Pic: Oddies creator, Grant Slatter, with Wrestler Oddie authors, Sam Taylor and Danny Wearin.
What is it about having a Y chromosome that drives a wedge between its owner and the joys of reading and writing? A huge generalisation I know, but with literacy standards slipping and boys lagging well behind girls in the reading and writing stakes the facts can’t be denied.
Being of the male gender I find this divide deeply unsettling and not just on the same guttural level that other claims of supposed female superiority hit me. This isn’t a personal attack after all; I am generally considered to be quite articulate (unless you count first thing in the morning or after a bottle and a half of merlot!) But the fact is that with literacy rates slipping boys are not only missing out on the exciting and bewildering world that only exists inside books (especially children’s books) but also on fundamental skills that drive success in later life and that scares me almost as much as the prospect of reaching adulthood without ever having discovered Roald Dahl or C.S Lewis or Enid Blyton or Dick King Smith or…you get the picture.
The question is, without chaining youths to their desks with only breaks for gruel and the occasional knuckle rapping, how do we get boys to embrace the joys of literature? Oddies author and creator, Grant Slatter, has been tackling this very issue with children across the UK for several years and, as an avid reader, draws upon his own experiences of what excited him about reading during his childhood to try and engage and motivate both boys and girls to put down the remote control and pick up a book.
“As a boy I really liked series authors because you knew that if you enjoyed one book there was more of the same waiting for you in a bookshop somewhere. There were 3 in particular I really enjoyed and led to me ploughing through…
12 of the Adventure series – Willard Price
25 of the William series – Richmal Compton
19 of The Three Investigators series – Alfred Hitchcock
That was quite a few books for a boy who grew up in the countryside with its many distractions. The key was that I was mischievous, adventurous and inquisitive so I could identify with all of the characters and storylines. I really felt part of the action as it was all so close to what I wanted to experience and to some extent was experiencing as a growing lad. That said, and despite my body being saturated with almost unhealthy amounts of testosterone, I still enjoyed Charlottes Web and shed a few tears when Charlotte died.
I had a small run on Enid Blyton (not Famous Five though) with The Secret Island being my favourite – the independence and survival stuff really appealed to me and I seriously thought through the logistics of getting three mates and a cow into a rowing boat and finding a secret island to live on. It would have come off but I never managed to find a suitable lake, big enough to have a hidden island on it…sigh!
Then it was onwards with John Wyndham (Day of the Triffids, etc) and Stephen King. After that (around 13) I really started on autobiographies and more factual stuff.
I can’t quite remember the early books, but according to Mum I learned to read with Green Eggs and Ham by Dr Seuss. Quite a psychedelic start really.”
Now all grown up, and thankfully with any bovine smuggling schemes far behind him, Grant’s commitment to raising an awareness of the fundamental need to raise literacy levels and instil a desire to engage with literature has led him to establish a yearly reading initiative, Read With Me Week. Over 400,000 children from schools, nurseries, libraries, Scouting and Guiding groups across the UK take part every year and the event provides a creative forum that encourages children to share their ideas in a nurturing environment. Through group storytelling, games and competitions the act of reading is rendered as a fun and engaging activity as oppose to the insular and demoralising chore that underachieving children are often faced with. Grant developed the free resources on the basis that literature should be fun, it should spark the imagination and it should leave you wanting more; a sentiment that drives the way that he writes.
“Looking back at the books that inspired me as a child I can see where the Oddies comes from and why many boys in particular have enjoyed the series. There is a mix of mystery, adventure, initiative, self reliance, teamwork and mischievousness coupled with some characters they can identify with – even though they are actually socks. I like to think they see The Oddies in the way I saw many of the books I read as a child; very much my own. Boys are happy with a bit of fantasy but I think the reflections of the real world need to be clear and relevant enough to interest them. They can all enjoy reading, but if the content is irrelevant and uninspiring they’ll never see the joy.”
To further the incentive for children to get involved and inspire them to create their own stories a yearly competition runs alongside Read With Me Week – the result being that the best stories entered for judging become published additions to The Oddies series. The formulaic nature of the books makes it easy for children to create and visualise their own stories; the competition isn’t about how well a child writes but is judged on the originality of their ideas. To quantify a child’s potential in terms of academic achievement is both outdated and limiting. English in schools should be less about learning to write and more about becoming a writer; rewarding imagination and originality as much as spelling and grammar.
Wrestler Oddie, one of the most recently published books in this Oddies ‘Special Series’, is testament to Grant’s love of quirky and original ideas. The product of the imaginations of ten-year-olds Sam Taylor and Danny Wearin, Wrestler Oddie is an unconventional character for a series of children’s books and that’s what makes him special. Danny and Sam, avid wrestling fans, invented a character that would inspire and excite them as readers. He is written for boys by boys (another shocking generalisation!) and although Wrestler is essentially a “goodie” his anarchic, testosterone fuelled antics immediately ally him with the mischievous nature of any growing lad. This is essential, if a child cannot find something to relate to in what they’re reading then they simply won’t enjoy it.
“The first new book I ever had was given to me by my Dad. It wasn’t Christmas or my Birthday or any other special day. He handed me the book with hardly a word and I looked at the cover. It showed two men in a small rowing boat that was being upturned by a huge black Whale; mouth open and teeth glinting. I nodded appreciatively then read the Title - Whale Adventure. This really had merit. I don't know if my Dad passed by my room in the next hour or two but if he had he would no doubt have been pleased to see me lying on my bed, on my front, legs bent, feet crossed in the air, toes wiggling, book in hands and eyes hardly blinking. This book was perfect. I was on board an old Whaler with Hal and Roger Hunt. Their father had sent them (at the ripe old age of 18 and 14 respectively) on the last operating square rigged Whaling boat. Set in the (nineteen) sixties I remember pondering how this ship, with it's nineteenth Century ship-law (flogging, etc) and whaling techniques was even allowed to set sail let alone enlist crew as young as 14 - but not for long. The author Willard Price was providing just the sort of adventure that appealed to me at eight years old; exciting, foolhardy, downright dangerous and miles away from parental interference.
It sparked my interest in reading and I really wonder what would have happened if Dad hadn’t bothered to buy me that book. He had been a boy once, he knew me and what I liked, and he had a few quid in his pocket when passing a bookshop one day, and he went in. Dads everywhere, take note!”
Take note indeed – parents are the first and best educators of children in their formative years and if you are committed to finding the books that spark your child’s imagination (boy or girl) then, in turn, they will eventually commit themselves to the joys of reading and an entire world of excitement and adventure will open up for them.
To find out more about Grant Slatter and the Oddies take a look at the website (www.oddieworld.com) or get your school/nursery/library/Scouting or Guiding group involved in Read With Me Week for free at www.readwithme.co.uk