Reading for Pleasure, Reading for Life by Joyce Dunbar

by Joyce Dunbar

Some time ago I was invited to a school to open what they called ‘a magic room.’

It was a good school, city centre, with the predictable problems of its catchment area. To fund the magic room, which was a separate unit outside, parents and staff had worked hard to let out the playground as a car park on Saturdays.

‘What’s the idea of the room?’ I asked.

‘It’s a place where we withdraw children from the classroom and teach them how to play.’

Teach? Children? How to play?

What did they mean?

They meant that some children are so housebound, T.V bound, computer bound, so restricted by parental anxiety and other factors that they have never learnt how to play. They have never been given the freedom. Freedom, spontaneity, encouragement; these are the conditions for play, not teaching.

Unfortunately, I don’t have enough contact with today’s children to know how this situation has come about – but I gladly went along to the school to find out.

I cut the ribbon, uttered some words of encouragement, and went inside. What did I find?

Big, patterned cushions.

Festive fairy lights.

A box full of soft toys.

Rugs to curl up on.

It was indeed magic, a child’s fantasy, but I looked around for – for – for – BOOKS!

There were no books. Not one single picture book. And yet they had invited a writer to open the room.

Afterwards, the headmaster gave a speech to parents, teachers and children. I was in for another shock.

‘We need to teach the children how to play so that they can work better in the classroom.’

Not play for play’s sake.

Play for work’s sake.

So, books equalled work, which presumably equals pain, and pain, presumably, eventually equals gain.

I had no doubt about the good intentions of this scheme and the people who had organised it – but I was shocked at this separation of books from pleasure. They had made a magic room, but a good picture book is a magic world. It is a place where a child can play, with words, with ideas, with images. It is a world where an adult can play too, for picture books, uniquely, have to appeal on two different levels, to the child being read to, and to the adult reader.

I was not a bookish child. My idea of play was making trolleys and climbing trees and building dens in forbidden places. It was only in my late teens that I discovered the joy of books, and only when I had my own children that I truly found picture books. At that time – from the 70’s to the mid 90’s, they were flourishing, a vibrant art form part of the innovative 60’s, made possible by the advances in technology and printing and a child centred approach to education.

What has happened since then? In education, it is targets, league tables, statistics, literacy hour, inspections, initiatives.

At home it is parental anxiety about a child’s progress, about finding their place in the world. It is the advent of the pushy parent who sees pictures as childish things to be put away as soon as possible so that the child can get on with proper reading. It is parents too busy working to give time to their children, or not working and suffering the unfortunate consequences.

In the bookshops, it is the collapse of the net book agreement and the competition from supermarkets. Bookshops sell only the established best sellers, leading to a narrowing of choice.

And the publishers? Their business is to sell books: ‘We’ll have to ask the sales people,’ has become a familiar refrain to most writers and artists. Thankfully, there are a few publishers, a very few, who defiantly make their own choices and challenge the odds.

All of these factors have combined to shrink the picture book market, thus limiting the children who are their potential readers and the young writers and artists who are their potential creators.

Pleasure itself exists on many levels. There is the pleasure of a joke. The pleasure of titillation – you only have to say ‘underpants’ or ‘knickers’ to a class of children to cause a stir. In my days the very word ‘bottom,’ was enough to cause a sensation. You find all this in picture books.

But picture books in their whole range provide much deeper pleasures than that. At their best they enhance a child’s imaginative faculties, their visual acuity, their sense of possibility, their psychological and empathic awareness. A grasp of narrative, of story, which is the essence of a picture book, helps us to shape our own lives, even at an early age, to tell ourselves what we might become.

Last, but not least, they are an invitation to the sheer joy of words, as playthings, as magic, as something that leads on, through all the stages of life, to meaning. Picture books are play, to be sure, and therefore pleasure. But in my view, a child who plays hard will grow up to be an adult who works hard. A child who enjoys picture books is more likely to develop into a human being who enjoys all books. We read for pleasure, but the deepest pleasure is in personal growth.

In play, most children show total absorption. If unobstructed, this develops in the maturity to become ‘flow’ in work. I have a friend who complained about her son, ‘All he wants to do is go fishing.’ The son is now a hard working G.P. with a passion for his work. He still goes fishing I believe, taking his son with him. If we thwart this passion, create conditions in which it cannot flourish, we limit the potential of our children.

It is good that this school saw the importance of play; sad that it had to be so artificially nurtured.

After my visit, I sat on a boat on the Norfolk broads watching the dancing reflection of trees on water. PEOPLE JUST DON’T GET PICTURE BOOKS I thought. I set to and wrote LOVE A PICTURE BOOK, a simple manifesto of what I believe to be their obvious value. BOOKTRUST will publish it in March.

My aim is to connect picture books with parental ambitions for their children, to put them back in their rightful place as important steps on the way to development. They are not trivial pleasures to be discarded as soon as possible. They enhance life, childhood and parenthood, all in one go.

Crucially also, they are an important counterbalance at a time when children have instant access and exposure to the crudeness and cruelty of the world, as well as its joy. They allow children to be children. A unique artefact of our age, they answer a deep need, not merely to escape, but to experience a different reality.

Everything goes in circles, the picture book, once the star of the children’s publishing world, is now the Cinderella. But in 2008 THE BIG PICTURE campaign run by BOOKTRUST drew attention to a new wave of talented young artists – Emily Gravett, Alexis Deacon, Mini Grey, Oliver Jeffers, Polly Dunbar, amongst others. They are pushing the boundaries, in the forefront of a revival. But it is a difficult world they have entered, where 80% of the books on the shelves are established titles, 10% novelty and fairy books, which leaves a mere 10% for newcomers. Where will the classics of tomorrow come from if we are not more adventurous in our publishing today?

Dr Johnson’s reply to the question, ‘Why read’, was, ‘The better to enjoy life, the better to endure it.’

I agree with him. And to a child taken out of the classroom in the inner city school to be taught how to play, I would say, ‘Look, here is a magic room.’ I would then sit down amongst the cushions with the child, open a book and say, ‘And here is a magic world.’

About the author

Joyce Dunbar is best known for her lively and quirky picture books stories, with their wide emotional range. The Guardian has named her as ‘one of the best writers for children today’ with praise for her ‘sensitivity, lyrical style and gentle humour’. She revels in the joy of language, the playfulness of words, and in seeing her work fabulously brought to life by world-class illustrators including her daughter Polly Dunbar.

Many of her stories have been dramatised for the stage and as puppet shows, with Longnosepuppets and Norwich Puppet Theatre. Joyce lives in Norwich.

In May 2019, Graffeg re-published the classic Mouse and Mole series by Joyce with illustrations by James Mayhew, first published in 1993; Mouse & Mole, Mouse & Mole Have a Party, Happy Days for Mouse & Mole and A Very Special Mouse & Mole.


  • I so enjoyed reading this. I very much enjoyed writing picture books and sharing books with children. There is a lot to think about in your piece. I can see all the other distractions for children today and also the problem of the selection of books in some outlets. Thank goodness for the Independent Bookshops! I like your idea of “Love a Picture Book”! Brilliant!

    Odette Elliott
  • This is marvelous! There is so much added joy in picture books. The tactile joy of the paper, the olfactory joy of ink and paper, and the visual joy of images that are so overlooked in our mundane lives as well. If I were to do my life over, I would have restricted my son’s access to television and computer devices until an older age. Even though he was always provided with as many books as we could he rarely touches one now at age 35. That makes me sad as I’ve gone in the opposite direction, avoiding the distractions of most technology and buying up as many so-called children’s books as I can afford!


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