Literacy levels in the UK are not something to be proud of. We are plummeting down the literacy league table as other nations rapidly overtake us. With this in mind, and Roald Dahl Day approaching on 13 September, Thomas Murphy asks what better way to celebrate the work of this fantastic writer than by enticing our children away from the TV and video games with some really good books?
Yes, the news about our literacy levels is depressing. You can pin the blame wherever you like – declining education standards, changing leisure habits, text speak – we are now in a situation where one in five children who leaves primary school has not reached the standard level in reading and writing. UK school pupils have also slipped from being seventh best in the world at reading to 25th. This can lead to long-term problems. According to Professor Teresa Cremins, an expert from the UK Literacy Association, ‘Teachers don’t always have wide enough knowledge of children’s literature to be in a position to recommend books to them.’
A study by The Institute of Education suggested that children of parents who are heavily involved in their learning from an early age are generally one National Curriculum level ahead at school.
That is why, when Roald Dahl Day appeared on my radar, I was delighted that this fantastic, imaginative and creative children’s author was being honoured so highly. It gives you a chance to get involved, too. Held every year on his birthday, various Dahl-related events are taking place throughout the country. This year the focus is on the mega-funny BFG book. Surely, here is a writer whose work can persuade kids to put down their games consoles or tear themselves away from the latest wacky US cartoon. (My seven-year-old son, for example, is currently fixated by a show featuring badly animated animals wearing underpants who shout very loudly at each other. I am scared. I want him to be a doctor.)
Dahl was the emperor of outlandish and captivating scenarios. He also had one of the most inspired illustrators in Quentin Blake to realise his mad characters. Blake is now drawing the pictures for David Walliams’ books, which have a whiff of Dahl about them, it must be said, and are worth seeking out.
From my memory of reading Roald Dahl when I was a snotty, smelly little boy with blue pen marks on my hands (a pretty permanent fixture, I’m afraid, but one I’d like to see more of on today’s kids), two things were clear: first, how funny he was – burp and fart jokes never grow old (read The BFG for how it’s really done) and second, how dark and mean the situations were that he put his characters in.
The first book of Dahl that really excited me was Charlie And The Chocolate Factory. This is surely the unofficial bible for kids. Moral stories abound and gruesome fates await many of the characters. For those of you who have lived in a nuclear bunker for most of your life and don’t know the joys of this incredible tale, it’s simply a story of a young boy who visits every child’s nirvana: a factory for making sweets. In Dahl’s hands, of course, nothing is that simple, and the children who are invited to tour the factory with Charlie represent the most hideous collection of little brats you will ever have the pleasure of reading about. And as we all know, if there’s one thing children like more than reading about other kids… it’s reading about really naughty kids.
I recently spoke to Kim Osborne from the Roald Dahl Museum in Buckinghamshire. It’s a place of many wonders. Small but perfectly formed, the museum has interactive exhibits and a keen eye for helping boost literacy among schoolchildren. ‘We run a very popular programme tying in with the National Curriculum to encourage reading in a hands-on way,’ says Osborne. ‘Free craft activities are always on offer, while the village trail leads to places featured in Dahl’s books.’
As we all know, looking after our children is a long-term prospect and we are, in effect, helping to shape what they will become – adults who we can be proud of and who are also proud of themselves.