As well as writing for children, I am also the mother of a ten year-old so I’m all too aware of the challenge of luring children away from the wormhole of the internet and into books.
But why is it important? It’s not just about increasing vocabulary and comprehension but also about teaching children sustained concentration. Yes, children might be reading stuff on screen, but too often the flickering image encourages them to jump around and get pulled into endless cat videos or music videos on Youtube. I know all about it, my daughter’s current ambition is to be a contortionist when she grows up inspired by some hyper-flexible teen bloggers.
We don’t quite know what effect screens have on the developing brain and there is increasing evidence that a life lived online holds hazards for mental health and even eyesight. As someone who has worked all my life in television as a Producer/Direct I am no purist. But even if screens and apps provide lots of stimulating material it’s important to encourage engagement with lots of different kinds of media. A varied diet including books, films and TV is good all round. That way children learn to engage with diverse sources of information and won’t fall apart if the IPad or kindle isn’t charged.
But the main challenge is to develop the ability to critique and question the endless parade of novelty and diversion sent directly to their eyeballs. And here’s where other media such as audio books or comics come in. Absorbing information in different forms challenges children to start developing their critical faculties. And who knows, they might even start going off and doing something “In Real Life” instead!
So how to we lure them offline for some close encounters of the paper and flesh and blood kind? Here are some suggestions in no particular order.
- Embrace comics and magazines.
When I was a child, I used to spend hours reading the Beano and Dandy, Tammy, Jackie and even Roy of the Rovers. Then later my older boy cousins used to pass on their Marvel comics. Comics encourage visual thinking and the understanding of narrative. They help educate children about the grammar of the moving image from jump cuts to flashbacks. For children who are more visual or reluctant readers, the visual image is stimulating and exciting. We have no problem with younger children reading illustrated books, I see it as just an extension.
-Graphic Novels –
This is the next level of comics and illustrated fiction and a flourishing genre in its own right. There are now some fantastic graphic novel versions of classic books such as Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Harry Potter, The Philosopher’s Stone. These can be the starter slopes for engagement with the bigger text. But are also fulfilling and often beautiful in their own right.
Also if children are more captivated by facts and the natural world, there are some brilliant magazines out there. In Ireland there’s Primary Planet, The Week in the UK, Even specialist ones such as Aquila for science, history and general knowledge. National Geographic for Kids is also a fantastic resource with a great online site.
They often have quizzes and competitions – lots of things to stimulate and enjoy.
Think about Diversity of Books
My daughter loves jokes and riddles so compendiums are great for some bite-size diversion and long car journeys too.
This can also lead to poetry and short stories and even novels. My daughter loves Harry Hill’s joke book. Then we discovered a fantastic comic novel with Harry Hill as a main character called The Best Medicine by Christine Hamill. It dealt with more serious themes too such as illness and parenting in an engaging and age-appropriate way.
Another series include Tom Gates, and The Wimpy Kid. There’s a reason they are popular and some of the appeal is the imaginative illustration and design.
Another author to look out for is Oisín McGann who really gets children’s sense of humour and drama. http://www.obrien.ie/oisin-mcgann
Sports books are great too. https://www.amazon.com/Books-Sports-Illustrated-Kids/s?ie=UTF8&page=1&rh=n%3A283155%2Cp_lbr_books_series_browse-bin%3ASports%20Illustrated%20Kids
And short ones. Poolbeg in Ireland has a great series of bitesize knowledge called “In a Nutshell” and “Heroes”.
Experience the World of Books
Libraries and bookshops are the treasure troves of the mind, full of colour and stimulation. Children sections usually burst with life. And librarians and booksellers are reliably passionate about books and on hand to pass on suggestions and encouragement. There are often too wonderful events organized. Waterstones run some brilliant Harry Potter themed events. In Ireland bookshops such as Eason, Dubray, and Hogges Figgis are all deeply invested in captivating children’s interest. Not to mention all the wonderful independent bookshops from Manor Books in Malahide, Andreas’s Bookshop in Trim and Charlie Byrne’s in Galway.
A trip to a bookshop is not just a rainy day activity and could become a regular outing. I heard Elton John goes with his children every week to the local bookshop!
Getting in on the Act
Some children who don’t particularly like reading actually enjoy writing and creating. Often they go hand in hand but it’s not inevitable. Some children are wrapped up in their own imaginations and enjoy the expression of their fantasy worlds. Others enjoy oral storytelling and role-play. Even games like charades can have a narrative element and toys such as Rory’s story cubes are great aids to the imagination. Simple word games can do the trick too – like each saying a sentence or writing a sentence each at random and seeing what comes out.
One of my daughter’s favourite books is You Choose by Pippa Goodhart and Nick Sharratt. No words, just pictures to create your own stories.
Audio Books and Films
Audio books are also another means of enjoying the written world and for some children at certain stages of development are less stressful than struggling with text. Likewise films can be enriching and dare I say it in some cases better than the original. I have a deal with my daughter – she can only watch the film if she’s read the book.
Experiencing the story in different media is also instructive and encourages children to think about storytelling – for example The Breadwinner by Deborah Elliot is also a brilliant film directed by Nora Twomey and now a graphic novel. All ways of absorbing a compelling story about conflict and survival.
Another wonderful adaptation is A Series of Unfortunate Events on Netflix. It’s simply wonderful.
And there’s The Worst Witch on Cbeebies based on the timeless Jill Murphy books. My daughter and I have lots of fun discussing how these terrific adaptations differ from the books.
Many parents treasure their Storytime with young children. Who says it has to end as they get older? I have many multi-generation readers of my books, parents who didn’t enjoy history at school enjoy reading historical fiction with their children. I still read with my 10 year old. She may not have the patience for me in a couple of years’ time, so I’m enjoying it while I still can!
Go To Readings, Events and Museums
Often when I go to remote areas, children tell me it’s the first time they’ve met an author. Realising that books are made by a real person and are not handed down from on high de-mystifies the process and can help children feel more relaxed about reading. So taking children to author’s talks, library and bookshop events, museums and activities can spark their interest in reading. When I visit schools I often do an audio-visual presentation not just because listening to some old lady droning on can be a challenge but also but I am often inspired by photographic material and the moving image. I’ve seen Liz Pynchon of Harry Gates fame captivate a whole room with interactive illustration and even the wand choreographer Paul Harris from Harry Potter (it’s a thing) turn us all into battling zappers.
Practice What You Preach
I know many of us would only love a bit more time to curl up with a book, but its allowed! You are role-modelling good behavior for your child. I am the eldest of six and we are all readers. Never once did our parents force us, but my mother was a reader who took us along to the library and somehow we all absorbed this was a positive thing. We also watched a lot of television too and four of us have careers in the visual media. But that was also because we talked about it a lot and watched together. Enjoyment of different media isn’t mutually exclusive. The point is not to do anything passively and try to do things together. If you are engaged, your children will be!
Leo’s War by Patricia Murphy is out now
Other Titles by Patricia Murphy include:
Molly’s Diary – the Easter Rising 1916
Dan’s Diary – The War of Independence 1920-22
Ava’s Diary – The Irish Civil War 1922-23
It’s 1943 and young Leo tries to protect his disabled sister Ruby as the Nazis invade Italy. After his mother is arrested, he turns to Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty to save them. But he is no ordinary priest. Known as ‘The Pimpernel of the Vatican’, the Monsignor is the legendary organizer of the Rome Escape Line. Soon Leo is helping out with this secret network dedicated to saving the lives of escaped prisoners of war, partisans and Jews. But as the sinister Nazi leader Kappler closes in on the network, can Leo and his sister stay out of his evil clutches?
Author Bio –
Patricia Murphy is the bestselling author of The Easter Rising 1916 – Molly’s Diary and Dan’s Diary – the War of Independence 1920-22 published by Poolbeg.
She has also written the prize-winning “The Chingles” trilogy of children’s Celtic fantasy novels. Patricia is also an award winning Producer/Director of documentaries including Children of Helen House, the BBC series on a children’s hospice and Born to Be Different Channel 4’s flagship series following children born with disabilities. Many of her groundbreaking programmes are about children’s rights and topics such as growing up in care, crime and the criminal justice system. She has also made a number of history programmes including Worst Jobs in History with Tony Robinson for Channel 4 and has produced and directed films for the Open University.
Patricia grew up in Dublin and is a graduate in English and History from Trinity College Dublin and of Journalism at Dublin City University. She now lives in Oxford with her husband and young daughter.
Social Media Links –
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