x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Passion for books remains alive and well in our children

Anyone who is sufficiently literate can write if they try hard enough. Luckily, there can never be enough books or bookshelves.

Since childhood, I have always loved to read. My tastes have varied over the years, from highbrow literature to poetry, from trashy novels suitable for plane journeys to tales of travel and exploration.

Since both of my parents were authors and journalists, the printed word has been an essential part of my life, from which I have derived enormous enjoyment. So I was delighted to be invited recently to take part in "Book Week" at a primary school in Abu Dhabi. Throughout the week, children from all grades were urged to read, not as a formal part of their studies but rather to encourage them to spend some time with books.

The questions I was to answer for about 100 children, aged 5 and 6, were about what it was like to write a book. How did one start? Was it difficult? Why did I do it? Was it worthwhile?

It was something of a challenge. While I am happy standing up before an audience of older students or adults to talk about topics like the heritage and natural history of the United Arab Emirates, it was the first time that I had been asked to talk to children.

While the majority of the school's subjects are taught in English, most children do not speak it as their first language. I wasn't too worried about the occasional chatter, but would they listen?

As it turned out, they were all perfectly behaved and attentive, without a single yawn. One did say later that he had been a bit bored, but he sugared the pill by saying that my talk was "10 times better" than one by another author last year.

The talk lasted about an hour, covering my father's writing career before moving on to my books, newspaper writing and other topics I enjoy.

When it came to question time, a forest of hands shot up. Why did I start writing? With both parents being authors, it seemed a natural thing to do. What authors did I like? JK Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter books, and John Buchan, a superb storyteller, among others. What books did I like when I was a child? AA Milne's Pooh, which was set in Ashdown Forest, not far from my childhood home in southern England, along with the Swallows and Amazons series by Arthur Ransome (and some of the children had read these authors too). What was my favourite book among those I have written on the UAE? One on the country's natural history.

There clearly was a genuine interest in books and reading among the majority of the children, even if one or two confided, in a sheaf of thank-you letters subsequently passed on, that they would not be pursuing a career in writing.

The teachers had asked me to get one point across: when writing, whether a book or a school essay, it is essential to check your facts. A reliance on Wikipedia or other online sources is not enough, and often leads to inaccuracies.

But there were a couple of messages that were all mine. First, anyone who is sufficiently literate can write if they try hard enough. When attempting to get an article or book published, be prepared to receive a few polite rejection slips at first. With a bit of effort and determination, it can be done, even if we cannot all aspire to write hugely successful novels that sell millions of copies.

The second point was that, while many popular children's books like Pooh and Harry Potter, have been turned into successful films, it is always better to read the books first since they stimulate the imagination. You should try to visualise what a game of quidditch involves, rather than having it presented to you on-screen as a product of someone else's imagination.

Really, there can never be enough books or bookshelves. There's always something else that I want to read and I'm not necessarily finished with it after I've read it.

Many books can be returned to again and again, like an old friend. These days, many texts are available online but there is still something quietly relaxing about looking at a bookshelf or reading a book that can be held in your own hand.

If the enthusiasm of the children at that school is any indication, we do not need to fear that television, computer games and the internet will drive books and reading out of our lives.

What a loss that would be.


Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture