Please welcome TJ Masters with
Bear Among The Books
My latest novel Bear Among the Books
is being published by Dreamspinner Press on Friday 2nd September. In the early planning stages of this novel I decided that one of my main characters was going to be an illiterate teenager who had been failed by the adults throughout his troubled young life. When I first mentioned this to people I got a very bemused response from most. After all, why would Jason spend all his time hanging around in a library if he couldn’t read?
For most of my working life I was a primary school teacher with a passionate belief in the effective teaching of reading. I believe that only reading can open up the widest possible range of opportunities for success in learning. I feel that it is a failure of my profession that so many young people manage to leave school lacking the most basic literacy skills and ill equipped to make their way in the modern world.
There are many reasons why children might fail to learn how to read. Unfortunately our education system assumes that our young people will have learned to read before they get to secondary (high) school. Once there, they face a subject curriculum which has no time for the teaching of reading. In the book, Jason is a bright guy who has had a difficult home and school life. This is a young man who is intelligent enough to understand what he is missing and he aches for the knowledge which he sees as hidden in books and lost to him. Like many illiterate adults Jason feels great shame at his predicament and he has developed a whole range of clever coping mechanisms to survive in a world full of words.
It should be a matter of shame to all of us that that recent studies have ranked English teenagers as among the least literate in the developed world (OECD 2015). One more recent study by Sheffield University has found that as many as 17% of UK teenagers are leaving school as functionally illiterate. More specifically they say that one fifth of teens between the ages of 16 and 19 have a reading age of 11 or below!
This may sound depressing but in real life as in the novel, there are people like librarian Ben who are willing and able to make a difference. We just need many more of them.
Forty-eight-year-old Ben Thompson is a librarian, a passionate book lover, and a man who embodies the definition of a bear. He’s also lonely after the loss of his long-term partner. Young ex-gymnast Jason Barnes piques his interest, but Ben quickly realizes there’s more to Jason than his good looks. While Jason visits the library almost every day, he never checks out a book.
With gentle persistence, Ben befriends Jason and learns the nineteen-year-old’s tragic secrets. After years of abuse at his father’s hands, Jason was kicked out of his family home for being gay. And despite his apparent love of books, Jason never learned to read. Ben offers to teach him, and the two men bond over their lessons. Ben can’t deny his attraction to Jason, but he wonders if Jason is too young and too handsome to return his interest. With the help of the close-knit library team and Jason’s growing self-confidence, they move beyond the books and into the bedroom, where their own story is just beginning.
Daisy joined me behind the front desk. “I’ll take over here. You’d better go and get on with something important, but keep your eye on him, that’s all.”
Clearly I was not responding as I was supposed to, and I was now being dismissed. “Thanks, Daisy. Actually I feel like doing something a bit more mundane, so I’ll take the returns trolley and stack some books.”
Indeed this might appear like a mundane task, but it gave me an excuse to tour the stacks and check that all was well. Any time spent among the books was also a welcome distraction from admin jobs. I also liked to greet our regulars when I saw them around the place, and I knew a good many of them by name.
As I rounded the stack into the second bay of the fiction section, there was our young hoodlum Jason, sitting cross-legged on the floor, with an open book in his lap. He didn’t appear to be reading, unless he was a speed reader. He was methodically turning the pages over, one after another. Jason looked up and almost seemed on the verge of tears.
“Hello.” I wasn’t sure how to interact with him yet. “It’s Jason, isn’t it?” I tried not to sound too familiar.
“Yes, that’s right.” He closed the book and started to get up.
“I didn’t mean to disturb you. No need to move on my account.”
“That’s okay. This book is boring anyway.” Jason was now standing there looking down at the cover of the book, as if unsure what he was doing.
“What kind of thing do you like to read?”