A little while back I mentioned the children’s reading challenge that’s been running in UK libraries over the summer. We signed up with good intentions pretty much as soon as the end of term bell faded. But getting my 7 year old boy G to engage with the ‘fun summer activity’ turned into something of a battleground. For him reading is an unbelievable chore, associated with the ghastliness of school; every other word is punctuated by a pained groan or a tangential question.
It’s clearly a common problem, particularly amongst boys. An incredibly depressing report out yesterday by the National Literacy Trust said that said one in five children would be embarrassed if a friend saw them reading a book.
I don’t think this is G’s problem. I’ve not picked up on anti book peer pressure in his school (it’s far too middle class). Certainly he loves the DS, but he’s equally attached to the atlas he pours over in bed every night – so much so that we had to buy another copy after the first one disintegrated.
But we soldiered on with the challenge and by the end of the hols scraped through with a bronze medal, which as Rebecca Adlington or Tom Daley would no doubt concur, isn’t anything to be sniffed at.
But it certainly didn’t get him reading for pleasure, so I decided to change tack. My secret weapon was a brand new release in a series of books from my own childhood. Ian Livingstone’s ‘Blood of the Zombies’ is the latest in the long running Fighting Fantasy series of gamebooks in which ‘YOU are the hero’. I was quietly confident he’d be hooked. After all it combined G’s love of games, map making and the undead.
It’s 30 years since the very first title, The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was released. I’d already been heavily into the American ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, so was hyped when I saw a feature about this new British series on the HTV kids show Freetime (yes, these are the details I remember in my life).
The next day I scraped together £1.50 and pegged it down the road on my fake Chopper to the Durdham Down Bookshop (one of Bristol’s few surviving bookshops). Minutes later I was home and settled into my bean bag with my gleaming copy of The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, two dice, a pencil and my favourite chocolate smelling rubber (that’s an eraser US readers, don’t be alarmed!)
The book was essentially a much simplified version of the Dungeons and Dragons roleplaying games that Livingstone and co-author Steve Jackson had introduced to the UK in the 70s.
It cast the reader as an adventurer on a quest to discover treasure hidden deep within a mountain. Along the way you are besieged by a variety of traditional fantasy nasties like goblins, trolls and orcs, which you must battle using only a dice, pen and paper. There are also fiendish man traps to be overcome, like a mysterious room tiled with handprints and an underground ferry manned by a wily Wererat.
Revisiting the book three decades on, I think what I found so compelling was not the fighting or grisly death scenes, but the narrative opportunities it offered. There are a multitude of routes through the book, and many different endings. Judging by its fragile state I must have explored every dead end and spiked pit several times over.
These were the same narrative tricks that became a defining part of the computer games that emerged later in the decade. And it’s no coincidence that Ian Livingstone went on to play a key role in Eidos, the company that created the Tomb Raider series that owes so much to Fighting Fantasy.
The other thing that these books introduced me to were some great comic book artists. The artwork is fabulously evocative throughout the series, the illustrators chosen to match the genre. Appointment with F.E.A.R even featured a cover by the legendary Brian Bolland, and superb silver age comic book illustrations by Declan Considine.
But perhaps the highlight of the series was Deathtrap Dungeon with work by Iain McCraig who went on to provide the concept art for Star Wars’ Darth Maul along with credits for Harry Potter and The Spiderwick Chronicles.
We haven’t completed Blood of the Zombies yet, but we’re both enjoying it hugely. G revels in the grizzly details and the continual decision making. The new simplified combat system helps too, making the clashes with increasing hordes of the undead fast paced and really satisfying.
But the best thing of all is that we have found a book that G is happy to read for up to an hour without a single moan or groan. The questions still come thick and fast mind you, but they are now focussed on the story and not the time.
When I asked him earlier what he thought of the book G replied, ‘It’s not a book daddy, it’s a game.’ A comment which I think could go some way to encouraging other reluctant readers to give it a go. These books remove the feelings of boredom that so many children associate with books.
Now we’ve got over the horror of reading, I can’t wait to scare the bejesus out of him with my personal favourite in the series, House of Hell.