The 1970s and 1980s were a golden age for writing about children and reading (if not for writing for children), and one of the most remarkable pieces of work was How Texts Teach What Readers Learn (1988) by the remarkable Margaret Meek, first published in Signal. ‘A workshop rather than an essay or a lecture,’ How Texts Teach… builds on Frank Smith’s dictum that ‘children learn to read by reading’, most importantly by arguing that we learn to read by becoming involved in what we read. Children have often acquired many ‘reader-like behaviours’ before they come to books, the most important of which are recognising patterns and genres, and understanding that reading is a game with rules. All of this may seem a world away from some of the classroom practices of today: ‘what texts teach is a process of discovery for readers, not a programme of instruction for teachers.’ Meek takes as her examples books that collude with developing readers, mirroring within the texts the child’s own acts of reading – notably Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s The Jolly Postman (1986) an exercise in Intertextuality that depends on the characters in the book reading ‘other people’s letters’.
She cites the frustration that Huck Finn has with Tom Sawyer’s book-based imagination in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn – and best of all, the small William in the late (and often inspired) Jan Mark’s ‘William’s Version’ from Nothing to Be Afraid Of (1980). Reading is (or can be, or could be) an enveloping experience, made all the more seductive by watching a reader in a book struggling with the process. Here is the pre-literate William, teaching his Granny about reading:
‘They didn’t have names,’ said William.
‘Pigs don’t have names’ … William slid off Granny’s lap and went to open the corner cupboard by the fireplace. Old magazines cascaded out… [William] rooted among them until he found a little book covered with brown paper, climbed into the cupboard, opened the book, closed it and climbed out again. ‘They didn’t have names,’ he said.
‘I didn’t know you could read,’ said Granny, properly impressed.
‘C-A-T, wheelbarrow,’ said William.
Granny is, of course, forced to bow to the authority of William’s reading of the book (which turns out to be First Aid for Beginners) – which perhaps demonstrates just how tricky the question of the reader and the book and the reader in the book can be.