The first book I really loved as a child was The Adventures of Robin Hood. I cannot remember the author or if it was one of those Ladybird books that were very popular in the late 1960s and early 1970s but I remember the escapist pleasure it offered me and the sense of adventure. I lived beside an orchard when I was very young so I imagined Robin Hood, Little John, Will Scarlett and the rest of his merry men were only an arrow’s arc away from me.
I went on to read Huckleberry Finn. Again, the narrative provoked a deep yearning in my young heart to escape my particular situation. I related very much with Jim, the runaway slave, and prayed that he’d make it to his destination in Illinois. I closed my eyes at night and visualised the wide waters of the Mississippi and the steamboats that rode them.
From around eight years old, football and cricket had taken over my life. If I wasn’t playing I wanted to read about my favourite players that included Peter Osgood, George Best, Bobby Charlton, Gary Sobers and my number one idol, Pele. Sometimes, an older boy in my children’s home discarded a football annual. One in particular leaps to my mind – Kenneth Wolstenholme’s Book of the 1970 World Cup. I’d readily pick out these titles from under a bed or from any bin. I can’t relate to you how much pleasure I derived from reading through Charles Buchan’s Football Annuals and absorbing the profiles, articles and photos of my beloved soccer players. If I couldn’t find a sports book to read, I’d make do with the sports comics and magazines of the day. Shoot! Was my favourite and the comic strip Billy’s Boots offered me endless joy.
As I approached my teens, my hunger for reading faded. Not because I lost interest but with the onrush of adolescence and reality, I understood that I’d never escape from my predicament like Robin Hood or Huckleberry Finn. I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but my reading and English comprehension stalled as I started secondary school. I only regained my appetite for reading when I was eighteen.
Now, I visit schools all over the country and in my presentations I try to relate to students the importance of reading for pleasure. It opens up new worlds, teaches you empathy and offers escape just like it did for me. And as you turn the pages, you’re not even aware that you’re adding to your vocabulary library and your understanding of the written word – the key to all learning.
I’m very proud to be a recipient of a Quiz Writers’ Choice Award for Crongton Knights. If any young reader can derive as much pleasure from my stories as I did when I picked up Robin Hood for the first time, then I know I’m doing my job well.
Born in London of Jamaican parents, Alex Wheatle’s first book, Brixton Rock (1999), tells the story of a 16-year old boy of mixed race, in 1980s Brixton. Brixton Rock was adapted for the stage and performed at the Young Vic in 2010. Its sequel, Brenton Brown, was published in 2011.
Alex lives in London. He was awarded an MBE for services to literature in 2008. In 2017 he won the Quiz Writers’ Choice Award.