Reading a predictor of success in life
When English children's author Liz Pichon visits schools she dresses to theme, with hand-drawn doodles in the style of her bestselling Tom Gates books all over her clothing and fingernails.
She also wears homemade Tom Gates accessories: earrings in the shape of caramel wafers, his favourite treat, and shoes covered in painstakingly drawn stars, guitars, monsters and cheeky faces.
So when she walks into a classroom she is the embodiment of her work, which is clever branding, but more importantly, it's good fun.
Pichon, who is attending this year's Auckland Writers Festival, has spent her career illustrating children's books, but it was creating and illustrating the Tom Gates series, about a cheerful, well-meaning boy who gets himself into amusing scrapes, that has catapaulted her to stardom.
Reading as agent of social change
She puts that down to the accessibility of her books, which appeal to nine to 12-year-olds — boys especially. They are a tricky group to engage in reading, and there is much hand-wringing internationally about reaching them.
That's because reading is a predictor of later success in life. Children who take up reading for pleasure and stick with it are more likely to flourish in higher education and the workplace.
In fact, reading is this "nearly magical thing that can bust you out of poverty", says Miranda McKearney, co-founder of the Reading Agency, a British charity which aims to get more people reading more often.
The New Zealand Book Council and National Library brought McKearney to New Zealand this month to speak with librarians, educators, writers and other stakeholders about how to get children excited about reading.
The 'why' is not in question. In 2002 the OECD reported a correlation between reading and achievement, and suggested that engaging children in reading might be "one of the most effective ways to leverage social change".
More recently Oxford University researchers found that of all the extracurricular activities 16-year-olds did, the only one that made a difference in workplace success was reading for pleasure.
"Reading seems to have an extraordinary effect on all sorts of other things as well," says McKearney.
"It's so powerful for [children and young people's] cognitive development that it impacts their performances in maths as well as literacy and it is more important to academic performance than their parents' socioeconomic backgrounds. If you can be encouraged to love reading, all evidence suggests that's kind of a ticket out of a bad start.
Tempting reluctant readers to pick up books
"But it's almost easier to talk about what it looks like when you can't read," says McKearney. "[They tend to be] low income households, more likely to smoke, just have poorer life chances, and that comes to a pivot in the prison population."
So how do you tempt a reluctant reader to pick up a book? Pichon says she deliberately brought lots of picture-book elements to the Tom Gates series, such as "different fonts and drawings like doodles, so when children pick up the books they are in the story really quickly. I am absolutely delighted that the series has become a gateway to reading."
She finds that parents worry about their children reading books that do not appear sufficiently bookish, because they are comic books or contain "too many" pictures, and aren't seen as "enriching enough".
"Does it matter, as long as they are reading and enjoying it?" asks Pichon, who has raised three children. "If you can get them reading, they are going to want to read other books, but if children keep getting forced to read books that don't interest them, bang, the shutters go down. Why would you bother?"
McKearney says she was an avid reader of Princess magazine — "and Princess magazine was crap but I was totally hooked" — but that she eventually moved on to higher quality offerings.
"All the practice shows, and it's my view, that it's absolutely critical to validate anything they're reading.
"There's evidence that boys are often turned off reading because they are surrounded by women in school, and their mums are the ones that are pushing reading at them and often they like reading joke books or train books, not stories, and if the grownups around them make them feel like maybe that doesn't count, they start to think maybe they aren't really a reader."
Helping kids expand their reading range
McKearney acknowledges that eventually it is important to help young readers move on to more challenging fare, and says it takes a caring adult such as a parent, teacher or librarian to do that.
For her own son, that was a matter of finding audiobooks with a story that appealed to his intellect, which outstripped his reading ability.
"There was no way he could have read [YA fantasy novel] Northern Lights by Philip Pullman, but he just gobbled up the story and that was what he needed to move on [to more challenging books]."
While there is a tendency to leave reading instruction in the expert hands of teachers, Bob Docherty, a children's literature expert based in Christchurch, says there are simple things parents can do to encourage their children to read more.
Leading by example is right up there. If you are not a reader and do not make a range of books available in the home, your children are unlikely to take it up as a leisure activity.
Docherty suggests you can read to your children until they are in Year 7 or 8 — well beyond the point when most parents stop — as "everybody loves to hear a story read aloud, not just young children".
He also advises making time to talk to children about books. "Enthusiasm counts for a lot. If the children see you are enthusiastic, then they will become enthusiastic too."
Stroylines, a trust which promotes local kids' literature, runs an annual festival in August, bringing families into libraries and art centres in Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin. If you can't get to one of their events, most local libraries run popular story-telling mornings and school holiday programmes.
Digital technology is not the enemy
McKearney is positive about digital technology as a tool for getting children enthused about reading, with classroom teachers running online polls about favourite story characters and encouraging children to add digital sticky notes to digital books.
"We'd be mad to treat digital as the enemy, because that's what children do," she says.
"There's some evidence to suggest that digital engagement is changing the way our brains work. If you're over 35 you read a newspaper in a linear fashion, headline first, and if you're under 35 you will look for boxes, and take in a story in a different way."
Another powerful tool is authors themselves, as ambassadors for reading. In Britain, there has been an explosion of interest in children's authors as "characters" in their own right, says McKearney, with visible examples like David Walliams and Michael Rosen leading the way.
They have a lively social media presence, they appear on television and at festivals, and each new book release is treated as an event.
JK Rowling is a celebrity children's writer who does not do much publicity but whose every move is breathlessly reported nonetheless.
"They are making reading very current," says McKearney.
When Pichon goes into classrooms, she not only wears her Tom Gates gear, she teaches children how to draw their own Tom Gates doodles, which appear complicated but are really just layers and layers of simple parts.
"It feels like even if you're not brilliant at drawing, you can make something that looks really effective," she says.
"They have claimed it as their own now, and I have kids showing me all sorts of things that they have doodled on. I love that."
Gateway children's authors
Some children need an extra push into the world of reading. These authors are particularly good at drawing them in, with a combination of humour, pacy story-telling and great illustrations.
For more book recommendations, try Storylines, a trust set up to promote literature for children and young people, storylines.org.nz.
The English comedian burst onto the kids lit scene eight years ago and has made a big impact with his funny, madcap books which draw on the Roald Dahl tradition.
The mischievous, well-meaning Tom Gates, star of 10 charming books, is a lively companion for young readers, especially boys.
With illustrator Terry Denton, he created the beloved Treehouse books, about two friends and their constantly expanding, wackadoo treehouse. Shark tanks and lolly rooms included.
The Italian writer created the massive (and ever-expanding) series of Geronimo Stilton books, about a newspaper editor mouse who travels the world solving mysteries.
The classic, wonderful comic Kiwi writer wrote linguistically rich books launched tens of thousands of eager readers worldwide.
Not to every adult's taste, but children LOVE the Captain Underpants series as much as they love cake and trampolines.
The Wimpy Kid series draws readers in with its chatty, diary style and less-than-cool protagonist.
* Liz Pichon appears at the Auckland Writers Festival, May 14, at the ASB Theatre.