Learning to read

Martin Waddell and Jenny Stoker

Photo: James Royall

Wednesday 19th March, 2008 | Posted by Caroline Graty

‘Every “quack” is different,’ said Martin Waddell. Enchanted by his readings at our latest Connecting Conversations event, I had bought one of his books, Farmer Duck, for my small nephew. Waddell had kindly agreed to sign it, and was now giving me an animated tutorial in reading aloud. He demonstrated a tired quack, a sad quack, a drenched-by-the-rain quack. And he was right. They were all different.

Waddell gave me this masterclass not because he wants me to get his book right, but because he wants me - and my nephew - to get the most out of story time. For a child, he says, ‘the importance of that experience is not my book, it’s the person reading it, the relationship that grows.’ Sharing a book develops the bond between adult and child and helps children learn the boundaries between the real and imagined worlds. It also allows children to explore their feelings and fears safely through an owl’s or bear’s or duck’s experiences.

Psychoanalyst Jenny Stoker noted how his stories were spot-on in terms of child development and psychoanalytic theories, as though he’d read the text books – Freud, Winnicott, Anna Freud and so on. ‘I had three wee text books,’ said Waddell, ‘my children’. His understanding of them is evident in the universal themes within his picture books; fear of losing mummy (Owl Babies), the feeling that ‘it’s not fair’ (Farmer Duck) and being afraid of the dark (Can’t You Sleep Little Bear?).

But Waddell is also keen to ensure his books are fun. However well-designed, educational or worthy, ‘if the child isn’t taken with it, it won’t work,’ he says. The best books are not necessarily the most beautiful, they’re more likely to be ‘the dog-eared copy the child comes with again and again.’ I’m sure there are millions of dog-eared Waddell books in children’s bedrooms across the land, and that my nephew’s copy of Farmer Duck won’t be pristine for long.

You can listen to the whole discussion on the events page shortly. We’ve got more children’s books events coming up, and some of the authors are featured in this Guardian article. Tickets are selling fast so book your place soon.

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