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Frank Cottrell-Boyce – reading aloud

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Frank Cottrell Boyce discusses the importance of reading aloud to children with Nikki Gamble.

Interview transcript

Nikki Gamble: (00:00)
So this afternoon, I’m thrilled to have Frank Cottrell-Boyce in the reading corner, and we’re going to be exploring the importance of reading aloud to children. I know, Frank, that you greatly advocate reading aloud. I’ve heard you speak very passionately about this before. What is it that’s so important about reading aloud to children?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (00:23)
Oh, so many things. . I think the first thing is that it’s a deep pleasure to be read aloud to, and I think it’s very important to associate reading with pleasure. I come across lots of children whose first experience of books and, in fact, of stories is being told to sit still and being asked to decode text. Whereas if you are read to, and that’s your first experience of stories, Then any time you read a book, whether it’s the Haynes Manual for fixing your Austin Allegro or whatever, it will take you back to being cuddled up on the couch.

Nikki Gamble: (00:57)
Do you think that part of the pleasure you talk about is that it is an act of love as well?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (01:03)
Absolutely. Whether that’s from a parent or a carer or a sibling, but also the teachers who read to us at the end of lessons as a treat, that is an act of generosity. So it’s just a good thing. It’s like baking; it’s a sharing thing, isn’t it?

Nikki Gamble: (01:19)
That’s right. I think you give something of yourself in reading aloud to children.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (01:26)

Nikki Gamble: (01:26)
Do you have any re recollections yourself of being read to when you were younger?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (01:31)
Yeah, of course. I remember. so many different instances. The first thing to say is that they’re incredibly vivid memories. And I think if memories are that vivid, you’re getting something from them that you can’t quantify, but you know; it’s something anchoring and very important. I remember going on holiday to a little cottage in Wales where it rained every day, and my dad read us the Roger Lancelyn Green Tale of Troy, which just happened to be in the cottage. I got a copy when I got home and still have that one. And that was amazing. But also more public things. , I remember we would all sit on little carpets in our classroom, and the teacher would read to us at the end of the day as a treat. And that was always fantastic because it felt non-transactional; you weren’t being asked to give anything back. You were just being given this thing. Jackanory was very, very important to me. Hugely important. And loads of stories that I read now, I can only read in the voice that I remember from Jackanory.

Nikki Gamble: (02:42)
Can you remember any particular readers? Bernard Cribbins has just popped into my mind, as you said, ‘Jackanory’.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (02:49)
I think he is the most frequent Jackanory reader. And I think part of the reason that he commands such an enormous amount of affection is that for anyone who’s old enough to remember that, it’s a big deal. Kenneth Williams was astounding. Judy Dench read A Dog So Small, which was really intimate. And John Grant, wrote Little Nose The Hunter; I can’t read Little Nose the Hunter without hearing his voice. I think that tells you something – that voices are very important to us. It seems extraordinary to me that when we hear a human voice, we recognize it, even if it’s someone not remotely meaningful to us. We recognize voices as much as we recognize faces.

Nikki Gamble: (03:31)
It is like a fingerprint, isn’t it? You don’t need to see somebody’s face to know who’s talking to you. And I think the other thing that strikes me just listening to you talk is that through hearing somebody read, you are developing an ear for reading, so that when you look at the words on the page, you hear them, you don’t just see them.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (03:54)
I think a lot of the way we are taught to read, which is obviously very important, is about decoding, you know, flat meaning. But by listening to somebody read, you learn that words are alive and can move and hurt you. And I think all those lessons are, are very important. And they can only be taught obliquely. They can only be taught by someone at the front of the class reading.

Nikki Gamble: (04:21)
II sounds so simple, and yet what we are saying here is that it’s really quite profound as well,

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (04:30)
Absolutely. I mean, this is something that goes back, doesn’t it? This goes back to sitting in the cave around the fire, listening to someone tell a tale. And that’s part of the great chain of being. And if you break a link in that, you break something crucial,

Nikki Gamble: (04:43)
But not all books read aloud. What are the qualities of a book that reads aloud well?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (04:56)
A lot of children’s books, in particular, are written in a voice, so that makes it easier. I always think about Just William, which is obviously not in William’s voice, but what makes Just William a thrill to read is this huge tension between the narrative voice, which is actually quite lofty, and William’s concerns, which are basically ‘gobstoppers‘. I think with children’s books in particular, there’s often a voice that allows you to read out loud.

Nikki Gamble: (05:26)
That’s interesting. I often share with student teachers a couple of extracts from Beatrix Potter. I use the original Beatrix Potter and then another version of Peter Rabbit that has been simplified. And then, I ask the students what the difference is and which they think would be easier to read. And although the words are easier in the simplified version, there’s no voice guiding them through like in the Beatrix Potter original.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (05:53)
And there’s the point a cadence gives you meaning, doesn’t it? And awakens pleasure. And I think the other thing that’s really, really important for life is that you don’t have to understand everything to love it and to derive pleasure from it. This is a lesson that everybody knows about pop music, but nobody seems to grasp about poetry or prose. Everybody knows that you can love a pop song without having the slightest clue what it’s about. Some of my favourite Bowie songs are just teetering along the edge of nonsense. But I think that’s also true of Shakespeare, you don’t need to know what it means to know that it’s absolutely amazing; only a voice can bring that home to you, I think.

Nikki Gamble: (06:37)
So you think that this is partly a connection with music and rhythm? And heartbeat and all of those things.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (06:45)
I cannot recite ‘Fern Hill’ by Dylan Thomas without crying because it speaks to me on such a profound level. And if you said to me, what does that poem mean? It would just be, isn’t it dead sad that you have to grow up? That’s it.

Nikki Gamble: (06:59)
I know that you obviously read to your own children as well. What have they particularly enjoyed at different ages as they’ve been growing up?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (07:08)
Well, we’ve got quite a range of children in the house, so we’re always looking for something that would hover in between. I particularly remember reading to the older ones; we read the whole of Lord of the Rings. And you were saying that some books that don’t lend themselves to be read aloud. Lord of the Rings doesn’t lend itself to being read aloud. But then I discovered that if you read the first sentence of any paragraph and the last sentence of any paragraph, you’re basically not going to miss anything. Even if that paragraph is a page and a half

Nikki Gamble: (07:39)
Really? There’s a lot, a lot of description and word world-building.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (07:47)
Which all becomes props and design in the movies, doesn’t it? But that was joyous because it went on for ages, and we were kind of lost in a little land together for probably six weeks or something.

Nikki Gamble: (08:00)
Oh, you did well. My dad read that aloud to me when I was 11. It took him a lot longer than six weeks

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (08:07)
Probably he read all the words!

Nikki Gamble: (08:09)
Not just the opening and closing sentences! But I did have a similar experience when The Hobbit was dramatized on the radio. It was read by Paul Daneman. We used to pull up in the car and listen to it on the radio on a Sunday night, no matter where we were. And there’d be rain beating on the windscreen, and we’d be huddled up in the car listening to The Hobbit. It was amazing.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (08:37)
Well, I mean, last time we were in Ireland, when it just rained every day, we were driving around seeing cousins we listened to Vanity Fair – absolutely mindblowing. It was just brilliant.

Nikki Gamble: (08:47)
Tell me about your own books and how important that feeling for the read-aloud has been to you and your writing process.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (08:58)
Well, that was a revelation to me because the first book I wrote as a novelist. I was eally enjoying writing words down that people were going to read off a page as opposed to what I’d done before, which as a screenwriter where quite a lot of the word count is very instructional. So I was letting fly and really enjoying it. And of course, as soon as your book comes out, you, if you are a children’s writer, you are going to end up reading it aloud to big crowds of kids, a lot of whom have no idea what they’re doing there or what you are doing there. So reading aloud for me since then has been as much a discipline as anything else. I write a page, and I think I would want to read this out. If a kid said, can you read page 73? Would I be comfortable reading page 73? So it’s become a kind of quality control for me.

Nikki Gamble: (09:56)
I wonder if that’s a really good moment to ask you whether you would read from your forthcoming novel.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (10:03)
So this is a story called Runaway Robots. In the bit that I’m about to read, the hero, Alfie is in an airport where, where he plays truant from school. But instead of playing truant around the back of a bus stop, he takes himself off to the Airport’s Arrivals section, which is more comfortable and has lots of chairs and distractions. But he’s lost something in the airport and has gone to lost property to look for it. You’ve got to imagine it slightly in the future. Lost property is very high-tech. There are robots, and they’re walking through this vast cavernous place of lost property where he is seeing all the amazing things that people have lost, like false teeth and coffins and a huge helmet that he’s just walked past.

“There was a hand on the shelf three times the size of a human hand. It had long pointy fingers made of jointed steel. And when I tried to pick it up, it was so heavy I could barely lift it, let alone carry it. So I had to rest it on my shoulder like a soldier carrying a rifle and follow her. That’s the woman who helps back the way we came. I had to rush to catch up with her, or would’ve been locked in there forever. Lost as a long-lost coffin. We passed that helmet thing again; it looked at me again, only this time. It definitely was not a trick of the light. Its eyes flickered blue. I tried to hurry past it, ‘happy to help’, was way ahead of me now. The light followed her. I could see a cone of light ahead where everything around me was in darkness.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (11:37)
Then out of that darkness, something grabbed me. I didn’t want to look, but I had to – a metal hand. But this was on the end of a metal arm and the metal arm was attached to the shoulder of a massive metal body, and the massive metal body was lying flat on the shelf. At one end of the metal body was that helmet with the flickering blue eyes, armadillo-like plated steel fingers curled around my flesh. The hand moved my hand up and down. I was almost rigid with fear. Then something flashed across my brain. Are you shaking hands with me? I’m delighted to meet you. I’m used to that voice now, but the first time you hear it, it’s a bit of a shock. It’s a voice that could stop traffic. I wish you could hear it. A mixture of wind and steel-like bagpipes playing inside a washing machine.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (12:23)
Is this your hand? I asked, turning around so it could see the hand hanging over my shoulder. I can answer almost any question. Is this your hand? I’m sorry. I’m unable to answer that question. The helmet turned towards me, two eyes set in huge dark pits sparked blue as they saw me. The mouth was wide as the letter box and burned an electric fire yellow when it spoke. Imagine looking into the slot of a toaster, and you’ll know what I mean. In fact, there was a slight smell of burning electricity. Was that flickering valve stuck out from the top of his head? I tried to calm down. I could see that there was a catch inside the metal hand that more or less matched another catch inside the headless wrist. ‘Hold your wrist up outside. I am your obedient servant. Great. I’ve never had a servant before. Do you know how this fastens? I am the world’s most knowledgeable robot. I can answer almost any question. So do you know how to put your hand back on then? I’m sorry. I’m unable to answer that question.

Nikki Gamble: (13:24)
Oh, my goodness me. I think it’s the same robot in my Satnav.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (13:28)
When I read that extract, that line about, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t answer that question’, all the kids laugh at that. So that’s become a kind of running gag, but I’d not clocked that before that. That was that funny.

Nikki Gamble: (13:43)
It’s hilarious. So you were going to tell us something else about reading aloud?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (13:48)
Oh, this is a long story, but basically, through the Reader Organization, I came across someone who’d been in a prison reading group, and he’d been in for a violent crime. So they’d been working their way through Henry the Fifth, and he said this amazing thing. He said what he loved about the reading group was that it was the only time in his whole life when he’d ever felt fully alert, fully awake without feeling threatened.

Nikki Gamble: (14:18)
That IS amazing. Something I was going to ask about is reading aloud to adults. And in a way, you’ve answered that it is as important for adults as it is for children, but it doesn’t happen that often, does it?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (14:31)
No, I’m patron of the Reader Organisation, which specifically does that in quite difficult places – in prisons, in homes for people with Alzheimer’s, young mums and things like this. And it is magic. But I think it’s partly because a lot of those people, even if their lives have gone awry, just takes back to a safer time when you were sitting on your grandmother’s knee – it kind of clicks on all those associations. It takes you back to the core of who you really are.

Nikki Gamble: (15:07)
We’ve talked quite a lot about the value of reading aloud. What about what we choose to read to children? Does that matter? Some people have a mantra that it doesn’t matter what you read as long as you’re reading. Do you agree with that?

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (15:22)
If I agreed with that completely, I wouldn’t work so hard to make my books complicated and complex. I think we do owe it to our kids to push them towards things that the market isn’t pushing at them. Just to go back to Jackanory, which had its mission, it had lots of very straightforward, populist good fun stuff, but it would also bring in stuff from around the world. And you can’t possibly tell me at this point that British children would not benefit from being acquainted with non-British cultures. It would be good to read Tales from Russia and Africa, and Jamaica and Jackanory did that. So I think I do think we owe it to children to push them a little bit and to bring to them what the market doesn’t bring to them.

Nikki Gamble: (16:17)
Although it might sound rather idealistic, I believe that when you’ve heard somebody read their own poetry from whatever part of the world there are from, it is much harder to think about picking up a gun. and shooting them.

Frank Cottrell-Boyce: (16:32)
Yes. Completely.

Nikki Gamble: (16:33)
So, Frank, it’s been such a delight to talk to you today about reading aloud and to hear that extract from Runaway Robot.

No, thank you., It’s my favourite subject,

Other resources on this website

Roy Moss writes about choosing a good book to read aloud.

Just Imagine reviewers talk about their favourite read-aloud choices

Nikki Gamble talks about the importance of reading aloud, with Ben Harris, year 6 teacher and English lead at St Mary’s School in Dunmow, Essex and Sonia Thompson, Head of St Mathews Primary and Research School in Birmingham

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In the Reading Corner, Nikki Gamble, Director of Just Imagine, is presented. It is produced by Alison Hughes.

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