Reviews 2010

Acts of Reading: Teachers, Texts and Childhood

Acts of Reading: Teachers, Texts and Childhood. Morag Styles and Evelyn Arizpe (eds.). Stoke-on-Trent, Sterling: Trentham Books, 2009. v +244 pages. $34.95 (paperback).

This book gathers papers initially given at an international conference in 2007, which originated in the discovery of the so-called “Jane Johnson archive” in Indiana. As indicated by M. Spenser’s initial chapter, this is a collection of 438 items of great textual variety, which Jane Johnson produced for the benefit of her own four children in the 1740s, when she was in the process of teaching them to read. Under the heading “Jane Johnson and her world,” the following three essays in the collection are directly linked to the archive, and make for fascinating reading. Victor Watson ponders on the rationale behind the selection of quotations from the Bible and other texts, copied out by Johnson in her commonplace book, while Evelyn Arizpe and Morag Styles uncover and analyse evidence of the influence of Aesop, Isaac Watts and John Newbery on her selection of reading material. Shirley Brice Heath convincingly demonstrates the modernity of a teaching approach that blends “the verbal, visual and dramatic” (46), and goes so far as to assert that Jane Johnson’s nursery library “reflects theories of learning that came to prominence only in the twentieth century” (57).

The next section, entitled “Reading the Past: Pedagogies, Texts and Teachers,” starts with Judith Graham’s examination of the options taken by various illustrators of Aesop’s Fables in different historical and linguistic contexts. Karliin Navest concentrates on the works of Lady Ellenor Fenn, who under the pseudonym of Mrs Lovechild, or Mrs Teachwell, set out to write books that could be used by mothers to teach their children the rudiments of English grammar, even if they had not been taught it to a great degree of proficiency. The pedagogical concern common to Jane Johnson and Lady Ellenor Fenn is also central to Valerie Coghlan and Geraldine O’Connor’s contribution. This time, however, the potential scope of the innovative teaching aids discussed is much wider, since they consider the ambitions and achievements of the Kildare Place Society, set up in Ireland in 1811 to provide the poor with non-denominational education before universal public education was installed in 1831. The authors stress the society’s specific interest in the publication of educational texts for children, and consider their possible use of the Darton Rudiment Box and rolls: strips of calico wound around wooden rollers at either end, carrying 25 picture sheets and covering all kinds of subjects – Biblical scenes, grammar, arithmetic, history. These were apparently used as teaching aids in infant schools. Francesca Orestano picks up Virginia Woolf’s question “How Should One Read a Book,” and explores the possibility of the child fitting Woolf’s definition of the common reader. Her essay first considers the varied opinions expressed by Mary Woolstonecraft, Catharine Macaulay, Hannah More, and Maria Edgeworth on the rights and wrongs of reading, and their sometimes restrictive definition of what may constitute “good” reading material for young readers, especially girls. Then she analyses the changes that took place towards the end of the nineteenth century, as the “Golden Age” of literature developed and the “joint value of reading and religion” (108) was emphasized by such an influential institution as the Evangelical Tract society.

Orestano’s essay provides an easy transition to the following section. “Reading, Imagination and Childhood” no longer considers the process by which children are taught to read, but rather their status as readers and the types of books they are allowed and encouraged to read. David White’s interesting analysis of William Wordsworth’s “rereading of childhood” (113) insists on the originality of his concept of the child as subject. It finds a stimulating complement in Janet Bottom’s presentation of Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s concerns with the importance of imaginative works such as “fairy tales, myths and legends” for the child’s “emotional, cognitive and moral growth” (129), at a time when “the weight of educational publishing was heavily on the side of the rationalists and the moralists” (133). The essential link of imagination with childhood is also stressed by Peter Cook, from a different angle. Considering the depiction of childhood and the relationship between children and adults in a selection of books by Kenneth Grahame, E. Nesbit and Saki, he argues that all three authors suggest that children are often neglected, despised, or at best treated with indifference by the adults around them. Yet childhood is a very special time, thanks to the central part which imagination plays in it.

Vivienne Smith inaugurates the section dedicated to “Reading Fictions” with an essay on Kevin Crossley-Holland’s trilogy set in the Welsh Marches in the early thirteenth century. Published between 2000 and 2003, it tells the story of Arthur de Caldicott from the age of 13 onwards. By the end of the trilogy, aged 16, he has taken part in the Crusades, been knighted, and returns home. To Smith, Arthur is a very relevant figure to “young readers in the twenty-first century” (157), because his character shows “that it is possible to be a normal literate boy: that boys can and do read and write, and that they do so without compromising their masculinity or becoming misfits” (157-58). She also daringly suggests that the society described by the books as being in a state of flux because of the emergence of new forms of literacy mirrors some of the questions raised by the appearance of new technologies and means of communication in contemporary life. Arthur’s ability to make the best of those uncertain times may point to similarly positive developments, if only today’s older generations are willing to accept change without falling prey to moral panic. Laura Tosi then addresses the ability of traditional narrative forms – in her case, fairy tales – to adapt to changing ideologies, a point she demonstrates by examining alternative twentieth-century versions of well-known tales, written with either children or adults in mind. The section ends with an original contribution by Elizabeth Hammill, the co-founder of the Seven Stories Centre for Children’s Books in Newcastle. She reflects on the challenges posed by exhibitions of pictures that are “changing frames,” as they leave the books in order to be displayed for public viewing, without the narrative context. Her comments suggest new dimensions of the artists’ works thus displayed may then be revealed.

The final part of the book is called “Reading the future.” In “Reading in a digital age,” Anouk Lang explores the use of new technologies as an alternative to traditional classroom discussions of books. Her case study, based on the use of a virtual learning environment platform with undergraduates, leads her to conclude that while the technology may help those less confident students who are unwilling to participate in class, others will resent the somewhat impersonal and delayed interactive experience, and state their preference for face-to-face discussion. Both teachers and students need time and help before they can use such new technologies effectively. In a similar way, the following article by Teresa Cremin, Eve Bearne, Marilyn Mottram and Prue Goodwin emphasizes the challenges posed by the introduction of the National Literacy Strategy in England and Wales in 1988. Their study of a sample of 1,200 primary teachers suggests that “[t]here is room for development in finding ways to extend the scope and range of teachers’ knowledge of children’s literature” (214). Finally, in “And what do you think happened next?,” Eve Bearne tries to assess the way in which the development of multimodal texts and the expansion of digital reading have already started to change the very experience of reading and the critical skills children need to develop.

All in all, this eclectic collection provides all kinds of interesting insights into the multifaceted experience which the act of reading represents for children, and the complex, but rewarding challenges faced by the adults who accompany their progress as increasingly competent, autonomous and appreciative readers.

Rose-May Pham Dinh
Université Paris 13, France