March 04, 2020
Finding Solace in Stories
By Dr Kathy Weston
As my grandfather used to say, “when the world has gone mad, just pick up a book”. He was a teacher, and knew that we could all find entertainment, but also solace, in the world of stories.
This week, a sense of dread and expectation has entered public discourse, as various commentators debate the potential threat from coronavirus. My teen missed the alarming radio bulletins on the school-run, as he was too deeply immersed in his book, “Deathworld 2,” an old American sci-fi novel, originally published in the 1960s. I was reflecting on what could possibly attract a young teen to a book like that?
Yes, it was his father’s favourite book as a child, and parental enthusiasm has certainly swayed my son to read it. However, this old tale also resonates with my son in other ways. He has realised that fears about the future and potential threats to mankind are nothing new, and indeed, they have long preoccupied sci-fi writers.
This particular genre fires the imagination whilst helping young people to explore normal adolescent anxieties about the future. It tackles their worst fears whilst stimulating them to think creatively about solutions. The main protagonist in the book battles setback after setback, modelling enormous emotional resilience along the way.
An alarm bell went off in my head this week, unrelated to the Coronavirus, and instead connected to fresh research by the National Literacy Trust (NLT).
It showed that children are reading less and enjoying reading less today than any other generation. In 2019, only 26% of under 18s spent time reading each day; the lowest level recorded by the charity since their survey began in 2005. This is alarming because of the holistic, powerful benefits of reading, to children of all ages.
It’s an activity that improves mental wellbeing for starters; stories can help children process their own emotions, gain insight into different perspectives and be a fly on-the-wall to hundreds of conversations. When children are deeply engaged in a book, they are removed from the quickfire, digital world and encouraged to adopt a mindful mindset. Reading necessitates being somewhere quiet, and this is a very good thing.
Reading and book ownership are associated with children doing well academically too. Children who read for pleasure are a year ahead of other children in terms of reading performance (OECD, 2010). Basically, by cultivating a reading culture in your home, you are supporting your child in multiple ways.
A third of children interviewed by the NLT said they couldn’t find anything to read that interests them. This is where parents need to take immediate action.
Take them to the most marvellous libraries or bookstores you can find and give them time to browse (Heffers in Cambridge is my absolute favourite). Model how you pick a book. Get them to ask friends for recommendations. Develop a reading culture at home; talk about books you like and dislike. Choose a tricky ‘family book’ and read it to your children.
Sadly, over 30% of parents don’t value reading to their children once they are over the age of 8, yet it remains one of the most extraordinarily beneficial activities. Reading together also leads to cuddling, closeness and chatting about stuff unrelated to the book. But mostly, hearing a parent’s voice read to us is a joyous treat that no child can ever get enough of.
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