I've just been to a talk by the living legend that is Jane Goodall and afterwards I started to question the value of being a professional author, which I, like so many other people, aspire to. [...] How does being an author help the world? What's its value?This is a great question, but also a very tricky one to answer in an original way because so many other great authors have weighed in on the topic. I'm going to post this link here before I go any further, because I <3 this essay and it's great to have an excuse to direct you all do it:
Write the Change you Want to See in the World by the ever-amazing Sarah Rees Brennan
I believe that SRB is 100% right. Writers can make the world a more awesome place. We have the power to do that, and it's a heavy responsibility sometimes. There have been times (recent times!) when I've caught myself following the Path of Prejudice, entirely unconsciously, in my own writing, and had to stop and give myself a swift bitch-slap to re-align my work onto the Path of Awesome instead. And I talked about that in this post here:
Wake Up and Smell the Real World by slightly-less-amazing but trying-hard Zolah
But what's even scarier and more weighty than the impression writers can make on the world, perhaps, is the impression they can make on individuals. The right book at the right time can save a life. Literally. And a lifetime of right books can change the course of a life. I know that because that is what happened to my life. So I thought I would dig out this speech which I made to an audience of trainee teachers at the Write to Inspire Conference in 2007 (under the aegis of Nikki Gambles's Write Away organisation). Bear in mind that I had to read this aloud, so the format is slightly different than a normal blog-post!
"As the theme of today’s conference is Hearts and Minds, I thought I’d talk about how books captured my heart and mind when I was young, and a few occasions when reading really made a difference to my own life and the way I grew up.
When I was young, I was not a good reader. There was no particular reason for this, because I came from a family of book lovers, and I’d always been exposed to books. I liked being read to a lot. But reading to myself was something else. I thought of it as something by turns boring and scary: scary when teachers made you do it aloud, boring when you were trying to do it on your own.
I still remember my father practically having to force me to stumble through a chapter of one of those early reading series books, which was about a girl called Wendy and her playhouse, and which struck me even at such a young age as mind-numbingly tedious. I knew I had to learn to read and write, just like I had to learn to tie my own shoelaces, but it never occurred to me that it was anything but a chore. No teacher would have picked me out as one of the brighter kids in class. There was nothing about me that hinted that one day I might become a writer, and make words my trade. In that way, I was probably exactly the same as countless children that you’ve met in your own classrooms.
But one thing I did have going for me as a kid was a vivid and active imagination, and like most imaginative kids, I was very good at frightening myself.
I used to be terrified of my bedroom at night. I'm not sure precisely why, but I wonder now if that room was haunted or something, though my sister telling me that wolves lived under my bed probably didn't help. My mum was aware that I was having terrible trouble getting to sleep, lying awake in the bedroom with the light on. She decided to gave me a book to read, so that if I couldn’t get to sleep, or woke up feeling frightened, I would have something to take my mind off my fears. The book was The Magic Faraway Tree, by Enid Blyton.
As I said, I wasn’t a very good reader at that point. It must have taken between a month and six weeks to read that one little book. But the sense of pride and achievement when I finished it is something I can still remember today. I tore down the stairs, waving this battered paperback, shouting “I’ve finished!”
My mum said, “Well, I suppose you liked it then? We’ll have to get you the next one.” And I said, “There are more?”
And that was it. I was a different little girl than the one who had first opened the book weeks before. I had realised - without realising how - that there was some kind of magic in books. I fell in love. I was a Reader.
I hope this gives you something to consider, Alex! Thanks for inspiring today's post. See you all on Wednesday.From that moment, I never went to bed without a book tucked under my arm – and my mum never had any problems getting me to go to bed either. What happened on the page was so real to me that it made my own fears and nightmares seem completely transparent. I carried on reading everything I could get my hands on. I became pretty good writer too, with a wide vocabulary and a good grasp of spelling and grammar.
Those weren’t skills that I had been born with, or which had come naturally to me – just like many of the other kids who struggle with reading and writing in your classes. I had learned them because I wanted to, because they were important to me. The willpower and determination that a child can bring to learning is absolutely astonishing, if they’re learning things that they care about. I cared about reading. The Magic Faraway Tree had changed my mind.
A few years later, my teacher Mr Denford chose to read his class a book called The Diddakoi by Rumer Godden. I don’t know if any of you have come across this book before, but it’s really an extraordinary piece of writing for children. I haven’t had the chance to read it for years, since it’s out of print, but I still remember every detail about it. It’s about a girl called Kezia – Kizzy for short – who is half gypsy, and who, after her gypsy grandmother dies, is forced into the care of strangers, some cruel, some well-meaning. In the course of the story, Kezia is subjected to terrible treatment by other children of her own age who are offended and frightened by her differences.
I liked the story so much that I went home and asked if I could have my own copy, so that I could read it myself rather than listening to it at school. It turned out we had one in the house, and I read it several times, despite it being rather damp and very smelly.
It was not long after that, that a new girl came into Mr Denford’s class. We’ll call her Jane.
She was at a disadvantage first because she had what we all considered to be a screamingly funny surname, and next because she’d had meningitis as a baby which had effected her cognitive functions. She found it hard to speak sometimes, and her co-ordination was bad. The teachers all told us very carefully that we should be nice to Jane, which was practically the equivalent of stamping a target on her forehead.
For the first few weeks most people restrained themselves from doing much more than excluding Jane from games, or sniggering about her name. But once she’d been around for a while the bullying got worse. One girl ‘accidentally’ pulled a chair out from under her. Another spilled paint all over her pictures. They’d pinch her or fluster her so that she’d stammer or say the wrong words.
I’d never been one of the popular kids, or one of the leaders of the class. In fact I’d quite often been picked on myself. A small part of me was glad that the mean kids now had someone else to focus their meanness on, so they’d leave me alone. A small part of me even wanted to join in, to blend into the crowd, which would give me even more protection.
But a bigger part – the part that had been in tears reading The Diddakoi – realised that what was happening to Jane was exactly the same. And that it was wrong. And that being part of it would be a terrible thing.
I still didn’t have the courage to get involved at first. I felt terrible, but I didn’t know what to do. Then one day I heard a group of girls whispering about a plan – a plan to catch Jane on her way home and ‘get her’. This was in the days before the school run, and we all walked home. Now, I’d been ‘gotten’ a time or two myself, and it was pretty awful. But I was a fast runner and my house was nearby. I’d always gotten away in the end. But Jane couldn’t run very well, and her house was not nearby. So I went to our teacher and told him what I had heard.
There was a huge fuss, a lot of people got into trouble, and at the end Jane was more of a pariah than ever. So was I. And I’d love to say that us two ended up being fast friends forever – but we weren’t, because I don't think either of us was brave enough to team up with another person who was the focus of so much bullying. But faced with that decision again today, I’d probably do the same thing. Reading The Diddakoi made me the sort of person who can’t just stand by and watch other people be hurt. It changed my heart, for the better.
These are examples of just two times when reading has changed my life. How is it that books can have such a huge impact on an ordinary child and transform them in such a way?
A book isn’t like any other kind of media. It doesn’t provide music at key moments to tell you when you’re supposed to get tearful or an actor mugging to tell you to laugh.
The images in your head come from you as much as from words on the page. When you’re enjoying a book your imagination races ahead of the words, creating an inner landscape which we people with our own actors, scenery and music.
People sometimes assume that reading is a lonely act, which isolates us from other people. But at the very base of it, opening a book is an act of communication between reader and author. When you open a book, you place your mind and emotions at the service of someone else’s characters and ideas for however long it takes to finish the story.
And that’s the vital point.
What makes a person different to dog? Or a horse? Is it that we’ve developed language? Opposable thumbs? No! It’s that human beings know they’re mortal. They can imagine that one day, they will die.
So it’s not just that imagination allows us to feel compassion, and empathy. It’s not just that without it, there will be no more stories to read. It’s that without imagination, there are no humans. Only clever apes with clever fingers.
If there is such a thing as a soul, it might be housed in the heart or the mind, but its lifeblood flows from the human imagination. And when you teach a child to love books and stories – when you teach a child to read – you’re not just providing them with a life skill that will allow them to write essays or get a good job. You’re teaching them what it is to be human.
That’s the most precious gift that any of us can receive. And for that, I thank you all, in advance."