Sarah Todd: Why Dennis the Menace is a hero of literacy with his comic capers

The Beano Annual 2016 - these cartoons helped columnist Sarah Todd's son to develop a love of reading.
The Beano Annual 2016 - these cartoons helped columnist Sarah Todd's son to develop a love of reading.
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APART from the institution that is the weekend edition of The Yorkshire Post, the other publication to be delivered to our house every Saturday is The Beano.

It is no exaggeration to say it taught our son to read and continues, six years on, to be a much-loved part of his weekly routine.

A suggestion that maybe it was time to pull the plug on Dennis the Menace and his comic capers was given short shrift.

“Never,” the 12 year-old told us.

His case was given some clout when the postman accidentally delivered somebody else’s copy. Not another pre-teen, but a fully-grown doctor from a nearby village.

“Reading it has obviously kept him clever,” declared The Son, with all the cunning of Roger the Dodger.

Bunty, Jinty, Tammy… as a
girl growing up in the 1970s
there was no shortage of comic choices for this correspondent. Pony magazine was another favourite.

Sadly, the comic industry is in decline. Children just aren’t buying them like they used to.

They aren’t reading for pleasure like we did, full stop.

There are so many different demands on their time. Computers, games consoles, hundreds more television channels and a lot more in the way of organised activities than we ever had.

We just played outside, we didn’t have today’s regimented schedule of being driven off to a different activity every day of the week.

It was bribery that got our young reader hooked on The Beano.

Like a lot of boys, he was clever enough but just wasn’t enthused when it came to reading lessons at school.

He loved cars and a pack of the card game Top Trumps was the first reading brainwave his mother had.

To play the supercars version properly he had to pull his socks up and be able to read the statistics like horsepower, top speed and so-on. Once he’d cracked this, it was time to find another carrot.

We got the odd copy of The Beano but had to read it out to him. The challenge was, that when he could read a whole story out loud by himself, we would order it every week.

Within less than a matter of days, he’d done it.

Any teacher expecting congratulations that reading had finally clicked was left disappointed.

It was nothing to do with them. It was actually finding something he wanted to read.

He was all wired up; just needed plugging in. A simple goal; learn to read this comic and you can get a copy every week.

Boys, like the ageless red-and-black stripe wearing Dennis, are complicated creatures.

Dennis could probably do just as well as his arch-enemy Walter the Softy in lessons, but he’s too clever, not at all short of brains.

Education Secretary Nicky Morgan should take note, as should all the airy-fairy uninspiring teachers out there.

To be honest, with all the daft money the Government spends, it wouldn’t be a silly idea to give every child of a certain age a comic subscription.

It would teach them a gift – reading for pleasure – which no price tag can be put on.

Some of The Son’s favourite editions of The Beano are when they have been guest-edited by a celebrity such as tennis player Andy Murray and former Top Gear presenter Richard Hammond.

Even Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall have starred in the comic, along with footballing’s Sir Alex Ferguson and David Beckham. Olympian Jessica Ennis-Hill has also been an inspired choice, appearing as Ennis the Menace.

To buy The Beano in the newsagents costs £2.50. Of course, there are deals to be had if a full subscription is taken out.

Considering what many families blow on overpriced fancy coffee, smoking, satellite television subscriptions, take-away food and goodness knows what other rubbish, it’s absolute peanuts. It’s not even the price of a single glass of wine.

Four years ago, when our eldest child started secondary school, she always used to have a reading book in her bag for fear of getting a real telling off.

As far as we know, nobody has ever asked her younger brother what he’s reading since he started last September.

For anybody curious about what book a 12 year-old enthusiast of The Beano chooses to read for pleasure, he’s on with motorbiking hero and television presenter Guy Martin’s autobiography.

Along with other lads, he’s very interested in facts and figures, so old favourites like the Guinness Book of Records are always well-thumbed.

Our children had a fantastic haul of presents at Christmas.

But the one disappointment, both of them said, was that nobody had given them a book or a book voucher.

It’s easy to overlook.

Oh yes, there was also hell on because nobody had bought a copy of The Beano annual…

Sarah Todd is a former editor of Yorkshire Life magazine. She is a farmer’s daughter, mother and journalist specialising in country life.