If Wishes were Horses by Mem Fox

Keynote for Geelong 2015

We cannot expect the children in our classes to write anything half-decent unless they have something half-decent in heads to draw upon, so this presentation will be a plea to teachers to read to their classes more often. Yet reading to children isn’t all about the benefits it bestows. What else is happening during a read-aloud session? Why should such an activity underpin everything in literacy teaching? All will be explained.

Towards the end of last year my daughter and I lay awake night after night in our respective houses, unable to sleep, as we stressed about what was to come, for different reasons. My husband was sailing through unscathed, but we knew that even he might be concerned when the moment of crisis finally hit. You’ve probably guessed by now that our one and only grandchild, Theo, started school this year. He turned five at the beginning of January. He was born premature and weighed only a kilo. When he was three weeks old I wrote this book for him: read Baby Bedtime.

We’re a family of teachers so we know a bit about education and how children learn. We know this and we know that. Frankly, we know far too much! If we’d been brain surgeons instead, life would have been easier. Which is why my daughter and I couldn’t sleep at the end of last year, because we knew that although so much can go right in a child’s schooling, so much can go wrong also.

There’s an old English proverb that goes like this: ‘If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.’ Allow me to get onto my horse this morning and ride my literacy wishes straight into the local public school that my grandson is attending. It’s a school that claims it values literacy. So, if my wishes come true, this is what I’m expecting to see—and as I’m talking to the converted this morning (it’s always the converted who attend conferences like these!) you’ll probably recognize your own brilliant Geelong schools in my wish list.

My first wish for Theo, for the seven years he’ll spend at this school, is that his teachers will read to him, in every class he’s in. In a school that says it values literacy I expect that the teachers of every class, from the youngest to the most senior, will be reading aloud to their classes regularly. While he’s young, in junior primary, I hope Theo’s teachers will read the same stories repeatedly: from Hairy McLary and I’m a Dirty Dinosaur to The Gruffalo, and Where the Wild Things Are, and back again—and again and again: the same books many times, so the beautiful language he hears—the words and the ways they’re used, stay fixed in his delighted brain and turn up later as sparkles in his writing and speaking. I also hope that his teachers will read him novels that are too difficult for him to read on his own, so his language is stretched and enlivened.

When he’s nine I hope his teacher won’t think: ‘This class is too old to be read to.’ Instead I hope that that teacher will remember how much we all love listening to well-read stories, whether we’re children or adults, and that his teacher will read him ‘Rikki Tikki Tavi’ by Rudyard Kipling, so his heart stops with terror and his mind fills with language that will give him wings. I hope this teacher will make his spirits soar by reading grand stories and great novels to his class, and not the kind of low, toilet-humor crap that boys love and can read easily by themselves.

When Theo is eleven I hope one of his teachers will scare him half to death by reading his class the riveting classic poem: ‘The Highwayman’, by Alfred Noyes. And in the week before he leaves primary school, if no other teacher has done so before, I hope someone else will read him ‘The Tell Tale Heart’ by Edgar Allan Poe, so that in spite of the raging hormones, and the excitement of primary school being almost over and a new world being about to begin, his class will be so silent, so mesmerized and so filled with horror that the principal, passing by, will wonder if they’re still alive and breathing.

There are two main reasons for my wanting Theo’s teachers—all teachers—to read aloud to their classes. The first is for the utter joy of it, which we tend to forget or ignore in our haste to see everything through an education prism. Reading to children isn’t all about the benefits it bestows. It’s about the listeners and their various emotional reactions. It’s about the reasons why authors write in the first place: not to educate, but to put a spell on readers and listeners, to comfort, to challenge, to inform, to delight. It’s a treat, a real treat. I’m reminded of a six year old in America, who had not been read to prior to school but whose teacher read to the class every day. One day, uncharacteristically, he shoved a sharp pencil into another child’s arm and his beloved teacher was rightly furious. She said he needed a punishment severe enough to fit the misdemeanor and asked him to come up with a suggestion of what it might be. By this time the poor child, who adored his teacher, was sobbing.
‘Well,’ he said, ‘you could always stop reading to me.’

Great literature helps children to experience exquisitely expressed feelings that nothing else in a classroom can provide: soaring joy, dreadful sadness, the deep satisfaction of revenge, shocking disappointment, selfless kindness, monumental courage, and so on. The feelings are so felt, as it were, that the stories which provide those feelings draw children into loving stories, loving books, loving poetry, loving language, and loving words. Many children come to school having heard hundreds of literary stories; others come to school having heard none. What unites them in the same class, right to the end of primary school and beyond, the one thing that makes them all equal, no matter what background they come from, is the universal love of a tale well told. Even my university students, aged between 18 and 43, used to sit on the floor in front of me, open mouthed and hushed, when I was reading them a ripping yarn. Age is no barrier to the read-aloud moment. Let me prove that we’re all hooked by first lines, and we all what to know what happens next and how it will all end, by—surprise! surprise!—reading you a story. This is one of mine. [Read The Goblin and the Empty Chair.]

To recap so far: my first wish is for Theo’s teachers to read to him for the sheer joy of the experience. The second reason for that wish is that we cannot expect the children in our classes to write anything half-decent unless they have something half-decent in their heads to draw upon; and words heard stay longer in our memories than words read. So if we are dissatisfied with the guns and shooting and space wars in boys’ writing, and the insipid, colourless writing of girls, then the input has to change. And the change has to be not only increasing the reading aloud, but also taking a closer look at what we’re reading. It’s folly to think that we have to appeal to children’s baser instincts to keep them entertained. The contrary is true: it’s superb writing that holds children’s attention; writing that children cannot yet read themselves; writing that appeals to the best in us; that lifts our students up to dizzy, new heights of language, and greater depths of understanding and empathy.

I’m reminded of one of the most moving author talks I have ever heard, by the Australian author, Ivan Southall back in the late 70’s, long before I was a writer myself. He had two daughters if I remember rightly. The older child was crazy about ballet and the other was, in 1970’s terms, subnormal, and could communicate only in grunts. To give the family respite from the demands of the younger child they shut her in her room for two hours every afternoon and gave her piles of newspaper to rip up: it kept her occupied and relatively quiet.

One day the younger child grabbed a very large and exquisite ballet book belonging to her sister and refused to give it up. Pandemonium reigned as the younger child screamed and the older sister wailed and wept, but with a heavy heart, knowing the book would be ripped to shreds, they allowed the younger child to have it in her room for the two-hour respite period, for the sake of a little peace and quiet.

When they opened the door at the end of the two hours they found the book intact and the child spellbound by the pictures and coloured photographs. To cut a very long story short the younger child also developed a passion for ballet, even though she couldn’t articulate it in words. The family bought her many more ballet books, which she treasured and never ripped. Finally, in some trepidation, they took her to a ballet concert, unable to explain to her what she was about to experience. When the lights went down and the curtains came up and the dancers began to move she threw herself on to her father in ecstasy and grunted and grunted.

The moral of that story, according to Ivan Southall, and now according to me, is that even if the language seems at first difficult, or perhaps too unusual for our children to cope with, fabulous books capture children’s hearts and minds and attention in a way that trashy books can’t and don’t. What we read matters as much as how often we read to the eager faces in front of us. We may think that novels such as Storm Boy, Charlotte’s Web and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory are outdated, just because they’re old, but a classic is a classic, for a reason: it’s a great book and children of today will love it in the same way that children of yesterday loved it.

Years ago one of my ex-students became a principal in his first year of teaching. He’d been a favourite student of mine, I have to admit, because he loved reading and he wrote beautifully. He found himself in the tiny outback railway town of Cook in South Australia, in a one-teacher school of mainly fettlers’ children, 25 of them, aged between 5 and 12. There was a large sign at the station, that’s probably still there, which said: ‘Don’t get crook in Cook’, because there was no medical facility for 500 kilometres. (Cook is a ghost town now, with a population of four.) Every afternoon that year this young teacher read to all his students for the last half hour of the day. And what did he read to these wild, under-privileged, unsophisticated, inarticulate kids? The Hobbit, a few pages a day. And they were enthralled. T.S. Eliot said: ‘Great art communicates before it is understood.’ Weren’t the kids in Cook lucky to have found a teacher who didn’t underestimate the power of great literature to communicate to them, before they could truly understand it? It engaged them and enchanted them because it was great art. The young teacher had no trouble with attendance either, because needless to say he owned the only copy of The Hobbit in Cook, in the days prior to the internet, and if the kids wanted the next instalment they just had to be there.

I can’t emphasize enough the importance of heard words when it comes to being able to write with vigour and lively originality. It won’t surprise you to know that I was read to as a child, and of course one of those stories was ‘The Little Red Hen’, in which this phrase is repeated many times:

‘All right,’ said the little red hen, ‘I’ll do it all by myself. And—she did.’ Thirty years later, when I was looking for an ending to Possum Magic I wrote: ‘From that time onwards, Hush was visible. But once a year, on her birthday, she and Grandma Poss ate a Vegemite sandwich, a piece of pavlova and half a lamington, just to make sure that Hush stayed visible forever. And she did.’

And I would never have written this story [show book] had I not learnt by heart another story to tell at a Story Tellers meeting. First I’ll read my story and then I’ll tell you about the other. [Read Wilfrid.]

There’s a pattern to Wilfrid that’s pretty obvious: he asks five people what a memory is and they tell him what they believe it to be; he goes home and finds five things that fit with his interpretations of what they have said; he gives his five things to Miss Nancy and she comes up with five different memories associated with each object; so her ‘memory’ is found again. It’s the quintessential quest story. When I had finished writing Wilfrid the hairs stood up on my arms. I knew in the marrow of my bones that I’d written a story worth reading. But not long afterwards, a few weeks maybe, I nearly died. I realized that I’d copied the structure from another book called How Six Found Christmas by Trina Schart Hyman. Trina’s book was alive in my brain because I’d learnt it by heart a few months previously: I knew every character, every nuance and cadence, and every twist and turn of the plot. It, too, was a quest story. And it started like this:

Once upon a time there was a little girl who had never heard of Christmas, and therefore did not know what it was. By chance one day she happened to meet a wise old woman who told her there was such a thing. But the wise old woman did not elaborate on the matter so the little girl was left nearly as ignorant as before, yet with a great curiosity.

Being a sensible child, she decided that the best way to find out what a Christmas was would be to go out and look for one. So she set off, as many had done before her, for the great snow forests of the north, to find a Christmas.

You can see already the similarity between this story and Wilfrid. But it gets worse. The little girl meets a cat who says she’s never heard of a Christmas either, and she asks what a Christmas feels like. The little girl says she doesn’t know what a Christmas feels like but if the cat comes along she can feel it for herself, when they find it; similarly, in this exquisitely written tale, a hound dog asks what it smells like; a hawk asks what it looks like; a fox asks what it tastes like; and a mockingbird asks what it sounds like. They go along together into the great snow forests of the north and find a green bottle buried in the snow. Each animal comments on its feel, smell, looks, taste and sound, and they all agree, according to their own definitions, that the green bottle must indeed be a Christmas. It ends like this:

The little girl took up the bottle, brushed the snow from its sides and put it under her coat. Then they all started on the long journey back to her home. When they got there the little girl took the bottle and set it on her table. Then she filled it with branches of red berries and soft green pine. And the evening star shone through the window on to the green bottle. The little girl sat in the warm light with all her friends around her, and lo! It was Christmas.

It’s very plain to see that I leant heavily on the structure and sweetness of this story, and the quest to discover a Christmas. But I think one of the main triggers for my writing of Wilfrid is this: when the hound dog smells the green bottle in the snow he says: ‘It smells of past memories, half-forgotten things, both happy and sad. It must be a Christmas.’ How on earth could I have written Wilfrid, how could I have come up with the idea of a quest for an abstract noun like memory, had I not heard the words, in my own voice as I was learning it, of a story about how six friends found another abstract noun: Christmas? It would have been impossible.

I mentioned earlier that we cannot expect the children in our classes to write anything half-decent unless they have something half-decent in heads to draw upon. The same is true for me, as you see. The same would be true for you or any other writer, in school or outside it.

If Theo becomes an effective, original writer at primary school it will be because my wishes have come true: he will have been read to often, and he will have been read great literature. The words and sentences and structures he will have heard, and the emotions he will have experienced, will be extraordinary enough to have lodged in his brain, to reappear in different ways on the pages he writes, without his noticing where they came from in the first place.

The differences between Wilfrid and How Six Found Christmas are great, in spite of an over-arching similarity, although that sounds like a contradiction in terms. The general reader wouldn’t realize, I don’t think, that one was based subliminally, on the other. It’s not a conscious copying, it’s a subconscious gleaning, from not only one story, but from every story I have ever read or heard.

Nevertheless, I was anxious enough about Wilfrid to send a copy of it to Trina Schart Hyman in America, with a long note written inside the front cover about how I could never have written it without having read and heard her book first. I said I was sorry; I had had no idea of what I doing at the time of writing. She wrote back in spindly, artistic handwriting and said: ‘If I had anything to do with the creation of this marvellous book, I count it a privilege.’ How gracious of her! How very kind.

Early in this speech I mentioned that we should be reading to our classes for the utter joy of it, which we tend to forget or ignore in our haste to see everything through an education prism. So far I‘ve focused mostly on novels but there’s wild, mad joy in poetry too, so long as no one calls it ‘poetry’ and goes all funny about it. We just need to get on and read it aloud without fanfare or introduction. I’m thinking especially of poems that are stories, such as ‘Custard The Dragon’ by Odgen Nash or ‘Disobedience’ by A.A. Milne. The fun is in the crazy use of language, let alone the plot:

James James
Morrison Morrison
Weatherby George Dupree
Took great
Care of his Mother
Though he was only three.
James James
Said to his Mother,
“Mother,” he said, said he;
“You must never go down to the end of the town, if
you don’t go down with me.”

James James
Morrison’s Mother
Put on a golden gown.
James James
Morrison’s Mother
Drove to the end of the town.
James James
Morrison’s Mother
Said to herself, said she:
“I can get right down to the end of the town and be
back in time for tea.”

King John
Put up a notice,

And you know the rest…

And then there’s pride and joy of speaking poetry. I’ll be heartbroken if Theo goes through primary school without ever having had the thrill of chorally speaking a poem to an audience, such as this very simple poem, ‘Sampan’, by Tao Lang Pi, about the sounds a child might hear, drifting off to sleep on a houseboat in China.

Waves lap lap
Chopsticks tap tap
Fish fins clap clap
Brown sails flap flap
Up and down the long green river
Ohé! Ohé! Lanterns quiver!
Willow branches brush the river.
Ohé! Ohé! Lanterns quiver!
Brown sails flap flap
Chopsticks tap tap
Fish fins clap clap
Waves lap lap

I’d love to do this together if we have time. Divide group into four. Two soloists for Ohé, Ohé! One half each, for the four middle lines. JUST DO IT!

I called this presentation: ‘If wishes were horses then beggars would ride.’ I guess my greatest wish of all is that I haven’t given you a boring old sermon this morning, but that I’ve managed to demonstrate in a real way what fun great literature can be, and how useful it can be in our lives and our classrooms, and how cheerful and uplifting it is. If you’d like a job teaching my grandson, please remember what I’d be longing to see: first, lots of reading aloud; second, lots of reading aloud of fabulous classic novels, stories and poems; and finally, in every literacy class, no boredom or drudgery, but a pervading mood of joy and fun and zest, so writers are born before our eyes, and find themselves able to flourish and thrive.

And now it’s time to wish you all the best in your excellent endeavours, tomorrow, next week and for the rest of your lives.
Four, six, eight, ten
That’s all! Amen.