Eleven questions to the professor on the love of reading

Interview with professor Torben Weinreich
Danish children’s literature is known for its richness and diversity. Denmark is probably one of the countries in the world that publishes the largest number of children’s books in relation to the population – 2,000 books per year. 1/3 are Danish, 1,600 are fiction and 400 are non-fiction. So there is plenty to choose between both as regards quality, genre, age and price – one could almost say that there is a book for everyone, fulfilling every need both at school and in children’s leisure time.

Professor Torben Weinreich, Centre for Children’s Literature at the Danish University of Education – what exactly is it that the child may encounter in children’s literature?

-First of all there is the great immediate experience. Those moments have a long-term effect on the child’s future, but is something that we do not have any control over at all. At the same time the children’s book is also a means of developing and achieving many things in society. Behind the children’s books we find a lot of adults who write, publish, mediate and assess them – and work out objects clauses and reading lists in schools which make children read books that they would otherwise not be very interested in. So the books also provide children with experiences and tools that are ruled by the wishes of the adults in relation to the children.

It is important to be aware of this duplicity that the children’s book always exists in two universes – one where the child is mostly in charge and one where other people determine what books children read. And that the two functions may well intersect – organised experiences in a school context may prove to be quite as wonderful for the children as those they get when choosing their own books.

Zest for reading and love of reading, how would you define the two concepts?

- From a philosophical point of view zest comes before love – so there might be a point in stressing the desire – the zest – rather than the love. Because the desire to read must be there – also for those who do not know a love of reading because they do not normally read. So you want to focus on a zest for reading and stimulate children’s interest in books by giving as many as possible access to books – in fact bring the book and the child closer together and hope that this meeting creates a love of reading.

In a more overall societal perspective it is also interesting that society has moved in the direction of focusing more and more on desire and joy. Even in institutional contexts the emphasis is on immediate experience – in the Primary Education Act of 1993 the words love of reading were mentioned for the first time in the objects clause for the subject Danish. It is likewise characteristic for this tendency that via the Ministry of Culture’s special fund and special activities, zest for reading has been placed on the agenda.

And I think it right that the campaign Children and literature to a greater extent focuses on creating the right conditions rather than obtaining results. After all, the problem is not getting enough books produced, but inducing more children to read them. Even in the group of most avid readers – the 9-12 year olds – one in four hardly ever reads in his spare time. And we won’t change that by banging them on their heads with the books and forcing them to read – no, we have to explain to them how they can get hold of more of the kind of stories they like being told by others – introducing the possibilities instead of pushing.

Campaigns by themselves are of course not enough – but the extra money available for supporting existing activities, can help create a forum for the great enthusiast to get heard and meet the children who are entitled to the good story.

Looking at the statistics on children’s leisure-time reading, where do you see the most imperative need for a particular effort being made?

- Boys read less than girls, 75% of all children read in their spare time at the age of 9-12, but when they reach the age of 15-16 the figures are quite the opposite: then only 25% read in their spare time. At school, on the other hand, the 15-16 year olds read much more, but they read what the adults want them to read. And many of the 15-16 year olds explain that they are already reading so much at school, and that their need for stories in their spare 20 SPLQ:1 2004 time is fulfilled through other media that they encounter to a lesser extent at school. And there is naturally also a limit to how many hours they can be poring over their books after many hours at school and three hours of homework.

A very important challenge is trying to hang on to some of those who are actually reading at the age of 9-12, but who later lose interest. Harry Potter is an example of how to maintain the reading interest of this group.

Another central challenge is the boys. Every survey shows that girls and women all over the world read more than boys and men. And perhaps there are some factors in society that emphasise this tendency.When asking the boys what is wrong, one main reason seems to be that there are not enough books with the kind of excitement, horror and splatter, they prefer. The other main reason given is far more controversial – sometimes I am being scolded just for passing on their answer – most of the librarians are women, and although they are very kind and helpful, they don’t always consider the literature the boys ask for suitable. Instead of the requested suspense novels, they might suggest books with emotional conflicts, which the girls are avidly reading, but which do not appeal to the majority of the boys: “It is as if they don’t like the books I want to read – they would rather find some other books for me”, maintain some of the boys.

Many women librarians are aware of the problem, but it is a deep-seated pattern that ought to be changed, and there are not that many suitable books available, because the boys ask for material considered by the library to be inferior literature and which has therefore been given a lower priority.

However, the older classics for boys provide a horror and splatter-free niche for those who are more fascinated by the action as such than by the inner social conflicts which the girls find fascinating. Often it seems to be the boys’ fathers who introduce them to the classics by unearthing favourites from their own childhood.

Do boys simply lack male influence and role models when it comes to reading?

- Yes, both as regards literature and mediation – we can see that the boys are attracted to the media that provide role models – computer games and films.Media which they feel are often regarded as inferior by some librarians.

When approaching puberty one often becomes more sex conscious?

- Yes – we also live in a time that tends to encourage as little as possible difference between the sexes.We almost identify with each other in that sense as well from a very early age, instead of starting out in completely different corners that enable us to develop our own sensual identity before we meet. Perhaps that is why boys have to test their own sex identity through the books they choose to read.

What seems to encourage a love of reading?

- We know that children’s love of reading is encouraged by books in the home and being read to at home as well as being introduced to the library at an early age – in fact to learn that books are exciting already before they go to school – and later to have access to a good library that provides all the material they need. At school, the teachers who are themselves keen readers can pass on their love of reading and their particular enthusiasm They do not only maintain that reading is a good thing, one feels that they like reading and talking about books.

Personal contact then plays an important role?

- Generally speaking it creates a certain trust and inspiration if we feel that people who recommend a book or a restaurant really believe in what they are telling us. Children are also very dependent on guidance from others – and for three out of four children the most important influence when it comes to reading is their friends. Teachers, librarians and other influential groups are much lower down that ladder.

Can we encourage children’s influence on each other – for example by making a special effort in relation to those children who are already very keen readers?

Those children don’t normally need much more that being continually inspired and informed. But we, as adults, must get used to looking at them as role models and making it even more tempting to read – things like book clubs, meetings with authors at the school etc. Because I believe that the way to get those who don’t read to do so, is to focus on those who do – that is to create good role models that can show other children what a delight it can be to read – teaching by example is far more effective than trying to enforce an interest in reading.

How can teachers draw on their experience of children’s reading habits in their efforts to stimulate their pupils’ reading?

- Apart from using the new anthologies and textbooks that may contain texts which children would read anyway by choice, we could also learn something from the way children talk to each other about books – they guide each other into reading a book that they themselves are enjoying at the moment, describing what kind of book it is and comparing it to something they have read before. In fact, a kind of quality and inter-textual criteria based on enthusiasm that can be included to great effect in a professional context.

What seems to be the greatest challenge when adult professionals have to incorporate and adapt research results into their daily work with children?

- Sometimes scholars and practicians like teachers, educators and librarians learn a lot from each other – other times they are heading for conflicts. Scholars feel a great need for confronting their knowledge with the immediate reality. And with the people who live in this reality. I would never do research into the every-day lives of teachers, educators and librarians without mediating my research to them and listen to their reactions. On the other hand it is necessary that the practicians are open to the way researchers look at the situation from outside with fresh insight, instead of getting irritated when some people move in and correct the sound experience they as practicians have been building up over the years.

Campaigns and extra funding for stimulating children’s love of reading – how best to use both?

- Some of the activities being focused on in the campaign Children and literature hit right home. Having more lessons in Danish is not the way forward in my opinion – a much better investment would be to strengthen further training of educators, teachers and librarians which will make it possible for them to learn about the latest knowledge and research – and the tools to put this into practice. An added bonus is that generally speaking this makes people happier in their profession. Researchers might also be invited to be process evaluators. The project På samme hammel is a successful example of this, where researchers in many projects helped school and public libraries in getting the co-operation and development work to function in the most effective way. More professional journals can also be a means to mediate the latest research.

Interviewer: Monica C. Madsen, journalist Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

(First published in Danish in Læsningens magi, 2003) (see details of the reading campaign Children and literature on page 34)

When I was a child…
Professor Torben Weinreich

I was born in 1946 and grew up with a father who was a book fanatic, and a mother who was just the opposite. My father never got an education – he worked as a clerk in the Ministry of Finance until the day he died, but he had a great ambition of being someone in the world of books and made parallel card indexes to The Royal Library’s index on Serbo-Croat literature. And on our bookshelves at home we had long, old index boxes with handwritten information on all the books on Yugoslav history, language etc.

So he gave me this feeling very early on that books are very important and he read all the great boy’s classics to me: Robinson Crusoe, Captain Grant’s children etc. I was an early reader myself and was quite fascinated by what I read – I had a few solitary periods and reading was such a marvellous injection of all kinds of fantasies.

I was also influenced by my father’s card indexes when I reached the age of 11-12 and started reading in a rather absurd way – I thought the most important thing was how much I had read, so I wrote down all the titles I had read in a small book. The more titles the better, so I preferred short books and wondered whether short stories could be counted individually.

At the same time there were loads of books around me – my father took me to the library, and my school had an unusually large library thanks to a very far-sighted school librarian. So I just read and read – often re-reading the book with equally great pleasure.

First and foremost it gave me a wealth of experiences at the time. When talking about children and books today, I think it is important not only to focus on reading always being a means to benefit something else. We must be aware that the greatest benefit is here and now, when the experience happens although it can be stored away and mean a great deal later on.

There is no doubt that it has helped both as a young person and as an adult that throughout my childhood I was building up an extensive literary ‘armour’ and know all types and kinds of stories – having a large repertoire with several hooks on which to hang up new texts has made it much easier for me to absorb complicated texts, discern the connection between them etc. It gives new books a special perspective, because during the reading process one can connect them to other books and other experiences.