Posts Tagged ‘Children’s Encyclopaedia’

On learning to read

December 31, 2021

The eldest of our grandchildren is now at school, and learning to read. Given that reading is such an important part of my life, and always has been, I find it strange that I can recall very little about how I actually learned to read. I remember nothing at all from before I went to school as a rising five; ours was a poor household and there was no money for books. However, when in Class 1 Miss Marvell began the process of teaching us, I do recall that it seemed quite straightforward to me, so I must have been ready or prepared in some way for it.

The letters of the alphabet were on charts high up on the classroom walls, and I remember our having to chant the sounds aloud, in unison. Shortly after this came a series of flashcards with ‘sentences’ on them, which again we were required to chant; I remember thinking they were daft at the time. The one that has stuck in my mind for sixty-odd years said, “Mother, mother, see Kitty!” and I can remember thinking, “Who on earth would speak like that?”

Eventually there were readers – the Janet and John series, I think, that we shared one between two, and took in turns to read a sentence aloud. Again I recall thinking that I wanted to read a lot more than one sentence because this new skill was so exciting and I could do it, and also feeling impatient with those who couldn’t master the words, or stumbled over them. At the same time as acquiring this new skill, we were also learning how to write, beginning with individual miniature blackboards (as chalkboards were then called) and graduating to pencil and paper as soon as our fine motor skills were good enough. Here I remember being cross about having to use the pencil and paper, because I quite liked the business with the chalk…

Yet I was never conscious that I was learning to read and write; I hoovered it all up, along with the excitement and the possibilities it opened up. I have no recollection of taking readers home from school and practising with my parents; I don’t think such things happened in those days – school was school, home was home, and quite honestly, my parents were too busy running a home and family.

When I think about it now, I realise that the ability to master and operate with text was crucial to schooling in those days, for everything came from printed textbooks, with a very few black and white line illustrations. In other words, if you couldn’t read, you were seriously stuck. I remember that in the second class, those of us who could read competently were paired up with those who needed practice, to help them and hear them read. Again, uncharitably, I found this tedious, as at the age of going on six I couldn’t see how anyone couldn’t understand those letters and words…

Still no books at home. I must have been coming up to seven when my mother realised that she could sign me up to the children’s section of Stamford Public Library, and I can truly say that from that moment I never looked back. I read anything and everything, not quite indiscriminately, but pretty promiscuously. I can remember particularly the Young Traveller series, which probably sparked off that bug – two children in a nice, white middle-class family who got taken off to lots of interesting countries and saw the sights, tried the food and learned about habits and customs: I wanted to be able to do that. I exhausted the possibilities of the children’s library by the age of twelve, at which point my mother went and soft-talked them into allowing me access to the ‘grownups’ library several years early…

There were also the small classroom libraries at school: when you had successfully completed a task, it was often easiest for the teacher to send you off to get a book to read until everyone else had finished, and the class could move on to the next thing together. Again, I hoovered up everything, and can remember being particularly interested in Arthur Mee’s Children’s Encyclopaedia, which I devoured large chunks of.

Finally, I also began to acquire some books of my own: my parents realised how much reading meant to me. I was thrilled when they bought me Winnie the Pooh, and overjoyed when Christmas and birthdays brought book tokens, with which I bought my first copy of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, and also The Wind in the Willows. That last one I still have, a treasured item in my now vast library. And I know that there’s a certain snobbishness or superiority in saying this, but I cannot understand people who can, but do not read, and I have never understood how it’s possible to have a home without books…

What comes out of all this is my realisation of the incredibly liberating effect of education. I’m always very moved when I read about the lengths that some children in the Third World go to, in order to be able to get to school, and I appreciate my father’s determination that I should get a good education – he had four winters of school, 1922-26 and that was it…

On learning to read

November 22, 2020

I now have a grandson at primary school who is beginning to learn to read, that first step to the opening of a huge world… I’ve written before about my learning to read, and also the importance of my local public library in fostering the enjoyment of reading in my earliest years, leading to so much pleasure throughout my life. So what did I read in those youngest years? Our house was not a house of books when I was a child: there was no money for such things…

Winnie the Pooh is probably one of the earliest books I can remember. It was a birthday present. I liked the stories, but I also liked what they offered to my imagination: I pictured myself living in the wood, in Pooh’s house and Rabbit’s hole. I laughed my head off at the impossible spellings Owl conjured up when he wrote Eeyore’s birthday card… I learned that books stimulated my imagination and made me laugh. Later on, at sleepovers – we didn’t call them that, in the old days – my friend and I struggled to read the adventures of Professor Branestawm to each other without totally creasing up in helpless laughter.

Another book I loved in my youngest days was The Wind in the Willows. I know I’m showing my age here, but there wasn’t anywhere near as much literature written for children way back then. Again, it had my imagination in overdrive: how I wanted to live in Badger’s home – it sounded utterly safe and magical.

Teachers at school are supposed to provide “extension activities” for brighter pupils; in my day, there was a bottom shelf of random books for us to be invited to read if we finished a task early, and that was fine by me: I worked my way through everything on offer. I can still remember a series of books about a bear called Mary Plain who had all sorts of adventures, and I have often wondered if these ancient storybooks is where the idea for the much more successful Paddington Bear series came from…

There was also the extremely worthy and edifying Children’s Encyclopaedia, nine hefty tomes filled with what seemed like a random assortment of articles on all sorts of subjects. There were also puzzles and tricks and scientific experiments described. I read my way through every page that interested me in all of these.

There were comics. I was allowed one a week and started with Jack and Jill. It was marvellous to be allowed down the street to the newsagent’s rabbit warren with my fivepence every Monday by myself to go and buy it. Later, when a more edifying and educational magazine called Treasure came out, my mother moved me on to this. Eventually my parents came across a part-work, Knowledge, which would build up over four years into a veritable encyclopaedia, to be bound into volumes. I think I devoured every word, in weekly doses…

Comics had to wait for the hairdresser’s, while I waited my turn to be cropped, and also for the annual visit to my grandparents where I could catch up on months’ worth of the Eagle which my uncle used to hoard. Here I came across Dan Dare and the Mekon: maybe my earliest encounter with science fiction? And when I got to secondary school there were the commando library comic books, Lion, Tiger, a whole raft of war stories, sf and sports stories (these last I really didn’t care for, just like sport itself).

There were newspapers at home and these too were hoovered up, although obviously I was selective in what I read and often failed to understand. There was the Daily Mail (!) every day, and the News of the World and the Sunday Pictorial at the weekend, though eventually my mother forbade the News of the World as too salacious.

And then there was the public library, for my parents could never have afforded to keep me in books. Often, especially during the school holidays, my sisters and I would go nearly every day, and I’d end up reading their books, particularly Enid Blyton, as well as my own choices. I went for the usual boys’ stuff: the Jennings series about life at boarding school, Biggles’ tales about warfare and flying, although I’m sure the greatest influences on me from those years were the amazing Young Traveller series, where two children and their parents ended up visiting almost every country in the world and introducing the reader to history, geography, culture and food of so many different lands, and the astonishing sf series about the Secret Planet, which really did get me hooked on science fiction for good…

They were magical days, magical times and magical books, and I’m sure that I can remember them in such detail testifies to the formative effect they all had on me.

My A-Z of Reading: S is for School

December 10, 2016

School was where I met the joys of reading. There was the alphabet frieze around the walls in class one, as we chanted our letter sounds, building them up into words. There were Miss Marvel’s bonkers flashcards which we chanted aloud: Mother, Mother, see Kitty! Even then I thought, but who talks like that? Why can’t we have real speech to chant? Janet and John readers, late 1950s gender role stereotypes.

Teachers read stories to us, as a reward for good work, and at the end of the day, when we were tired from all that school work. It was a treat; I don’t remember it happening at home. Certainly we didn’t get sent home with readers. There were small class libraries: I worked my way through everything. I remember a series of a couple of dozen books about a bear and her adventures – Mary Plain, she was called. Long before Paddington was ever invented. Eventually I moved onto the boys’ books – Biggles, and Jennings, and the earliest science fiction I could remember, the Secret Planet series.

There were factual books, too, to feed my quest for knowledge. The vast and even then ancient Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee, patriotic, imperialist and I don’t know how many other kinds of ideological unsoundness, but a huge reservoir of information which I greedily hoovered up.

There was Stamford Public Library, with a children’s section which I soon exhausted – the vast Young Traveller series, where two white, British, middle-class children visited countries all over the world and I learned about them, sparked my interest in geography and travel. My mum persuaded the librarians to allow me to join the adult library several years early…

School, of course, brought more than just reading: there was understanding and interpreting what I read, right from the very earliest days of comprehension exercises. And eventually it would bring other languages, too: Latin and French for starters.

In my later years, I have realised just how much of my early schooling was focused on that key skill of learning to read, and developing an enjoyment of reading. Yes, there were lots of other subjects, too, but the ability to read fluently was vital in all of them. Books were a natural part of the surroundings, and the treat when one finished a task successfully before the rest of the class – choose a book to read. My teachers fostered my love of books and reading, and, along with the town library, provided what a financially poor home could not; when people run down our education system and public services, I remember what they provided for me.

My A-Z of Reading: K is for Knowledge

November 25, 2016

knowledge_magazine_and_encyclopaedia_issue_1A little knowledge (well, actually it was learning, but that won’t fit so neatly with my subject) is a dangerous thing, said someone, once, long ago.

Part works are a curious publishing phenomenon, a great way of tying you in to buying something every week for a long time, and thereby ensuring a regular income stream; nowadays all sorts of utterly bonkers things are on offer, usually in that dead ‘nobody has much money left’ after-Christmas period, but when I was young it was all sorts of good and wholesome things like encyclopaedias and history books that built up week-by-week.

Knowledge was one of those magazines; it was carefully designed so that it would built up into a proper encyclopaedia for children over a period of four years: it eventually built up into eighteen volumes (for which you could, of course, buy hideous, cheap and crappy binders) each with a table of contents and an index; you removed the outer cover, and then all the pages were sequentially numbered as in a proper book; the covers could also be bound up into another quick reference work. The magazine was evidently pretty successful, as it ran through four editions. My parents bought it for me – two shillings, later half-a-crown a week.

I’ve found myself thinking about these encyclopaedias quite a bit lately; I need to finish binding them all properly, about fifty years after I acquired and read them all, and now that I have a grandson, I’ve wondered vaguely whether he may one day enjoy looking at them…

Although it was apparently an Italian invention, Knowledge was clearly modelled on Arthur Mee’s famous Children’s Encyclopaedia of the nineteen-thirties, a ten-volume compilation of all sorts of knowledge, puzzles and patriotism that is still to be found in secondhand bookshops and at jumble sales even today. We had it in the classroom in whatever was Year 6 back then, and I devoured it… good wholesome stuff that instilled in me the intellectual curiosity that’s driven me ever since.

The clever thing about Knowledge was that, although encyclopaedic in its scope, it didn’t present material in alphabetical order, which would have been a sure-fire way to turn any child off. Instead, a range of the various branches of knowledge were visited in each magazine, in articles of from one to three pages, all illustrated in colour – a bit of a novelty at the time – not photographs but drawings and painted illustrations, the point being that they brought the topic to life and livened up the pages. But the text was detailed, continuous prose: a topic was covered in decent depth. I felt I’d learned something when I finished an article.

Reading the magazines helped me in several ways. I got a broad picture of all the different areas of knowledge, and I gradually came to see which areas interested me and appealed to me more than others: history, geography, astronomy in particular. And then gradually, over time, I could see how lots of different and separate ideas started to link together. Usually I would read each magazine from cover to cover as soon as I got it, and then later I would go through them again and concentrate on the articles which I found especially interesting.

So began my introduction to the wide world of knowledge and understanding. It was money well-spent by my parents; my dad started binding the magazines properly for me, and I learned bookbinding along the way, but he never finished the task. I’ve still got all the books and magazines and will be returning to them, and finishing off the binding along the way…

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On learning to read…

March 10, 2015

12906602197481I sometimes think about the process of learning to read, and how astonishing it is, because it opens up a whole new world beyond the real, physical world, to a child. There’s normally controversy about how it should be done, especially in England, where education has long been a political football; as my wife was a primary teacher, we sometimes discuss the issue and compare notes on our experiences.

I went back to my own experience. Firstly, I have no recollection of being read to at home, whereas this is nowadays a joy to children and their parents. There were no books, although I’m not completely clear whether this was a class thing, because of lack of money, or because books for small children were not widely available during my childhood. So, learning to read happened at school, beginning in Miss Marvell’s class in my case, with an alphabet frieze around the top of the classroom walls to chant together, and flashcards which she held up for us to recite – ‘Mother Mother see Kitty’ being the only one I can remember, thinking it a rather odd statement to be making, even at the age of five… In Mrs Harvey’s class we read together, read aloud individually, and she read to us, which I loved; my picture is of it all coming together pretty quickly and without any real difficulty. I do recall having to help one or two of the ‘weak’ readers with their books. What thrilled me was the discovery of longer books, with actual stories in them: I was hooked very quickly.

I was enrolled in Stamford Public Library at an early age, and often made daily visits to get another book to read. I discovered science fiction written for children, and loved the idea that there might be other worlds out there. It was there that I came across the ‘Young Traveller‘ series, in which a (nuclear, white, middle class) family of parents and children visit different countries of the world and are introduced to different foods, traditions and practices, and see the main tourist sites. All very wholesome, and illustrated by inset pages of black and white photographs. But I am not surprised that I love travel, and travel writing in my later years.

I worked my way through the classroom libraries in school, reading pretty much everything, including large parts of the ten-volume Children’s Encyclopaedia by Arthur Mee. Once you had completed whatever task the teacher had set for that session, you got sent off to pick a reading book… bliss.

I began to acquire books, slowly, and my father made me a small bookcase for my bedroom – I still have it. I loved the relatives who sent me book tokens for Christmas and birthdays, rather than the usual boring stuff. One of them bought me The Wind in the Willows – the oldest book in my library – and another bought me The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (and we all know what that led to!). I also read comics, hoovering up the adventures of Dan Dare, although I don’t think my parents fully approved of this sort of literature.

I think things are rather different nowadays. Libraries are a shadow of their former selves in this individualistic and consumer-oriented age; printing techniques have developed enormously to allow the production of beautiful children’s books; schools are tackling some of the issues connected with poverty and class attitudes to education. For me, learning to read set my imagination free for life, and, as a child, it was at least on a par with the discovery of Lego…

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