Growing Up a Reader: A Guest Blog from Steve Antony

For the publication of Tim Minchin’s and Steve Antony’s book, When I Grow Up, inspired by the song from the musical Matilda, we invited illustrator and author Steve Antony to share some thoughts with us. A much-loved author and illustrator, Steve Antony kindly agreed to write on the theme, ‘growing up a reader’ – something we are striving for children to do. With huge thanks to Steve for this deeply personal and touching piece.

I’m not going to lie, when the FCBG asked if I’d like to write a blog post about ‘growing up a reader’ I felt a little bit sick. Here’s why.

People, including you, will most probably agree that authors must absolutely love to read. They probably like nothing more than curling up on a soft sofa with a warm mug of tea and a good thick book. They probably read on the bus, train and plane, and have a book in every room including the toilet. In fact, that woman in the bright green woollen cardy sat two rows in front of me reading a worn paperback of what looks like Girl on The Train but probably isn’t, is probably an author. I’ve met lots of authors since my first picture book published in 2014. Many are now friends. The Green Room of every literary fest is filled with them, usually because of carrot cake. Authors of picture books, YA, history, erotica, comics and so on. I’ve met them all. And it is true: authors do love a good book. A hardly surprising observation. 

That said, It is perfectly reasonable and quite easy to assume that an author’s childhood was lined with books. No doubt they were well acquainted with Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy and had visited Treasure Island more than once. They imaginably chose their own adventures on a weekly basis and read everything by Dahl by the age of 8. Matilda was perhaps a favourite. Little bookworms, I bet they were. The authors-in-the-making probably ate books like Smarties, or M&Ms if you were raised in the States like me. 

But here is the truth. My truth. There’s no point in me pretending I was one of those little book devouring kids. Honesty is the best policy, even at posh dinner parties where all the children’s authors have seemingly read every classic ever written in the history of humankind. 

I have never been tested for it, but some of my dyslexic friends think I that might be dyslexic. Whatever the case, all I remember is this: I had a short attention span whenever it came to any form and literature devoid of pictures. 

Picture books I adored. Art I adored. Art inspired me like nothing else. I was far more interested in reading pictures than words. 

I so looked forward to going to the Alamogordo Public Library each week with my mum (who strongly encouraged us to read) and brothers to borrow a new stack of picture books. My older brother liked the heavier stuff, The Hobbit springs to mind. But I was quite happy and fulfilled reading books by the likes of Suess, Emberley, Scarry, Keats and Silverstein, all of whom were (and are) arguably more ubiquitous in Stateside schools than in the UK. With picture books, I was in my element, and around the age of 6 I proclaimed that I wanted to be picture book maker when I grew up.

But everything changed in 3rd Grade. Suddenly there were more chapter books than picture books in my class. Mrs Holcomb encouraged us to read Pippi Longstocking and other classics, and I really wanted to. I really wanted to dive into a new imaginary world. We were each given a Scholastic ‘Book It’ badge to wear. It had 5 empty stars on it. Our challenge was to read 5 books in one term. One star sticker was awarded for each book read. It felt like a race. Who would be the first to get 5 yellow stars? By the end of term I had one yellow star. But I kept my badge. I carried on reading even though the race was over. By the end of two terms I had won 4 stars. I still have that badge. It’s in the attic. The 5th star is still blank. 

The problem was that I felt like I’d reached the edge of a cliff. Picture books were behind me and chapter books were way over there on the other side of a mile long chasm. There was no bridge. I couldn’t fly, so I stayed put. 

But hear this. I found a bridge, or rather it found me in a gas station on Alameda Dr on a hot summers day in Alamogordo, New Mexico. 

There it was. A form of literature that combined complex narratives and diverse themes with amazing illustrations. I was 10 or 11 when I bought my first comic book. It was Uncanny X-Men issue 220. “What does Ooncanny mean?” I remember thinking to myself. I took the comic home. I read it, and read it again and again and again. Of course, it ended with a cliffhanger. I wanted more. More from Chris Claremont and Marc Silvestri. I should add that I was well aware of British comic books like Dandy and Beano. My grandparents in the U.K. would occasionally send us some, which I loved. But US comics were clearly very different and sated my appetite for meatier, longer, more grown-up stories. 

Before long I was hooked. Really hooked. Comic books were a revelation. The stories were spectacular and the characters, in spite of their powers, were real. I couldn’t get enough. Real people with real lives and real challenges. I could not wait until the next installment of X-Men, so I started reading The Avengers and X-Factor and Spiderman and Spider-Ham and She-Hulk and Elf Quest and The New Mutants, which quickly became a favourite probably because the characters were teenagers and the artwork by Bill Sienkiewicz was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Still it wasn’t enough, so I started buying back issues and reading whole series of discontinued titles. I loved discovering obscure comics, mini-series and one-offs. 

By the time I was 14, I had acquired hundreds of comics, and not just Marvel. I had branched out to DC, Dark Horse, Harvey and Image. My first graphic novel was Watchmen, which was probably a little too adult for an adolescent. I devoured it in one sitting. 

I was fully immersed. All the while my reading skills were improving, my vocabulary expanding (I wonder how many other 10 year olds knew what Uncanny, not Ooncanny, meant) and I felt every emotion under the sun living vicariously through my comic book heroes.

Some might turn their nose up at comics. But guess what? They were my bridge. Heavily illustrated chapter books just weren’t easy to find in the ’80s, and graphic novels were too, well, graphic. Comic books made me want to read and read and read. 

As an adult now living back in the UK, I can fully acknowledge that US comic books were my bridge between illustrated books and all other forms of literature. I’m currently knee deep in John Grisham’s new thriller, and I’ve just finished an awesome graphic novel called Patience, by Daniel Clowes.

Fortunately, we live in a day and age where heavily illustrated books for 5+, 8+ and even YA are not hard to find anymore. If you’re thinking ‘what?’ and ‘where?’. Firstly, two words: Chris Riddell. Secondly, look at some the Greenaway nominations in recent years. Thirdly, ask your librarian, they know everything. 

Yes, many children do think books are boring, and the very idea of having to wade through one might feel too much like homework. But you know why that is? It’s because they’ve not yet found the right kind of book. Once they find the one, they won’t look back and reading will not only build bridges to new and exciting places but it will give them the wings to fly into adulthood with a broader understanding of this crazy world we live in. 

Now, as a published author and illustrator who does in fact quite like to curl up on a soft sofa with a warm mug of cocoa (not tea) and a good thick book, I’m not so embarrassed to admit that I once struggled with reading. 

Yes, I was slightly dreading the thought of writing a blog post about ‘growing up a reader’, but writing this article wasn’t that hard, after all. And neither was reading. 

This guest blog was provided by Steve Antony. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s’ Book Groups.

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