When asked recently by a teacher to summarise Neil Gaiman’s back-catalogue of children’s literature (to provide some context, I had just recommended that she explore one of his titles with her class: the children had thoroughly enjoyed ‘Vamints’ by Helen Ward and I felt that a foray into Gaiman’s world might be a rewarding next step), I recall that I responded with the following words: dark (thinking of ‘Coraline’), thought-provoking (thinking of his short story collection, ‘M is for Magic’), disturbing (thinking of ‘The Dangerous Alphabet’), funny (thinking of ‘The Day I Swapped my Dad for a Goldfish’), and finally, disconcerting. This final word is most fitting, in my mind, for describing Gaiman’s 2003 publication, The Wolves in the Walls.
‘Disconcerting’ is an adjective used to describe an event/situation/person that causes one to feel unsettled. An apt word for a text that appears to purposely lead the reader down the wrong path of comprehension, repeatedly presenting clues that nudge their understanding in one direction, and then presenting new and incongruous information that temporarily stunts understanding and blocks the route of comprehension down which the reader was confidently heading.
In their book, ‘Reading Development and Teaching’, Stuart and Stainthorp acknowledge the ‘step change in thinking about comprehension in reading [that occurred] in the 1970s when people began to think about the processes involved in comprehension’. Following this period, reading comprehension morphed from being seen as a largely passive process – where meaning was bestowed (or not) upon the waiting reader – to an acknowledgement that the reader is an active participant in the comprehension process. Since this ‘step change’ occurred, researchers have worked to both identify and name the reading skills that the active reader employs to gain meaning from a text. Amongst other active reader-initiated skills - such as the ability to generate questions, to summarise, to visualise - the ability to analyse is recognised as one of the major research-derived strategies for improving reading comprehension (Pressley, 2000). Put simply, analysis involves – amongst other things - the ability to recognise a text by its stock story grammar and non-fiction components.
A child’s ability to use analysis effectively to gain meaning from a text would derive from experience of reading a wide range of texts, covering a wide range of text types and genres, and from explicit guidance which draws their attention to the overt clues that typify that text type. In line with this thinking, in the Early Years and KS1 classroom, children may have their attention drawn towards the fact that the information in non-chronological reports is often broken down into succinct, single-themed paragraphs and that sub-headings signify the main content or theme of the information in each paragraph. When reading narrative, the children may be supported to see that a legend differs from a myth in terms of its formulaic language. These exposures and experiences help the children to develop awareness of what are commonly referred to in the classroom as ‘key features of texts’. Once they are aware of the key features of a stock set of common text types, the child can then use this information to make inroads of understanding into unknown texts. In their aforementioned text, Stuart and Stainthorp affirm their believe that children tackle the task of understanding a new text, by bringing to it knowledge and information that they have gathered from prior reading: ‘By engaging actively and constructively with texts, readers can use what they have read to expand their knowledge and understanding of what they subsequently read.’
This would imply then that a child may – upon reading a new text - quickly spot that a sub-heading written as a question signifies the potential for an explanation text, and thus the schema for this reading experience is activated. Already – after only reading the first line of this new text – the child may feel reassured that they are reading something that they recognise. In activating the schema for this text type, they may already be anticipating some further reading features of this particular text (perhaps adverbs indicating causality, for example). On encountering these, the child may feel a growing sense of confidence, which in turn might spur them on to read more, knowing that this text is already making sense to them.
Adrienne Gear, author of Reading Powers, describes a schema as ‘the sheet of fabric that billows behind us as we walk through life. Everything we encounter either sticks to or slides off the sheet; the stickier our sheet, the more that adheres. The more that sticks, the stickier it gets. What lingers on the schema sheet serves as a sieve, shaping all thoughts and ideas as they pass through’. In light of this interpretation of how we gather, sieve and sort incoming information, we can assume that as children continue to read, more information will be presented to them and this will either confirm their first assumption, and thus the reader will continue down this route of understanding, collecting additional supportive information along the way. Alternatively - and this is less likely to happen in a KS1 classroom when a teacher may be trying to present the children with more predictable reading experiences in order to strengthen this developing understanding of form and function – incongruous information will be presented to the reader causing them to abruptly stop heading down the route they were on, and essentially do a ‘double-take’. Thus, the reader experiences a jolt; a moment of uncertainty: they are – and I return to my original word choice – disconcerted. Although a teacher may not want to knock a younger child’s growing confidence in reading by presenting them with such disconcerting reading material, this may not be of such concern to a KS2 teacher, who is pretty confident that their children are familiar with a range of stock text types and are ready to be ‘jolted’ out of their reading comfort zone. In my opinion, The Wolves in the Wolves, is the perfect text for providing a timely ‘jolt’ to the reading senses.
In this text, Neil Gaiman presents incongruous text features deliberately and effectively to disconcert the young reader. In the first paragraph, the well-read KS2 child are coerced into activating their traditional tales schema through noticing the obvious parallels. The first parallel being the occurrence of things happening in threes; the rhythmic (almost reminiscent of young children’s chants/rhymes) language – surely nothing too sinister can happen when an author uses language like this? Step back and they may spot a stuffed piggy…track back, and they will have clocked the mention of wolves in the title. When taken together, there is a strong set of evidence to lead them down the understanding that they know this kind of text; they have met texts like this before in KS1. Armed with this information, a child who knows that this is the right thing to do, can start predicting. The child may predict that, like traditional tales (certainly of the modern variety encountered in KS1), nothing too sinister is going to occur. A lesson may be learned and a moral shared, but ultimately social norms will be maintained and good will prevail. On this occasion, and when dealing with many of Neil Gaiman’s works, all of these assumptions and predictions would lead the reader down a misinformed path. They are yet to learn that nothing is quite as it seems in Gaiman’s world.
To return to the text in question, although there is much to suggest that we are dealing with a traditional tale from this first page, there are features that simply do not sit well with this analysis. Most children would find the juxtaposition of traditional tale language and patterns within a (relatively) normal family setting rather disconcerting. Most traditional tales are set in an unidentifiable time and place – perhaps not in a modern day setting with characters engaged in contemporary pursuits (the brother playing video games, for example). The images also play a significant part in conveying this sense of uncertainty. They are not the usual images of one-dimensional characters depicted in primary colours associated with traditional tales; instead, they appear almost half-formed, spiky at the edges and shadowy. Of course, it is the juxtaposition of these overt clues alongside the jarring elements that makes this such a challenging read. From the very first page, the young reader is made to feel that they are not quite sure what they are dealing with.
Another cognitive domain that would surely help the developing reader at this stage would be to call upon their ability to make connections, in this case, with other texts by the same author. Which is why I believe that this text benefits from being studied alongside other texts by Gaiman, rather than in isolation. An author study would allow the developing reader to appreciate that this is what Gaiman does so well: he sets the reader up and develops a sense of familiarity and comfort, before slowly, and deliberately, sowing the seed of uncertainty. All in all, it makes for a thrilling read.
In conclusion, I would argue that children in KS2 benefit from being exposed to texts that are surprising, less predictable and less conformist. The Wolves in the Wolves –as well as many other by Neil Gaiman – fits this bill well. Many offer great opportunities to buffer and strengthen children’s skills of using analysis to comprehend texts. If your children are ready for a sort of: ‘ah, so you thought you knew how to unpick a text, well not this one!’ then reaching for a Neil Gaiman will reap many rewards.
Other texts that work well to ‘disconcert’ the developing reader:
- The Imaginary & The Song from Somewhere Else, both by A.F. Harrold
- The Daydreamer by Ian McEwan
- The Unforgotten Coat by Frank Cottrell-Boyce
- Anything by Shaun Tan (goes without saying!)
If you would like to engage in more thinking about selecting challenging texts for children in upper KS2, please join us for the summer round of the KS2 Reading Fluency Project – the summer round is aimed at improving progress for Year 5 pupils. See booking link below:
This round launches on 22nd March so book early to avoid disappointment.