But No Elephants: reading targets versus reading pleasures

Category: Bookbug

A colleague sent me an email asking if we could squeeze one more delegate into an already full training day. I sent back: “Sure, but no elephants”. Unsurprisingly, the response I received back said “?”.

Let me explain. But No Elephants is a book I remember reading as a child. Grandmother Tildy keeps buying more pets—on the condition of no elephants. She doesn’t have the space for any of them, but she’s kind and the animals need a home. Of course, there is an elephant in desperate need of a home. And even though she holds her ground throughout the book, she eventually (as you would expect from a children’s book) agrees to accept the elephant into her home. And of course, it saves the family.  Moral of the story – there’s always room for one more.

But No Elephants is a book that has been out of print for probably close to 30 years. It’s not a book you’ll find on the common lists of books every child should read. As far as I know, it was never massively successful. But to my 4 year old self, that book mattered. I loved reading it daily with my parents and eventually on my own. Although my recollection of the book is quite vague, there is still something about it that over 25 years later the phrase “but no elephants” jumps into my head unexpectedly.

Michael Gove, Education Secretary, thinks children should be reading 50 books a year.  But let me pose the obvious question: will reading books in mass quantities cultivate a love of reading within our children? To enjoy books as they are meant to be enjoyed and to savour the words and understand the characters? Or will reading simply become a numbered target - a race to complete the task and move on to the next one?

Reading to our children in the early years is what will inspire them to want to read 50 books a year. They will likely accomplish this unknowingly, continually moving on to the next book for even more enjoyment.

What we read as children stays with us long into our adult lives. I hadn’t thought about the book But No Elephants in a very long time. Yet somewhere in the wiring of my brain, there was a connection that remembered that book fondly. That book set up house in my head and my heart. A love of reading starts when we love what we’re reading. It might not be the most acclaimed book, but if it is a book the child (and the parent that shares it with them) loves, then it is a book that will inspire children. The day I read the Gove statement, I felt it was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

"A ‘so what’ book is not a terrific book for kids. It will put them off books and reading altogether, which is the last thing we want to do. A terrific book matters to us as human beings. It’s not terrific for adults or children if it leaves readers unmoved. It is terrific it we have to shift around the furniture in our heads as we’ve listened, if it has affected us profoundly, one way or another – to laugher or tears, horror or delight, disgust or dismay, fascination or fright. If a book makes children laugh, cry, squeal, shiver or wriggle and jiggle in some way, it takes up residence in their hearts and stays there." - Mem Fox, Reading Magic: Why reading aloud to our children will change their lives forever (ISBN 978015603510)