As a writer and editor of children’s fiction, I am intrigued by the relationship that adults and children have with stories, and how – as a mother – I can cultivate a love for reading in my children. How much should I read to them? How much should I encourage them to read to me? Will my enthusiasm be too much and completely put them off?
My own addiction to stories and books started In my childhood, and is so deeply entwined with my relationship with my dear departed Dad, that thinking about how I feel about reading means thinking about how I feel about being his daughter. The two things are inseparable. Being a musician, he had a beautiful, expressive voice and sometimes when I read my children AA Milne or Roald Dahl, I can still hear him skipping merrily through the text. When I was a little older – around nine or ten - he and I started to devour novels together on holiday, reading aloud, chapter after chapter from morning to night. Anthony Trollope, the Bronte broads, Jane Austen, Dickens, we loved them all.
My Mum and my brother Steve would roll their eyes and occasionally grumble about the amount of holiday time taken up with our habit, but there was a sweet hint of indulgence in their gentle griping. They knew that we spent precious little time together, and quietly understood how important the ritual was to the two of us. One particularly memorable family holiday was an Easter break in Switzerland.
Understanding, as a family, very little about the nature of altitude, we had thought we would be spending two weeks talking long, energising walks over rolling hills in shorts and tee-shirts, occasionally stopping to tuck into a gruyere sandwich and some chocolate. In reality, when we arrived at our holiday rental after a fifteen-hour drive/ferry trip, we had to dig the front door out of an enormous snowdrift. It turned out that we had rented a ski chalet in the middle of a particularly "good" ski season. Not ones for tearing down mountains on sticks, there was a lot of time spent indoors over the fortnight.
The book that Dad and I had chosen for the holiday to read to each other was Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. It completely saved the holiday from disaster: so fantastic is this story that even Mum and Steve would hover closely, finding "essential" things to do near us at reading time, as they became as hooked on the story as we were. By the book's denouement, they gave up pretending that they weren't listening, and we all sat as a foursome, completely captivated, around the dining table, occasionally pausing to eat a gruyere sandwich and some chocolate.
Steve and Dad had rugby. They toured together, played together, watched matches together, went to Twickenham to see internationals together...Dad never missed a single one of Steve's school home games, no matter how hectic his teaching timetable. He even used to warm Steve's boots before his games in the winter so that he had supple, comfortable feet before stamping out onto the frozen turf. How wonderful.
Dad and I had books and reading. Fathers and daughters need something to bind them, I think, and it certainly served us well as I careered haphazardly and somewhat disastrously through my teens. There was always a novel to talk about so we avoided awkward silences: if the spectre of my many mistakes loomed threateningly between us, Hardy, Amis and Thackeray were useful conversational distractions.
I lost my Dad in 2005, but he bequeathed to me quite the finest of all inheritances. I got reading, and it’s an heirloom I fully intend to pass onto my own two children; as it has saved me on more occasions than I care to think of.