Continuing our Kiwi theme, today Books and Adventures is joined by New Zealand author and editor Raymond Huber with a guest post on ‘The Physics of Reading’. A skier, teacher, apiculturist and all-round adventurer, Raymond is currently in Australia promoting his novel for junior readers, Wings.
‘The universe is made of stories, not atoms’ (Muriel Rukeyser). There’s truth in the poet’s words: the universe is only 4% atoms while the rest (mysterious dark stuff) has barely been fathomed. Some scientists believe the universe is geared towards the development of mind – ‘The universe is aboutsomething’ (Paul Davies, physicist) . That’s why I think stories matter.
Consider the mental energy of reading for children. ‘When reading takes place, the brain is forever changed’ (Maryanne Wolf). Reading forges new neural pathways which then become available for innovative thinking. One reason for this is that reading a book encourages the brain to be active in constructing and imagining the story. Imagination is like the electromagnetic force which has infinite range. It’s the force behind the great children’s books. In the Moomin stories for example, Tove Jansson imagines a fantasy world populated with endearing creatures such as brave Moomintroll and the shocking Hattifatteners.
There’s also an emotional energy in reading: ‘We read books to find out who we are.’ (Ursula K Le Guin). Stories can give children a frame of reference for their experiences and answers questions like ‘why am I feeling this?’ The physics metaphor here is the force of gravity which keeps us anchored. My favourite example is the brilliant novel The Daydreamer by Ian MacEwan, in which a 10 year old boy deals with his anxieties by daydreaming.
Books have social energy to: ‘they expand horizons and instill in children a sense of the wonderful complexity of life’ (Michele Landsberg). In reading there is a meeting of minds – from far off places, times, and cultures; good and evil, rich and poor. This empathy with people is like the forces within atoms which give them strength. In Parvana by Deborah Ellis, the reader becomes a girl who must disguise herself as a boy to survive growing up under Taliban rule in Afghanistan. Readers can walk in her shoes.
My own junior novels, Sting and Wings (Walker Books), show the world through a honey bee’s eyes. Ziggy the hero discovers the close partnership between bees and humans is under threat. One young reader wrote to me, ‘Your book is very interesting –I don’t mean weird– I couldn’t put it down’, (I’d have settled for weird).
Reading has to be enjoyable, even addictive. Learning to read is only half the story: ultimately a child must want to read; and that’s where the great books have great energy. To slip into a chemistry metaphor: ‘There are times when a particular book dropped into our minds when they were exactly ready for it, like a saturated solution, and suddenly we were changed’ (Francis Spufford, The Child That Books Built).
Find out more about Raymond Huber and his writing at http://www.raymondhuber.co.nz/