Continuing with our interviews for conference month, Celia Anderson interviewed Mairi Kidd, M.D. of Barrington Stoke, an independent publisher that publishes fantastic books for dyslexic and struggling readers.
Hi Mairi - it’s good of you to take time out of your day to answer a few questions for Words & Pictures. As MD of Barrington Stoke, there can’t be many free moments to do interviews!
I’ve been reading the information on your website about your range of books for reluctant readers. How did your involvement in this area of publishing come about?
Barrington Stoke’s founders Patience and Lucy are a mother and daughter-in-law team and Lucy’s husband - Patience’s son – is dyslexic. Lucy worked for Bloomsbury and she became aware that while children’s publishing was in a real golden era, many children weren’t benefitting because their reading fell below the level required to get through Northern Lights or Harry Potter. Together with Patience – who is a dyslexia specialist – Lucy cooked up Barrington Stoke’s unique approach, including our dyslexia-friendly font and tinted paper and our special edit process.
I came to Barrington Stoke via many years of publishing (and producing drama, TV and radio) for children in Scottish Gaelic. In many cases children who are educated through Gaelic are actually second-language speakers and so a huge focus of the work I did was making sure content was accessible to them in language terms. I went hunting for accessible fiction to translate and found Barrington Stoke, although that was many years before I came to work for the company. The needs of Gaelic speaking children – who don’t have a chance to access much text even if they are fluent speakers – and those of the core readership of Barrington Stoke are actually pretty similar. In fact, when I’m working on texts for Barrington Stoke I find it useful to switch off my ‘English brain’ and switch on my ‘Gaelic’ one in order to spot especially complicated syntax or spellings that might trip our readers up.
As a teacher, I’ve come to realise more and more over the years how distressing dyslexia can be for children who are battling to keep up in class. Have you any personal experience of dyslexia, or is it something that you’ve had to find out about along the way?
I’m not dyslexic and neither is anyone in my immediate family but I do know lots of people with dyslexia – children and adults. I’ve learned huge amounts about it during my time at Barrington Stoke. But my own experience in Gaelic is helpful again – I read Gaelic well, relatively speaking, but I wouldn’t reach for a Gaelic book to read for pleasure, and so I do understand what it means to see reading as something other than second nature. I also know Gaelic-speaking adults who cannot read or write the language at all, and so I’ve seen first-hand what that does to a person’s self-confidence.
Has it been easy to find authors to take part in this project?
We’ve been incredibly lucky and a spectacular range of authors have taken part; we’re very grateful for their support and for that of their agents and main publishers. Our aim is ultimately to create a bigger pool of readers across the board and hopefully that’s an easy aim to get behind.
How important is humour in books for reluctant readers?
I don’t really subscribe to the belief that reluctant readers fall into a specific mould and therefore that we can say with confidence what they enjoy or don’t enjoy. Since some studies suggest that as many as one in two children find reading a bit of a chore and since dyslexia is as common as left-handedness and a lot more common than, say, red hair, we really are talking about a huge number of children and therefore a huge range of preferences and interests.
By definition, too, a lot of reluctant readers haven’t read very much at all and so any statement about what they ‘don’t like’ may be made from the opposite of an informed position. That said, it might be easier to ‘sell’ a funny book to a reluctant reader since most people love to laugh and a book that ‘will make you laugh’ sounds like the opposite of a ‘boring book’. One of my own favourite books is 1066 and All That; it makes me cry with laughter even when I’m thoroughly fed up. But I know reluctant readers who love misery memoirs, and military history, and gory crime – there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Thankfully – what a dull world it would be if we all liked the same books.
Do you believe that reluctant boy readers need more male role models for reading/writing, and if so, how could school help with this problem? There are so few men in primary teaching that we struggle to demonstrate that men love literacy too!
Absolutely! I think it's very easy for boys to give up on reading when they perceive it to be a ‘girly’ thing. One thing I know, some schools try is to get local football players or other guys in that boys look up to, to get involved with literacy activities – the Premier League Reading Stars project from the National Literacy Trust is based on this principle. There are also a lot of inspiring male authors available for school visits or who feature in online materials such as The Great Big Book Babble or Scottish Book Trust’s Authors Live.
I think that the messages communicated about reading are really important in an environment in which women dominate. I’m not sure every school values different types of reading equally – short fiction, funny fiction and non-fiction can all be viewed as less ‘worthy’ than fiction.
There are always fabulously inspiring picture books for younger readers on the market, but how important are illustrations in books for older children and reluctant readers?
For struggling readers, pictures can really help with comprehension and with visualisation. For some children, ‘running’ the action in their head as they read is a skill they need help to learn, and illustrations can help with this. But it’s not easy to find an illustration style that suits a book for older readers and doesn’t make it seem ‘babyish’ – and struggling readers in particular are likely to be sensitive to any suggestion that they’re being patronised. I think we’re really lucky at the moment in having some amazing artists producing really sophisticated work in black-and-white line – David Roberts in particular springs to mind – but we could do with lots, lots more.
I know there’s a bit of a movement towards having more illustration in books for older readers – I heard Sally Gardner speak recently about the sorrow she felt as a young person when she realised that the reward for reaching ‘grown-up books’ was the withdrawal of pictures. Hopefully books like her own marvellous Tinder or the gorgeous Jim Kay edition of A Monster Calls are challenging that.
What’s your view on graphic novels and comics as tools for helping reluctant readers to engage with the text?
I’m all for anything that appeals to readers. From a dyslexia viewpoint, it’s worth being aware that graphic novels may present some specific challenges due to their typesetting. Text set in block capitals has less ‘shape’ on the page than text in sentence case and line breaks that leave fewer than seven or eight words per line can interfere with ‘chunking’, and graphic novels often use block type with lots of line breaks. For a seriously struggling reader, it may also be tricky to sequence and to synthesise speech/ thoughts/ narrative and pictures into a coherent whole.
How do you make the style of a book easier for dyslexic children to access?
We tweak the syntax to reflect natural speech patterns and cut back on literary convention. The example I often use is a sentence with a hanging participle, such as ‘Walking into the room, Susan smelt smoke.’ A fluent, confident reader will have no problem with this - he or she will read at speed, recognise the structure and reassemble the jigsaw in the syntax almost immediately to make meaning.
A struggling reader will use much more processing power to read the words themselves – an individual with dyslexia may have less verbal processing power overall in any case – and may struggle to make sense of the two clauses and their relationship to one another. (Who is doing the walking into the room? Ah, it’s Susan, and she’s smelt smoke. Hang on, is she in the room?) If you think about it, you wouldn’t use this pattern in speech – ‘walking to work this morning, I noticed a nice jacket in the charity shop’ just isn’t natural. By tweaking the syntax – e.g. ‘Susan smelt the smoke as soon as she walked into the room’ – we can help readers bring their own knowledge of language to the task of reading, which helps their understanding and also supports them in decoding the words more efficiently as they can predict what’s coming next.
At Barrington Stoke, do you also produce non-fiction books with reluctant readers in mind?
We used to publish a little list of ‘fiction with facts’ – the particular success was Alan Gibbons’s The Number Seven Shirt, about a young footballer who learns to overcome some seriously bad habits after a series of visits from his Man U heroes. We don’t publish any ‘straight’ non-fiction – there’s a huge amount on the market and a tiny house like ours can’t really compete. Plus we’re kept pretty busy with the rest of our list.
Which middle grade books from your own childhood would you recommend for reluctant readers, and why?
I was obsessed with Enid Blyton and agree wholeheartedly with Joanna Lumley who once gave Barrington Stoke a ‘top tip’ for parents that no one should ever be a Blyton snob; hundreds of thousands of children have cracked reading with her books. I loved the Faraway Tree and the Secret Seven, the circus books featuring Lotta and Malory Towers (although secretly I liked Gwendoline much better than Darrell or any of the others, having already learned to read against type). I’ve read some of these again on bedtime reading duty and found them very different indeed but then I think that’s the key to Blyton’s success – somehow she can create magic for children that isn’t necessarily magical to the adult eye. Which, to my mind, is also true of a certain author of wizard stories…
Thank you so much for spending time with us, Mairi. I look forward to meeting you in Winchester and listening to your talk on the above subject.