I'd like to share part of a recent letter from a boy of twelve, who had read, doubtless by accident, a book of mine with a girl as chief character: "I don't usually read books with girls in them. I was really surprised that girls have the same thoughts and feelings boys do. The book made me think."
Because he can read, this boy has made a connection with half the human race.
Exit Barney McGee. Scholastic, 1979, rev. ed. 1987.
As a teacher I saw that if you put the right books in the hands of teenagers at the right time you can often hook them on reading. Adolescence is a period of such turbulent changes that most young people grab at the chance to find out that they are not alone in thinking and feeling the way they do. Many of my students couldn't get enough of books that shared with them the anxious times, as well as the fun times, of growing up.
Now, as a writer, l receive many letters from readers who tell me how much my characters are like themselves or their friends. They often ask for the titles of other books that they might like as much as the ones they just read. Like all of us who read novels, they are looking for books that will speak to them in some way.
I cannot help but think of the thrill I still get myself from reading a book in which a character's way of looking at the world is one that I share. Neither can I help but feel for those young people who will never know such a thrill and whose lives are so much the poorer for not being able to grab that book and lose themselves in it, later to emerge, their minds filled with the stories of people in other places, at other times, but who are just so much like themselves.
Blood Red Ochre. Doubleday, 1989.
Marlene Nourbese Philip
Five to six years ago I observed that there were not enough Canadian books with black characters that my then young son (twelve years old) could read. While there were other solutions to this problem, such as pressuring schools and school boards to purchase more of these books (from the United States), I decided to write a book what would fill that gap. The result was Harriet's Daughter. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that when young children are learning to read they be able to identify with the characters and situations about which they are reading. What this means is that young African Canadian children ought to be able to see themselves represented in the materials they are reading. In this way they associate the word and literacy with learning about themselves. I cannot imagine a more exciting way to learn to read, as well as to build one's self worth and self-respect.
Harriet's Daughter. Women's Press, 1988.Helen Fogwell Porter
St. John's Newfoundland
From my earliest memories I've wanted to make up stories. What would have happened to me if I had never learned to read or write? I would, I suppose, have been like the thousands who came before me, in Newfoundland and elsewhere, who had to be content with telling stories to their children or to other people who were willing to listen. Perhaps, unable to read stories and poetry myself, I would have lost the urge to create and to pass on my own vision of the world.
Being physically able to read and write is important in everyday life. How much more necessary is it, then, to those with a strong impulse to communicate? Imagine having stories in your head and being unable to get them out. Imagine the people of the past, and many of the present, who have been denied the joy that reading brings, that sense of being part of a larger world, that wonderful feeling of bonding, of kinship, with writers alive and dead.
If I had been born in Newfoundland a hundred years ago I probably would never have become a writer. If I were a woman today who, through geography or bad luck, had never learned to read or write, how frustrated and bitter I might have become.
"Literacy" has become a buzz word in political circles but it should be much more than that. The will of government and citizens must be firmly united if we are to see an end to the dark shadow illiteracy has cast on our civilization.
Below the Bridge. Breakwater, 1980.
There weren't many books in the farmhouse where I grew up, but it was a family of "quoters." My aunts were dedicated to Shakespeare and I was well into high school before I realized that "something rotten in the state of Denmark" did not necessarily refer to a dead mouse in the pantry! My grandmother, like many pioneer children, had only gone as far as the Fifth Ontario reader but constantly quoted from the Bible (King James Version). My mother had the most amazing memory and could quote narrative poetry by the hour: I remember buggy rides listening to (and weeping over) "Sohrab and Rustum." As a result, my childhood sparkled with bright, beautiful words.
I could not wait to get to school and learn to read. I'm not sure why no one tried to teach me, but eventually I decided to take matters into my own hands. The problem was to find a suitable book. Somehow, I did not feel the few picture-books I had rated as "school books." I wanted something that looked academic, I guess, but of course all the "grown-up" books were too big. At last, digging through the bookcase, I found the perfect book. It wasn't too fat and it wasn't too big and it had a soft leather cover that was friendly to hold.
So I took my book and I'd corner an adult and get him or her to read me a line or two until I could memorize it, and soon I was "reading" pages and pages of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner."
What a joy it was the next time my mother grabbed me for some infraction and I could respond with "Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!" or when it rained and the roof leaked and I could solemnly say, "Water, water, every where . . . ".
Learning to read at school after that was a real let-down. Go Sally Go just didn't cut it as far as I was concerned.
There wasn't a word that sang (like "eftsoons") or a phrase you could get your teeth into (like "long grey beard and glittering eye"). But I persevered and kept in touch with the real thing by standing on tree stumps after school, shouting, "Friends, Romans, countrymen ..." or "Cannon to the right of them . . . volley'd and thunder'd!" All of which probably explains why I am in constant battle with editors who want to take out words like "implacable" and "inscrutable"; I really don't believe kids today want the pabulum words any more than I did.
The Doll. Western Producer Prairie Books, 1987.
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