Reading Kids Like a Book

19th July 2019

Steve Feasey is a writer and school librarian who grew up in Bushey. He’s a lifelong fantasy fan and a well-known author in his field. Here he shares how best to tempt the most reluctant young reader into becoming an avid bookworm…

One of an author’s key aims should be to encourage reading for pleasure. And there’s no audience – for my money at least – more important to try to get reading books than the young. I set out to become an author because I wanted to write the type of stories I loved when I was growing up, and I hope my books can inspire some young people to put their phones down for a while and let their minds be transported somewhere else. Ultimately, we all want them to fall in love and stay in love with reading.
Trying to get books in young people’s hands is not always an easy sell though; reading demands a commitment in time and effort that young people often find difficult to make. There are so many other things commanding their attention (schoolwork, friends, sports, gaming, social media etc.) that to ask them to push all of that to one side for an hour or two and disappear into their own imagination can be a challenge. And it’s not enough to point out that reading gives more than it takes; to exhort how studies show the great advantages socially, verbally and even empathically that people who read regularly benefit from. Because that all sounds a bit like something young people hear in school, and it makes books sound like green vegetables: yes, they’re good for you and the benefits of eating them have been proven, but broccoli and cabbage are never going to be at the top of any 13-year-old’s menu choice.
No, to be a reader you have to love to read, and the key to this is to find the books that ‘make you tick’. These may not even be fiction. I have a friend who loves military history books, and whilst I’d rather stick red hot pins in my eyes than pour over the minutiae of the Battle of Piddletown and how many musket balls were fired by each side, I love that he loves it. And that’s the challenge that authors, librarians, booksellers and parents who want to encourage a joy of reading in young people face: to find the books that make them willing to stop this world for a while and jump into another.
For me, as a young man growing up, no genre did this better than fantasy and science fiction. Fantasy gets a rough ride from many people. It’s considered ‘lowbrow’ or frivolous. Parents in particular can get quite sniffy about it, and some suggest that their little loved ones ‘read something a bit more grown up… something that’s going to test you.’ I would suggest that there’s nothing more certain to put a young person off of reading than to force books on them that are ‘worthy’ and ‘challenging’. Don’t get me wrong, I love literary fiction as much as the next man; to read beautifully crafted prose that make you realise the wonder that is human language is something to make the heart sing. But I choose when to read Shakespeare and Melville and Brontë. As a child, I disliked them with a passion. I wanted to read books that entertained me, and for this I chose fantasy and science fiction.
Ask yourself this: which books had the most impact on you as a 13- or 14-year-old reader? Which works of fiction truly transported you away from that angst-ridden adolescent world full of worries about girls, acne and bullies? My bet is that more than a few of them were fantasy novels.
I was brought up in a poor, working-class household on a housing estate not far from Bushey. In my local library I found not just a place of refuge – don’t get me started on the importance of funding for local libraries – but also a place where I could explore my love of reading. The science fiction and fantasy section was well-stocked, and I think I must have read almost everything they had (at least it felt like that). I loved the pure escapism of books by the likes of Ursula le Guin, Michael Moorcock and Tolkien, and I still revel in their contemporaries now. Recent serial fiction works like The Hunger Games by Michelle Collins, Percy Jackson by Rick Riordan, and Divergent by Veronica Roth are great examples of modern fantasy reads, and it’s not surprising that they have gone on to be extremely successful movie franchises. I think the reason that fantasy fiction has always been so popular is because it’s all about exploring the impossible. It allows the reader to transcend the day-to-day pressures of the modern world and go on a journey of the ‘fantastic’, where dragons and magic and superpowers can exist. It has the added benefit of being able to be explored in different ways too. Fantasy fiction is well represented in various ‘alternative paths to reading’, so for those readers not quite ready to jump into a big 500-page novel, they can start to explore stories in pictorial, panel-form storytelling (otherwise known as comics). However, all too often, adult gatekeepers are guilty of blocking this route into reading, stating that they would rather their child read ‘proper’ books. The great shame of this is that it ignores the studies that show how comics and graphic novels, and the way in which they make the reader create the story ‘between the panels’, are a wonderful means of encouraging a love of all forms of books. Plus, it might be that panel fiction like manga and graphic novels are the thing that makes your child ‘tick’. By discouraging them you are potentially preventing them from discovering a love of story that will eventually move them on to explore other forms of reading.
The greatest thing, however, that fantasy fiction has going for it is its ability to open up a young person’s imagination and allow them to escape, albeit momentarily, the pressures life puts on them. That is important in today’s world – I would argue it’s essential. As Albert Einstein said: “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination encircles the world”.

above: author Steve Feasey. His new book ‘Dark Blade’ is a fantasy novel aimed at YA readers. It’s an epic adventure set in the world of Stromgard that sees a young boy given an ancient sword in order to defeat terrible monsters. But sometimes, as our young protagonist finds, there are things in the world that are worse than monsters…

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