… by any means possible
Unpacking the new doll…..
It was World Book Day on Saturday, and last week the New Statesman magazine ran a special literacy week.
Regular readers of this blog will know that I rarely write anything about my own family, but this time I am making a books-related exception. My daughter contributed a piece to the NS literacy theme: she wrote about how she made the jump from spelling out words to being a proper reader, and started by asking me what I remembered about this key moment in her life. Strangely enough, there is a link between clothes and books here: she was bribed with a doll to dress up…
Below you can read my version of the story.
Then, you can go to the New Statesman and read the contributions of three young people describing how they learned to love books: my daughter’s is the third, she is Barbara Speed. All of them are charming memoirs.
Whereas mine is
a murky tale of capitalism, bribery and dolls
Our family moved from England to Seattle in January 97: my husband, and me, and our two children – our daughter Barbara was 5 and our son, Alexander, 3. A new colleague with similarly-aged children invited us round in a welcoming manner: their little girl had an American Girl (AG) doll and Barbara was immediately desperate to have one herself.
I investigated these dolls – they were very expensive, and the assumption was that you would later buy more clothes and accessories for them, also spendy. We would normally only buy such a thing for her birthday, which was a long way off.
Then I read an interview with the owner of the AG company, a formidable businesswoman called Pleasant Rowland. She said very firmly that although this was an unpopular opinion, and not in her own interests, she believed no girl should have an AG doll until she could read unaided an American Girl book.
I got hold of a book, and it was way ahead of what my daughter was doing at the time. (One of the books that came home with her from her Kindergarten class contained the sentences: Chip hits zip. It’s a Fly! - neither of us was able to make head nor tail of the baseball references.) I had felt some concern because she wasn’t advancing in reading nearly as much as I thought she should, even allowing for the move, time not in school etc.
So I decided to use her love for the doll: I said she could have Samantha when she could read proper books – so she had to demonstrate this by reading a number which I think was 20. She got a sticker for each one, for a chart on the fridge. They had to be a bit more than a picture book – less than a full-scale chapter book. She and I also ploughed our way through the first Samantha book (I thought it was turgid and not particularly well-written) and I could see that Barbara wasn’t really going to be ready for that when the doll had been earned. But still, I was convinced that she was perfectly capable of reading a lot better than she was.
Samantha on B’s shoulders at Yellowstone Park
I was right – she completely took off with reading then, having realized over a couple of weeks that if she could read fast she could read great stories, didn’t have to read boring simple books or persuade people to read to her. And very quickly she was demanding 4 books from the library, bringing books home from school and reading them overnight. Her reading style and capability literally did change very dramatically in those few weeks. And has continued (mother’s boast) to the extent of doing a degree in English Literature at Oxford University.
Barbara and Samantha
It was complete and blatant bribery, on some very shaky ground, but bizarrely it all cancelled out to have exactly the right outcome.
We owe a debt of gratitude to Pleasant Rowland and American Girl – though not a debt of money, we ended up spending a fortune there.
Samantha has appeared on the blog before now – for a book called Happyland by J Robert Lennon (which is most emphatically NOT ABOUT Pleasant Rowland in any way at all) and as Katy from What Katy Did at School, and actually as my avatar for a time.