In Girl With Dove: A Life Built By Books, Sally Bayley demonstrates how vital and transformative reading is in helping children understand the often mysterious and sometimes unsettling world around them. In this personal memoir of childhood, reading is shown as not only a means of escape and fuel for the imagination but also a way to make sense of one's immediate environment.
Here, Sally talks to us about who taught her to read, how she adopted Miss Marple, and why reading doesn't need to be a solitary activity.
It was my grandmother who first taught me to read. She taught me after school, in between the washing up and putting on the toast. I brought words home from school and they sprung out of a silver box that had once held sweets. Reading was a sweet treat. Words were something I sucked on, hardboiled and tangy. Words were my sherbet lemons, my rhubarb and custard and chocolate éclairs.
Words take time to dissolve because words all contain small plots. Words come out of particular contexts and circumstances. Where you place certain words changes the meaning of everything, and for a child that can be confusing, even unsettling.
When you first begin reading you need a familiar relationship: characters and plots you recognise and can comfortably navigate. Perhaps the strongest reading paths begin as a form of transference of trust from family members to literary characters: from real life to stories.
Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple was my first literary adoption. I adopted her and I like to think that she adopted me. Miss Marple was a version of my grandmother, and aged eight I adopted her, and she adopted me. We shared a sympathetic relationship: we both wanted to know what was going on in the world around us. We were both curious, or, perhaps downright nosy.
But I needed somewhere special to read. Miss Marple had her own cottage in St. Mary Mead where she looks out through her window upon the world. When you read you peek into other worlds. You carve out new spaces. I grew up in a house with little physical space. Reading gave me more space, an alternative habitat, other worlds. An avid reader is an escape artist; she is looking for ways out of now.
But children need help with reading: firstly a comfortable place. I read on the top of my bunk bed and then outdoors. I had a few special nooks and crannies. Once you have a reading place you have a habit. You can return again and again.
In this day and age children need more help with developing strong reading habits. There are so many distractions. Our capacity for reading -- our reading brain -- has altered because of the internet. ‘I can no longer deep-sea dive’, said one 12-year-old girl reader I knew. ‘I can no longer feel the words surrounding me. I don’t know how to go deep underwater: to swim.’
So we read Jane Eyre together. I showed her several editions, to try, one produced for children and two for adults, all with illustrations. We took turns reading sections together. We discussed the words alongside the drawings. We read parts and took on characters. We turned the book into a play. We became reading companions.
Reading need not be a solitary business. At the point that words enter the brain the experience is solitary and perhaps that is part of its tangible pleasure. None of us quite receives words and images in the same way. We all imagine and differently. But reading can also bring intimacy and connections - trust and friendship - kin. Reading can create new families and relations. When we read alongside others we are bridging the gaps between ourselves and others. We are learning sympathy; to cross an imaginative bridge between one self and another without eliminating the specific differences in our character and circumstances: our separate experiences of living.
Sally Bayley put herself into care aged fourteen and remains the only person to study at university from the West Sussex Care Service. She is currently a Teaching and Research Fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford, and from September 2018 she will be teaching writing in Oxford as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow. She is the author of The Private Life of the Diary as well as books on Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson.