My wife and I have just completed a monumental achievement! We read the seven volumes of Harry Potter to our three youngest children: 10 year-old twin boys and their brother, aged 8. This means we read about 1.2 million words, although I must admit I skipped a couple of hundred (JK Rowling uses so many adverbs...!)
My wife is strongly of the opinion that JK Rowling needed a more assertive editor. She has a point when it comes to adverbs, but our boys would not agree. I have never known a book or series to grip them more intensely. With Harry Potter, JK Rowling has given parents one of the most powerful tools we have ever owned. We could get our kids to tidy their rooms, clean their teeth, pick up the dog poo in the backyard and – stand by to be totally amazed! –get themselves to bed on time, with the simple incantation "... or there'll be no Harry Potter".
We found this to be more effective than Incendio, Lumos, Petronus, Stupefy or any other spells that Harry and his compatriots learn at Hogwarts.
So good on JK Rowling, and while I'm on the subject, good on Paul Jennings, Morris Gleitzman, Andy Griffiths, the late Roald Dahl, and Dav Pilkey (creator of Captain Underpants). These half a dozen writers have done more than anyone else on the planet to get 21st century children reading. We should strike medals for all of them.
Their achievement is remarkable when you consider the strength of the competition. Movies, TV, computer games, iPads, iPods, mobile phones, Xboxes, Wiis, Nintendos... and then there's swimming, surfing, cricket, football, basketball, netball, tennis...and after-school martial art classes, dance lessons, gymnastics, Scouts, Guides...as well as homework, visits to Nanna, classmates' birthday parties, family reunions, festivals and celebrations...
Modern children need their mobile phones if only for the electronic diary functions. Keeping track of their busy lives is a challenge for even the most able and sophisticated.
So does reading books matter any more? Do we have time for it? Where should we rank it on our list of priorities for children?
As an author and English teacher, and someone who has just read my fair share of the Harry Potter series to our children, you may be surprised by my answer.
I think literacy matters enormously. There is almost no skill more important. To the literate person, zillions of doors are open. To the illiterate person, zillions of doors are firmly closed.
But that doesn't mean everybody should read books. Of course there are wonderful advantages to reading books. Reading fiction helps develop empathy, helps develop the imagination, gives a "feel" for language, provides an escape from the rigours of everyday life. Reading non-fiction helps develop knowledge and skills. Reading books of any kind helps children acquire literacy.
But there are wonderful advantages to surfing as well. Fitness, balance, strength, co-ordination, and the ecstasy of engaging at close quarters with the wild, unpredictable, uncontrollable ocean. There are wonderful advantages to playing computer games, cooking, gardening, making jewellery, trampolining...who is to say that one activity is superior to another?
If kids are literate, but don't like reading, then fine. As long as they are engaged in one or more stimulating activities, as long as they don't spend their time slumped on a sofa watching TV and eating chips, as long as they are expressing themselves creatively, then we needn't be too worried about them.
In other words, if they can read, but choose not to, I'm okay with that.
I think it's important though to recognise that there are degrees of literacy. Educators use the term functional literacy, which is a reading age of 10.0, and which supposedly enables people to cope in our society. It means that they can read directions, street signs, letters from the bank, tabloid newspapers, the four Gospels... but not Jeremiah 37:3.
What educators never talk about is the highest level of literacy, which I call Poetic Literacy. Sometimes teachers, and parents, are so busy teaching children the rules of grammar, spelling, punctuation and syntax that we forget why we are teaching them. We teach the rules so that children are empowered and enabled to break them! It's like Charlie Parker said of jazz: "You learn the notes and the chords and the scales, and you practise and practise them, and then you throw that crap away and just play."
We teach children the rules of language so that they can use language as it is meant to be used: creatively, flexibly, eloquently, powerfully. (I don't think even JK Rowling ever used four adverbs in a row!) We want them to reach a level of language sophistication such that they can write sentences like "Terribly black, terribly scaly, terribly knobbly, terribly horned, terribly hairy, terribly clawed, terribly fanged, with vast indescribably terrible eyes, each one as big as Switzerland." (Ted Hughes, describing a dragon.) "Off the main road and far from money, the chop and scrape and chomp of natural life continued." (Melissa Fay Greene, describing a small southern USA town in her book Praying for Sheetrock.) "The heaventree of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit." (James Joyce in Ulysses). "I am a Yop, all I like to do is hop from finger top to finger top." (Dr Seuss).
Or, to go to The Man himself:
"Thus conscience does make cowards of us all;
And thus the native hue of resolution
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought,
And enterprises of great pith and moment
With this regard their currents turn awry,
And lose the name of action..."
One of the great advantages of reading books is that we are exposed to words and sentences which come from places exotic, even alien sometimes. We can step outside the ghettos of our own language. This helps us develop an instinct for language's infinite possibilities.
So, for the joy of hearing language musically expressed, for the rich satisfaction of being able to distil complex thoughts and ideas into intelligible words, for the ability to argue a case, express a feeling, state an opinion, or convey a sense of ourselves to others... poetic literacy should be our goal for all!