Words and Pictures

My son is in Year 4 and currently has one of those teachers you remember for the rest of your life. Ms. Knight is clever, kind and inspiring. My wife and I have been especially impressed with how she has generated a real buzz about reading. She has a small selection of her own books, which she lends out, introducing a competitive element of Have you read this one yet? This is great because it encourages the class to stretch themselves in terms of the kinds of book they pick up.

My son reminds me of how I was as a young reader. He is more inclined to read comics and heavily illustrated books than wordier chapter books. Recently he has devoured John Dougherty’s Stinkbomb and Ketchup, Dav Pikey’s Captain Underpants, Mr Gum by Andy Stanton and, as with many of his generation, Diary of A Wimpy Kid by Jeff Kinney.

Books that get kids reading are invaluable but there is another thing that makes me appreciative of Ms. Knight’s reading aspirations.

At night, my son is sometimes haunted by scary thoughts – usually inspired by things he has seen on film trailers. (The button-eyed mum from Coraline is an image that he appears unable to shake, although he has not seen the film or read the book). These images appear each time he closes his eyes and make it hard for him to fall asleep.

As with many children, my son reads before bed. Sometimes we read with him, sometimes he reads to us and sometimes he reads alone. Interestingly, I have noticed that whenever he reads a wordier book (without illustrations), he doesn’t have the bad thoughts. My theory is that this is because these books require his imagination to work harder. Reading them is more immersive experience for him. The escapism they offer is all consuming.

Last night he sat up reading one of the Wimpy Kid books, thoroughly enjoying it until it was time for lights out. Half an hour later, he called me up, saying he was having the bad thoughts again. Sticking with my theory, I handed him a copy of Dog by Andy Mulligan and suggested he read the first chapter then try to sleep. He read two chapters, called me upstairs to tell me how good it was then turned the lights off and fell fast asleep.

I write a variety of books (picture books, illustrated series fiction and wordier novels) so I would never say that one kind of book is superior to another. They all have their place. I love comics, and cartoony books are great for getting kids reading. I would defend them to the death. But, my son’s experience has given me a fresh appreciation for the power that words (and just words) have to conjure up pictures in our heads to vanquish the monsters that lurk at the backs of our minds.

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