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The Imagination of the Child: Response to Graeme Whiting

This blog post is a response to The Imagination of the Child written by Graeme Whiting, headmaster of The Acorn School.

Dear Graeme Whiting,

I read your blog post advising against children reading books such as Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and Terry Pratchett. I really wanted to share my feedback with you and others who read my own blog.

About 15 years ago now, when I was in high school, I was a very reluctant reader. In fact, I used to avoid books like the plague! In hindsight, this was due to the fact that I am dyslexic and I wasn’t diagnosed until 10 years later when I was 25 years old. I never had my book reviews for my English classes in on time, because it took me so long to read a novel. I ran out of time before I was half way through a book.

We were made to read books including Shakespeare in our English classes and I really didn’t enjoy it. It made my hatred of reading even greater. I didn’t grasp the humour within the pages, just a load of “Ye Olde English” that made no sense to me whatsoever. I was far more interested in playing music and found excuses not to pick up a book.

Then I heard fellow students talking about Harry Potter. Out of interest, I picked up Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I enjoyed it so much, that I picked up 3 of the other books in the series and chomped through them! This was a first for me! It made me interested in reading for the first time in my life! I then went on to read two Anne Rice books, Interview with the Vampire and The Vampire Lestat before moving on to reading George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Animal Farm. If I hadn’t started out with books I loved, I doubt I’d have ever become an avid reader like I am now in my thirties.

What caused me mental health issues was not from reading Harry Potter or Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but that my school refused to have me assessed for dyslexia and thus having little to no support with my reading. I felt stupid and belittled by teachers and fellow students. It’s a horrible feeling when you know that you’re not stupid but people talk down to you like you’re lazy or ignorant because you hate reading and it takes you twice as long as other people.

I was very lucky that when I went back to college at 25 I was diagnosed as dyslexic and was given support in college and at university too. I had a fantastic English lecturer at college too who opened my eyes to Shakespeare and I found myself laughing heartily at the jokes within Romeo and Juliet that I would never have understood before. He also reignited my love of poetry which has lead me on to reading the likes of Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats and Seamus Heaney, who I perhaps would have avoided in the past.

Now I read off my own back. I read an eclectic range of books. I still love George Orwell but Oscar Wilde is probably my favourite writer. I read my first Charles Dickens book last year as well as other fantasy books in the form of Robin Hobb’s Farseer Trilogy (the last book being over 800 pages, which was a huge achievement for me!). I generally read historical fiction, but I do try to slot in some classics too. I’m rather fond of Jane Austin too!

Rather than putting children off from reading books, perhaps it would be worth looking at WHY children have mental health issues. Perhaps the stresses of exams at school? Perhaps undiagnosed learning difficulties like myself? Perhaps family difficulties? There could be a whole host of reasons why children have mental health issues. Rather than using books you dislike as a scapegoat, it might be worth looking at the root cause of why children have behavioural difficulties or mental health issues.

Yes, reading classics can be great, but only if you can appreciate them. I know I didn’t appreciate my attempt to read Wuthering Heights last year and gave up half way through, even though it’s a book that’s held up as a classic by many. We all have different tastes and opinions. Putting children off reading is a crime though. I’d be far happier if my children (if I had children) read Harry Potter than to avoid books altogether because they thought it was boring or difficult or if the books didn’t speak to them.

May I also add that since I was diagnosed as dyslexic and having the proper support, I now have 3 Scottish Higher’s that were all A’s from college and a 2:1 MA degree with a First in my dissertation. Though I still have confidence issues after being so crushed in school, I have become a far more rounded person and someone who loves to read both modern and classic literature.

Reading books should both be educational and enjoyable. It should not be a chore. Balance is key in all things. Reading J.K. Rowling and J.R.R. Tolkien may just lead children into the same area of interest I had at university in my degree of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon Studies with History and reading books written by Tacitus, Bede, Adomnán, Gerald of Wales, Gildas and old Celtic and Scandinavian Saga material like The Táin, The Mabinogi etc. These are books in my collection next to the latest Philippa Gregory, Hilary Mantel and Neil Gaiman. If it hadn’t been for Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, perhaps I’d have continued avoiding books and missed out on a whole world of literature that has opened my mind.

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