Give a Book (GAB) has been lucky over the years to benefit from the advice and experience of independent literacy consultant David Kendall. We snared him at the London Book Fair last week and asked him about his life in books.

The joy of comics

What first got him into reading? David doesn’t remember being read to as a child though his parents assured him that he was. He remembers the Janet & John books at school. His earliest memory of reading for himself and enjoying stories was reading comics which he often got from his cousin but frustratingly not always in correct date order. At school, David enjoyed all sorts of stories and also read his father’s old Sunday school books. All books in those days seemed to be old– there was no contemporary fiction as there is now. A book he remembers particularly is The Weirdstone of Brisingamen by Alan Garner. He also loved the Lone Pine Club series by Malcolm Saville about a group of young people in Shropshire who had adventures and explored places as in Enid Blyton books, though these children aged over time and the later books showed them in their late teens. David read them while in his home county of Yorkshire though he moved to Shropshire himself years later. David also loved the books of Joyce Stranger. He had been given a dog for his 8th birthday and thought they really helped him understand how his dog felt.

David’s big influences in secondary school were American fantasy books — dark stories from the 1930s– and comics. He says, “I think that’s partly the reason I so much enjoy Japanese fiction now. That sense of exploring a strange yet partially familiar world.” His father had a great impact on his reading too so he also read thrillers such as those by Dennis Wheatley. Again, unlike now, there were no books aimed specifically at Young Adults so everyone just read what was available.

David always loved to read. His parents used to say “Reading again? Go outside and get some fresh air.” But he stayed reading. He didn’t read so many classics then but those he did stuck with him, such as Of Mice & Men and Cider with Rosie.

Weirdstone

We asked if he always thought he would work in reading. David hadn’t thought there were any such jobs out there in that field. He had thought of becoming a writer but had an image of authors as being ancient old men so didn’t consider it a career for a young boy. In his comparative maturity he has written short stories as well as editing Best War Comics and Best Zombie Comics.

We wondered if he had used the school or local library. David had been young librarian at his school library and enjoyed the local library. Once he had got through all the children’s books he went straight on to adult books– there was no bridge of YA books as there is now. There was also a mobile van library that used to come to the end of the lane where the family farm was. His mother would go out and choose a pile of books for the whole family. David chose books by the cover—he loved yellow covers, and still does. He was so affected by covers that he couldn’t read Lord of the Flies for years because of its scary cover.

In his third year of secondary school the English teacher asked them to bring in a favourite book and to read an extract. David’s choice was Dune by Frank Herbert but he found it very difficult to choose an extract that would make any sense to the others. One “cool kid” chose the quite violent Hell’s Angels books by Mick Norman aka Laurence James. It was an electric moment and everyone was rapt! Later in life, David had the wonderful opportunity to interview the author Laurence James “who was a lovely guy”. He died in 2000.

On leaving school in 1982 without any real plans David had several boring manual jobs including stints as a motorcycle dispatch rider. The best thing about these stints was that he could read in between jobs! At 24, he applied for an access course at Woolwich Polytechnic and they recommended that he did a degree. Though he found the first 9 months very difficult he read very widely and enjoyed research. For a while he even became an academic, working as a lecturer at St Martin’s. Then he saw an advert for a project at West Sussex Library Service, funded by the Arts Council, to help engage disadvantaged young people in reading. Over an 18 month period he worked with 25 different groups. The libraries loved it. David’s career in reading had started. At around this time he also met the people who would later set up what is now The Reading Agency.

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Currently, David’s biggest projects are in prisons—he is Project Manager for the wildly successful Reading Ahead programme for The Reading Agency. One cherished project was the Penned Up literary festival that he arranged in Lewes Prison–the first festival of its kind in a prison where the prisoners did everything, were on the committee and introduced the authors.

His projects with looked-after children are very special to him too as the kids are so great. These are the kind of things he would like to do more of: getting the hard to reach to read. David has worked as an independent consultant in reading since 2001-2.

So, we asked, as we always do, does David have a favourite book/s to recommend?

David gave us his top 5: The Book of Revelation by Rupert Thomson about a male dancer who is kidnapped in Amsterdam. Deadwood by Pete Dexter which demystifies the Western genre. Seventh Heaven by Alice Hoffman – he confessed that when he read this he told his girlfriend that he wanted to marry Alice Hoffman. He often recommends the strange stories of Robert Aickman. He loves the Crimson Petal stories of Michel Faber. But his number one would probably be the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore (a yellow cover!). It demystifies superheroes and has multiple stories running alongside each other. Ultimately it’s about getting to the truth. Long after first reading Watchmen David had the opportunity to interview the author Alan Moore. “It was an incredible experience and one meeting that certainly lived up to my expectations. I reread Watchmen recently and it is still as good as it was years ago and in fact improves every time I read it. It’s still as relevant to me today as it was all those years ago.”

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As well as being a generous advisor, David writes an excellent blog recommended here.