Martin Galway thinks some books are scarier, sadder, and funnier than others and isn’t afraid to use them.
What book has had the biggest emotional impact on you?
And now that I ask that, what emotion was it?
Over the summer and across the autumn, I’ve had plenty of reason to reflect on this question.
It started with a massive undertaking of writing a series of reading toolkits and supplementary materials for guided reading on our subscription site. Part of this resource includes a series of boxfresh booklists for each KS2 year group covering novels, poetry, picturebooks and short stories. I was working with my lovely colleague Alison and over the course of the project it became apparent that we sometimes held differing views in relation to the year groups in which we would use certain books. This is not too surprising, as books span a range of ages – or more accurately, maturity levels. Neil Gaiman was one sticking point. We both love his work but where I would push my luck in terms of reading Coraline in Year 4, Alison was quite clear that it belonged in Upper key Stage 2. She persuaded me too, to some degree, in that some of the nuances of the text could be missed. Still, I’ve seen it used to good effect in year 4 so I wouldn’t rule it out.
Then I mentioned that I was including Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr in the list. It took a while to reassure her that I am not in the business of traumatising children. It is a scary book. It’s one of those insidious treasures from a time when children’s books and television (my goodness, the memories of some of the spookiest of the what the seventies had to offer) really knew how to get into your head and then writhe about under your skin. I had my way and Alison revisited the book. It wasn’t as bad as she had remembered it – they rarely are – but it is effectively scary.
I like to push the boundaries a little when it comes to the stories or books that I share. I want to see their effect on the audience. I relish the frustration that a class might have when they realise the mundane cruelty of Bradbury’s All Summer in a Day is going to go unpunished, remain unatoned. How often do we ask the children to write for effect? Have the children necessarily experienced that effect themselves first hand? So let’s find texts that come close to guaranteeing that they will. Scary stories are a definite favourite – Marianne Dreams perhaps or Chris Priestley’s marvellous Tales of Terror series. It’s not difficult to find other books that fully give the rest of our emotions a workout given the ever healthy world of children’s publishing. I’m willing to bet that the incredibly diverse works of Kate DiCamillo have every base covered.
Sometimes you can push a boundary without even realising it. I remember once sharing The Tunnel by Anthony Browne in Year 3 (the year 3 teachers amongst you may well be nodding and thinking, “Oh yes! Year 3, the Tunnel – classic!”). On this occasion, though, one of the children went on to have a nightmare that night and the next day I was asked to justify my choice. I might at this point say that a childhood nightmare is something of a given and that they can happen at the best of times, but we’ll move along. I showed the book to the concerned parent and we agreed that I hadn’t stepped beyond any reasonable boundary. You just can’t fully predict what a rich text might trigger. That’s part of the thrill of it all. Sometimes you’ll get the most unexpected insight or reaction to a text; sometimes you might even be lucky enough to have your personal reading of it reframed by an especially insightful listener.
It’s interesting how different reactions can be to a text. Have you ever read The Little Match Girl? Not a sanitised, modernised version – the original. How did you feel at the beginning? And across the middle section? And at the final devastating paragraph? Have you ever tried to read it aloud to a group of children? Is it just me that finds it incredibly hard?
It pulls no punches. It looks the cruelty of its world square in the face and then shares with us some of its most despicable deeds. Let’s not beat around the bush. We are sharing several pages of the dying moments of an unloved little girl. There’s something about reading a story like that to a group of listening children that means you have to practice some expertly measured breathing and make arrangements for the world’s stiffest upper lip. And for the love of all that’s good, don’t look up at your teaching assistant at the wrong moment. Lethal! It’s incredibly powerful. If you are thinking of sharing the story, do. It is rightly a classic. There is also a beautiful animation out there – I think it was intended to be a sequence in a mooted sequel to Fantasia that never came off. It does an admirably respectful job and can lead to great writing outcomes so long as we stress the importance of preserving its magic through that special and hard to achieve quality: subtlety. No violins needed here. The story speaks for itself (and on behalf of the vulnerable).
The Little Match Girl is sad, plain and simple, but I’ve had times when some of my more visibly moved pupils have been asked by a peer, “Er, what’s your problem?” Believe it or not, some young people were completely immune to the (really rather) deep experience some of us had just shared. Divergent responses to texts are commonplace and to be expected. As adults it happens all the time. Some of our team went to a literacy event in Cambridge and had the pleasure of hearing Nikki Gamble share Oscar Wilde’s The Nightingale and the Rose. There I was, dying one of my all-too-predictable little romantic deaths, while some of my colleagues were left utterly cold by the violence of the noble little bird’s sacrifice.
One book I have yet to find anyone has a cold response to is A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness. It is a masterful book, based on Siobahn O’Dowd’s original concept. O’Dowd, the author of The London Eye Mystery , tragically died before she was able to complete the book.
It is the most affecting book I have read in as long as I can remember. I am given to keenly feeling the effects of a well-crafted, emotionally charged book or film. Recent titles include Kate DiCamillo’s wonderful soul-stirring book, Raymie Nightingale and, in the cinema, Arrival has proved to be an efficient and timely goose bump generator – with alien linguistics to boot. I was in cinema heaven.
A Monster Calls, though, was something different. The book’s subject and its truthful, sensitive but unsparing handling left me reeling. It was cathartic too. I recommend it unreservedly, and would urge anyone that hasn’t read it to do so prior to seeing its imminent film adaptation. In fact my reaction to the book was so strong that I have even felt obliged to warn a relative stranger not to read the ending in public. They had shared online that they were reading the book in a coffee shop and I was worried that they might not be sufficiently prepared for the fallout. I felt morally obliged to sound the “emotional apocalypse” siren. I found I was not alone as more and more fellow tweeters shared their love for the book and their immense sadness in reading it. That’s my favourite thing about Twitter – it’s the world’s best book club at times.
So this sadness – yes, it’s subjective but clearly I am not alone in feeling that way. It’s why, despite appearing on several booklists for children, I couldn’t read it to a class, which may well be a failing on my part. It’s not because of its subject matter. There are many great children’s books that handle this topic expertly, and that can be used as powerful tools of support for young people facing or coping with such difficult times. It is really the extent of how powerfully it handles the emotions involved. How bravely its central character faces his future. It’s a book that I would choose to share with individual children where the circumstances are right. It feels to me like an intimate book – just a little more intimate than a whole class read in the primary classroom. But, that might just be me. My own private reading response.
Books are funny like that. You can never fully predict who they are going to affect the most and how.
We would love to hear what books have had the biggest impact in your class – whether it was happy, sad, funny, or scary. Do let us know via our twitter feed. Tell us, how did it feel to really feel the power of a great book?