After far too long a gap I’ve finally got back to Nick Hornby’s collected articles for the Believer, published as The Polysyllabic Spree. Over lunch today I read the entry for November 2003, the one which begins
Unfinished, abandoned, abandoned, unfinished
providing a neat summary of his reading experience for that particular month.
Now, I am of the generation that was forced at school to finish any and every book that I was given regardless of whether I was enjoying it or thought it worthwhile expending time and energy on. The phrase from Mastermind, “I’ve begun, so I’ll finish”, could well have been adapted from the first law of reading in those days, namely, “you’ve begun and you will finish”.
By the time I’d started teaching myself I’d developed a rather different approach. The children were allowed to abandon a book if they could tell me why they thought it wasn’t worth their while to continue with it. However, a simple “it’s boring” would not suffice. Oh no, they had to give me chapter and verse as to why it was boring.
If you’re going to ask children to become reasoned critics of what they’re reading in this way then of course you also need to give them a framework by means of which to judge the books that they encounter. I used to use the method outlined in Aidan Chambers’ book Tell Me and I wondered if anyone else had come across this as it is not a bad methodology for anyone wanting to analyse, either for themselves or for a wider readership, why they feel the way they do about a particular novel.
The first rule is that you never use the word “Why”. Instead you preface your inquiry with the phrase, ‘Tell me”. So, the four basic prompts are
Tell me about something you liked.
Tell me about something you didn’t like.
Tell me about any patterns you noticed.
Tell me about something that puzzled you.
I promise you, that with just those four simple requests you can get a class discussion going about a book that will last for a good hour or more especially when you start to explore the reason behind any noticeable patterns and dig into those knotty puzzling passages.
Chambers doesn’t stop with simply basic questions but goes on to provide two further sets, one which can be applied to any book and another from which you select according to the book you’re reading. These allow you to begin to explore specific literary features such as character development and the use of particular language styles. There is also one which opens up the discussion to matters of empathy, encouraging the children to make comparison between what has happened in the book and events in their own lives. As a teacher you have to be very careful which books and which children you pursue that particular area with. Even the most innocuous seeming tale may prompt memories that a child may not want or should not be encouraged to share with a group of classmates. I mainly kept that question to those occasions when I was using this technique on a one to one basis.
It is sometime now since I was teaching using this method but the basic principles have remained with me and when I’m considering a book, especially if it’s one I’m going to discuss in a reading group, I still go back to Chambers’ work and use it as a basis for organising the comments I want to make. And so, when I read of Hornby having a month in which he abandons one book after another my first instinct is to say to him “Tell me about it. Tell, me about what you liked and what you didn’t like, what patterns you saw and what puzzled you.” And if I get a satisfactory answer, then maybe I’ll take pity on him, let him put those books to one side and go and choose another one.