Friday, November 13, 2009

Horrid Henry

I'm actually not talking about my Henry but the horrid Henry of the children's books. The Horrid Henry series, written by Francesca Simon and illustrated by Tony Ross, tells of the life and adventures of a very naughty -- let's just say, outrageously unpleasant -- boy named Henry.

My son Oliver is in third grade and despite his often alarming acuity and ability to articulate his feelings and thoughts, he struggles mightily with reading and writing. While he can come up with amazing stories and tells them with "above grade level" vocabulary and skill, when he puts pen to paper it looks more like cuneiform. The boy literally can not spell. And while he focuses beautifully and listens rapturously when read to, his own reading is tortured and "still below grade level."

I should appease all you sharp-eared folks who might think "learning disability" or "something wrong," -- his teacher and I don't yet think so, and he is making progress all the time, but I consider myself heroic if I don't box his ears while listening to him sound out the word has five times on one page.

Huh - ah- s, he says.

HAS! I screech, You just read the same word, here and here and here!

And such is the spirit of this boy that he yells right back at me OH YEAH! HAS! and then we're off again, finger on the page, tracing the letter, me coaching and biting my lip and wondering how in the hell I happened to have a child who doesn't love to read. Because that's the crux of it all, actually. It's all about me. I remember vividly when I really learned how to read. It was like an explosion that just went on, I guess, forever. It's still exploding, actually.  I remember The Big Red Book in my kindergarten class and how I already knew all the Tom, Betty and Susan sentences. I remember moving on to The Bobbsey Twins and Nancy Drew in first grade, and The Secret Garden and A Little Princess in the second; by the third grade I was reading The Hobbit and then there was just no stopping my seemingly insatiable desire to read every book I could get my hands on.

So much for passing that gene on. Sigh. But parenting is like that, no? An endless series of compromises and humiliations, hidden joys and the occasional blind-side.

One of my favorite blogs is A Diamond in the Window because it's all about children's books and reading. I don't read it for my children, actually; I read it for myself. It brings back memories of the libraries I went to as a child, their dusty, dim shelves and the almost shivery excitement I felt when I left, my many books piled high in my arms as I climbed into my mother's car. One of the great features of the blog is recommendations of books for particular readers. It was at A Diamond in the Window that I read about Horrid Henry and promptly ordered four of them:  Horrid Henry, Horrid Henry's Stinkbomb, Horrid Henry Tricks the Tooth Fairy, and Horrid Henry and the Soccer Fiend. 

When they came, Oliver groaned and tossed them aside, flippantly telling me, once again, how much he hated reading and they looked stupid.

You can see where we're headed. It turns out that Horrid Henry is genius, as my Henry likes to say. It's laugh-out-loud funny, in an irreverent but not obnoxious way.

And Oliver loves it.

from Horrid Henry's School Project:

Horrid Henry scowled. He hated working in groups. He detested sharing. He loathed listening to others. Their ideas were always wrong. His ideas were always right. But the other children in Henry's groups never recognized Henry's genius. For some reason, they wanted to do things their way, not his.

and from Horrid Henry Reads a Book:

Oh. A reading competition. Horrid Henry slumped in his chair. Phooey. reading was hard, heavy work. Just turning the pages made Henry feel exhausted. Why couldn't they ever do fun competitions, like whose tummy could rumble the loudest, or who shouted out the most in class, or who knew the rudest words? Horrid Henry would win those competitions every time.

Kindergarten graduation - May 2007


  1. You found the magic books for him! That was me and the Ramona Quimby books. I was always happier painting or drawing, but then I read Ramona and found a love of reading as well. Oh, I'm still in love with Ramona. Her childhood memories are all mixed up with my own. Maybe Oliver and Horrid Henry will be like that? This post is somehow terribly sweet. You and your boy.

  2. I am familiar with Horrid Henry from my two little ones' literary habits. At some point we had to put a stop to them reading those books because it was getting a bit too much (if you know what I mean). In between Roald Dahl's books and Horrid Henry my son was getting a vocabulary and an attitude that were not very sociable and my daughter was copying him. But they are brilliantly written, the Horrid Henry series. And very imaginative, too. Have you got the audio books, too?

    On our prime minister's gaffe, I feel sorry for him. The Sun has orchestrated a very nasty campaign against Labour and Gordon is bearing the brunt of it. Surprisingly most people have sided with him. It goes to show, doesn't it? :-)

    I enjoyed your post very much.

    Greetings from London.

  3. My eldest daughter's spelling and reading were atrocious until grade 6 (and we had been reading to her since she was 6 months old) when the marvelous Mrs Connery, who ALWAYS read books out loud to her class read the first book in the Harry Potter series. Now, the big girl is in a creative writing program in university, already has one published story and aces all her grammar work. It just takes ONE book...the RIGHT get them going! Hope this is it for your son!

  4. The October 19 issue of the New Yorker had a fascinating story on children's books. Did you see it?

  5. My youngest DOES have a reading disorder and I'm sure her papa did too. Reading is a job for him. He can take apart a legal contract but reading for pleasure is not something he'll ever really do.
    But anyway, when Jessie was in kindergarten, it became apparent that her brain was not processing the written word like a "normal" person's. My oldest child had taught himself to read at the age of three so this was a bit of a shock to me.
    We were so fortunate in that her school had an amazing teacher who took Jess under her wing with love and determination and Jessie has such a strong spirit that she did manage to overcome her disability. But there were tears, there were words like, "I"m stupid," no matter how much I explained to her that everyone's brain works differently and that this most certainly did NOT mean she was stupid.
    I think the book she fell in love with was Pippi Longstocking. And now she reads for pleasure AND is in nursing school where she has to read so much material. It will never be completely easy for her, but I strongly think that because she had to develop strategies to learn to read that most of us do not, she has learned to look at problems from many sides and is able to figure out solutions in a way she never would have if she had not had this problem.

  6. Might be an interesting experiment to transcribe one of cute Oliver's advanced spoken stories, print it out in bookish form and help him read it. If that flew, he could illustrate and "publish" it. I've seen a production of my great-nieces/nephews, from a company that makes hard cover copies of kids' (that is, kid-generated)books. So charming! Excellent Christmas presents, of course.


  7. Thanks for the recommendation--I am going to reserve these from the library today. My 3rd grader has enjoyed the 4 Shredderman books. They are about a 5th grader named Nolan who is great on the computer but he seems younger than 5th grade.

  8. yes. And I always imagined my daughter would brush her hair and be a gymnast.

  9. Elizabeth I have totally lost it, I bent over and kissed your picture on the screen.

    I love the sound of those books and besides isn't spelling just memorization.

    He will read. It will suddenly click in and he will be off to the races.

    You were a genius reader.

    love Renee xoxo

  10. My reluctant reader and writer will probably be my only reader and writer in the family. He says he hates reading, but the fact is if he find a book he likes he reads the entire series. He'll write only when it's his idea. And he's very creative.

  11. You have a lovely blog here! I appreciate your detailed writing about your son and reading. Children develop in their own time into who they are. We can only support them. My friend was just telling me yesterday about her two sons. The just 5-year-old S. has been taunting his 7-year-old brother O. because S. can read and spell easily, and O. is still working on the basics. Go figure.

  12. I too learned to read very very young, and I had never lost my love for it. Suffice to say that I love to read dictionaries in just about every language, although I speak only a few.

    From poetry to recipes and back if there is something with words on it, sure bet I will go at it. When I was young and very ill it opened the world for me in ways that only a good story can; now when I cannot take my book along with me because of size or whatever other reason I pick up the Kindle and it goes into my purse. Nothing better while sitting at the Hospital with their old sports magazines. Tell Oliver I love him, my little philosopher. He will grow to love reading, you will see.

  13. Edith is now in fourth grade and really didn't enjoy reading until last spring. She, too, is above grade level with vocabulary--she insisted she liked only non-fiction books for the longest time. I think it was because they put so much emphasis on "inference" in the early grades that they have them reading fiction books that are, frankly, dull, and below their abilities in many ways--because they have to catch all the inferences.

    Edith is also a terrible speller--again, I blame the school! They made them start writing in kindergarten, telling them they could use any spelling they wanted to for the longest time, years, and then only started trying to teach them how to spell things correctly in the third grade. Sheesh. By that time, Edith insisted that her spellings were her spellings, and what had stuck with her was that spelling didn't matter.

  14. I'm familiar with the cuneiform issue. And, as you say, it's probably more our issue, really. In my case, it's my husband's issue. He's a writer. It's a delicate balance accepting our kids for what they are, and showing them the direction. Sounds like Horrid Henry worked as a good direction. In our family our 10 year old read only Mickey Mouse comic books until earlier this year. He'd roar with laughter, as he read, tears rolling down his cheeks. He'd read them over and over again. He learned an impressive mousey vocabulary, actually. But no real books. Until one day he picked up Harry Potter, and then he read all 7 books in three weeks. And now, he's reading them over again.

  15. Like you, I loved reading and read early. I went to a tiny school in a town of 500 in Iowa. The school had the only library in town and in the summer when school was closed we had a mobile library, The Bookmobile. Think Winnebago crossed with a dark paneled study. With the nomadic life I now lead, I fantasize about living and traveling in a Bookmobile. My daughters read very late. M. got a perfect score on her Verbal SAT or ACT. C. pours over the newspapers every morning and proofreads my writing. She's also very good at standardized tests. Trust your instincts.

  16. Oh, so great!! I've seen these books! Love that bottom photo! That's one proud mama!



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