The Emerald Atlas


I like the way that children read. There are young readers that are confident and young readers that are polite. By this I do not mean confident with the mechanics of reading. It means firm in knowing where they are reading at that exact moment. Sometimes it means they are not reading anything at that exact moment. They also know where (and when) they want to go next and are capable of making that decision in about 1.5 seconds, persuaded by something that I cannot recognise. These readers when I recommend a book will mostly examine it politely and put it back down immediately. The more quickly they can reject a suggestion the more secure they seem on their own reading map. Cartographers of a private emerald atlas.These words, from the title of a children’s novel by John Stephens were used by a young reader once to describe to me his ‘map of  books.’

Children who are subject to many good suggestions of books need also to be able to reject them all. If they do not get to do this they remain courteous readers at best. Because rejection is a significant part of finding the reading that was meant for you. Have we all been taught that to reject a book, especially a good book, is bad? However, readers who reject a book are not saying it is a bad book. It is just the wrong book for now. These books stand a good chance of a return. The polite reader does not revisit his choice as he did not really get to it in the first place. A fearless reader can always say why a book is brilliant. But they forget the books that were not. A polite reader doesn’t share why a book was bad and doesn’t always remember why a book was good. Buoyant readers do not always finish a book and do not provide a reason for this. They can read a tangle of many books at once. Or just one. They re read again and again, shaking the plot for the last drops of ink needed to colour their own coastlines. They are persistent in defending the right of a book to be on their shelf despite not having read it ever.

To read bravely and personally means to lose sight of the shore of courtesy and convention and pirate your way out to your own waters. This is an intensely private experience and cannot always be shared or explained. The private emerald atlas is coherent, complex and enormous. It changes in the afternoon light. One book can add a whole nation or a single new kind of dragon. One page can recolour the entire atlas. I think that when I ask a young and confident reader what did they think of The Ranger’s Apprentice, Book 7: Erak’s Ransom, it is a callous question because they must unpack a great deal of landscape in order to get at the words needed to make that answer. It is kinder to just ask; was it good or bad? They will often manage: ‘ oooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh… it was really good.’

During the time it takes them to say that, I see them flick backwards and scan the entire novel in six seconds and retrieve their self that became entangled there. And they are often grateful that there is only ONE question. They can now go and sort through all the new books in the shop to find the good one.

I watch them scan a title and put it back. Or go a little further and open the first page and read…what? And put it back. How do they know so firmly that it is not the one for now (or ever)? Sometimes they come to ask if there are any more in a series. (Do they mean that one book is not enough?) I know to answer briefly and quickly.


To say more than this is unnecessary. They might come back and ask for more details. I know now to just give the titles but nothing more. If I attempt any brief summary at all their young faces re tether back to the polite expression.

It is a joy to sell books to young readers.





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