If you were fortunate, you will have essentially picked up reading by osmosis like I did. I was a voracious reader and, as a result, found writing, spelling and communication easy and accessible. My two eldest sons picked up reading in much the same way and are still great readers at nineteen and sixteen. Up until recently, I hadn’t believed adults who despaired of getting their kids to read. “Surely everyone picks up reading eventually,” I would scoff, “if only given the right books.”
This was until my third child arrived, nine years ago, as bonny and bright a baby as you could possibly imagine. He was slow to speak and even at three years old was still using baby talk, which I put down to being the youngest and most adored child and never really having to articulate his needs. In Prep, his teacher approached me halfway through the year with concerns about his level of literacy. I refused to listen. “He’s in Prep, for goodness sakes!” I would tell my friends. “He should be playing with sand and water not sitting at a desk! Everyone learns to read at different ages, he’ll pick it up eventually.”
But he didn’t. Despite both his parents being writers, having read to him every night from the day he was born and growing up in a household of books, my son just couldn’t seem to pick up reading. By the middle of grade two his confidence plummeted. He began saying he was stupid and hated school. Every subject required reading and so he found he was good at nothing. Even maths, which he had previously managed easily, now consisted of written problems, not numerical. Eventually I was forced to admit that we were going to have to do something. My hands-off, let him take his own time approach was obviously not working.
So, we started looking for help. Kumon, SPELD, computer programs, tutors, therapists, doctors. You name it, we tried it. Our son inched forward, but ever so slowly. But what was most frustrating was that while his classmates were discovering the joys of Tashi, Andy Griffiths and Harry Potter, my son was stuck with school readers that were so mind-numbingly dull that even I had sit on my hands to prevent myself from gouging my eyes out!
At around this time, I was approached by a publisher to begin a new series for early readers. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. She mentioned that her research had shown that there was a lack of good material around for young children learning to read. I could have kissed her. We agreed we needed to focus on strong characters and exciting storylines to give struggling readers the incentive they needed to keep turning the pages. We decided we wanted them to feel real. There were a lot of stories around at the time featuring princesses and fairies, spies and pirates, but little that reflected kids’ own lives.
That afternoon, I went home and pulled out all my old Dr Suess books. My son had declared he had outgrown them because “picture books were for babies”. He was desperate to be seen reading novels like his friends were. So, the challenge as I saw it, was to write something that looked like a short novel but was almost as easy to read as The Cat In The Hat.
In case you’re unfamiliar with the story behind The Cat In The Hat, in 1954, a magazine published an article on illiteracy, which suggested that children were not learning to read because their books were boring. A publisher, William Spaulding, compiled a list of 348 words he felt were important for first-graders to recognize and asked Theodor Seuss Geisel (aka Dr Suess) to write a book using only those words. Nine months later, using only 236 of these words, Geisel handed him the manuscript for The Cat In The Hat. It retained all the imagination of Geisel’s earlier books but could be read by early readers.
The next set of books I dusted off were my childhood copies of Richard Scarry. I studied these books carefully to work out what had so appealed to me and decided it was Scarry’s unusual use of second person. “Doesn’t Lowly Worm look lovely in his hat?” he would write and I remember answering “Yes!” and being quite thrilled that my opinion had been sought. Looking through these books as an adult I realized this was an incredibly simple yet effective way of connecting with my young reader.
The last series I drew upon for inspiration were the Milly Molly Mandy books begun by Joyce Lankester Brisley in the 1920s. I couldn’t find my old copies but remembered them as being very simple stories about the life of a young girl. They contained no wizards or dragons, or even family tragedies to contend with, yet I still remember finding them utterly gripping. So, inspired by Seuss, Scarry and Lankester Brisley, I decided my stories would begin in second person, contain the language of a school reader and stick to the simplest day to day occurrences of a six to eight year old. Simple? Ha!
Over the next few weeks I wrote two stories using these limitations and tested them out on my son. He listened, which was a rarity at that time, and when he fidgeted or seemed to lose track of the story, I made notes in the columns to trim back or change the wording. I figured if I could keep my son interested I could keep any kid interested. After much to-ing and fro-ing with my publisher, paring back the text and cutting sentences even shorter, we arrived at our prototype: Billie B Brown, The Soccer Star. The character was feisty and tom-boyish and her best friend was a boy, which I hoped meant that even though the series was initially aimed at girls, boys might want to read them, too. An illustrator was found who, though living in New Zealand, had been born in Japan, and her slightly Manga-style illustrations gave the books a contemporary feeling I couldn’t have achieved had I illustrated them myself. We then worked on the second book, Billie B Brown, The Bad Butterfly, and had both ready to launch at the beginning of 2010.
The series grew from six books, to twelve, to twenty, with a spin-off series for boys. Three years down the track, my publishers informed me that the Billie B Brown series had sold its millionth copy. Obviously, this news is thrilling, but I wanted to tell you about something else that has been even more rewarding for me.
Every book signing I meet these parents. I recognise them straight away. Their faces are full of emotion and they are usually pushing a very shy and awkward young child ahead of them. “Tell her,” they whisper. “Tell her!” And they gently prod their beloved offspring to speak to me. The child, now even more uncomfortable, clams up even further, forcing their desperate parent to blurt out on their behalf, “My child hated reading before she found your books. She couldn’t read a thing and now she won’t put them down! I can’t tell you how grateful I am you wrote this series. I can’t tell you what it means to see her reading.”
I want to tell them, “I know. I really and truly know. I am you and I totally understand what you have been through and what you’re going through. I couldn’t feel more honoured and privileged to have been a small part of something that will offer your child a lifetime of joy and respect and ease.” But all I can manage is a simple “Thank you!” because I am trying not to mess up the spelling of their kid’s name in the book and there’s a queue of a hundred restless kids behind them and almost as many equally emotional parents.
It’s so hard to see your kid struggle and miss out on all the things you were able to take for granted. Sometimes I feel so sad that my son will never know Charlotte or Mr Tumnus or Mowgli or the BFG as intimately as I did at his age. It’s hard to know that he will always struggle with reading even though every single night we still sit beside him and force him to read about the lifecycle of a slug or the way steam trains work and other things that frankly bore me to tears. He is getting there, slowly, slowly, and I can’t tell you how much I have come to appreciate comics over the last few years, being the sole thing he will read for pleasure.
But the best thing, the thing that is the most rewarding of all, is that these days, when I go into his classroom, my son says proudly, “That’s my mum, she writes the Billie B Brown books and I help her!” and his friends look at him with the respect of kids who truly love books. And I feel comforted by the thought that one day he might love them, too.
This article appeared in the March 2013 issue of The Victorian Writer