On the third Wednesday evening of every month, I get ready for an exciting date... with the Blabbering Bookworms. It’s a name a bright bunch of 10- to 13-year-old reading club members have given themselves. With the sparkle and savage candour typical of their age, they freely air their take on the same book each has read before coming to the club.
On the last Saturday of the month, we (booklover and counsellor Rupal Patel hosts the sessions with me) welcome another group of juniors shuffling in. While we’re delighted our interface leaves them a little more in love with the magic of reading, what we learn leaves us truly gobsmacked.
The big take-home lesson from reading club is that children are craving to talk to anyone who cares to listen. They’re happy to discuss an engrossing plot, favourite characters et al. But hunger - some desperately, some shyly - to dig deeper. The slant shifts from the story of the books to the story of their lives faster than you can say ‘read me’.
So we read them. Just hear them. Sans judgement and falling for no facade, because smart and lively often hides scared and lonely. A Jacqueline Wilson title on the joy of having best buddies proved only ostensibly about friendship. Instead it quickly burst open the lid of a tightly-packed Pandora’s box. Out they flew — horrific complaints about peer pressure, ragging cliques, school gang rivalry, untold bullying and seething frustration over might-is-right tactics. Girls and boys equally aggressive, they were high-strung, tense, troubled beyond belief.
The book balm soothes, strengthens, like a mental health tonic that nourishes and nurtures. Even disturbing books make young readers think extraordinarily. And guided discussions of stressful themes boosts I’m-not-alone hope. Words heal as well as hurt, bringing remarkable gifts. They cue courage, strength, the potential for peace in a bewildering world which exposes kids to casual cruelty as never before.
An edgy classic, underrated today, can still throw unexpected lifelines. Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde sparks many a debate that accepts the dark side of personality. The result is upped emotional intelligence. Children emerge better informed than adults dismissing certain books as “monstrous”. An irate father actually advised, “Why don’t you stick to good, safe books like Heidi.”
Because life isn’t always good and safe, we missed crying out loud. There was hysteria among indignant parents and, sadly, teachers too, in response to a book about a gritty if vulnerable single mother struggling to cope with bringing up her daughters. We had anyway zeroed in on this title with reason. Several of the kids had already read it and begged for a repeat read together. They should certainly benefit from a mature viewpoint rather than grapple with unusual themes alone. Bringing in a child psychologist to chat with them proved wise. That day marked one of our most mutually enriching discussions.
Look around. Conventional relationships are harder and fragmented families easier to spot. The tangles are sensitively distilled in outstanding works of fiction for children. A security zone created between their pages lets kids explore feelings of anger and settles bubbling confusion through all the problems “other people” battle. From inner to global spaces - even the complexities of historic events as momentous as World War II are brilliantly grasped through gems like Michael Morpurgo’s The Mozart Question and John Boyne’s The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.
A book is somehow sacred, said John Steinbeck, among the writer heroes of my own growing up years. With whom I fully agreed. Then I knew it was books that completed me. Now I know few things fire me the way this does: a chance to share the power and passion of the printed word with pre-adolescents. In the communicated beauty of language lies their triumph and therapy.
Meher Marfatia loves children, books and connecting the two