The Bugmanâ€™s Great Escape Scott Perry Illustrated by Peter Reynolds
Alex was in danger long before he opened the window, screamed as loud as his eight-year-old lungs would allow, and hurled the book out with all his might. There was a moment of silence as it flew. It made an ugly flat sound as it landed, open, smack in the middle of a puddle and began to soak up water. Alex burst into tears. The next thirty seconds would change his life forever.
Mr Jones in the corner shop thought he was ‘trouble’. The lollipop lady suspected he was ‘up to no good’. Mrs March, the neighbour, thought he was a little ‘slow’, as she liked to say, veeeeery slooowly. I can tell you he was none of those things. But he was the boy at school with no friends. He disrupted the class, it’s true. He had a sister, Kate, four, but they fought like army ants and ogre-faced spiders, which in case you don’t know is a lot worse than cats and dogs.
All anyone ever told him was that he was no good.
Imagine living in a house without a single book. Imagine staring at these very words and not being able to make head nor tail of them. Imagine the frustration of being locked out of this world of texts and websites and papers and magazines. Imagine how badly youâ€™d want to belong. This was how it was for Alex. He lived on one of the poorest estates in London. His parents were busy and stressed, and for them just to make ends meet was a daily battle. Not only were they exhausted and had no time, but they had no confidence that they could read with their children. It never even occurred to them to do it.
So Alex made friends with slugs and grasshoppers and spiders: all things small. They, at least, seemed to understand. He studied their movements from a centimetre away, fed them, carried them around, and learned about them on the telly. The other children called him the â€˜Bugmanâ€™.
Then, one day, there was a knock on the door. No one ever knocked on the door. Alex and his sister looked at each other. Silence crept over the room. No one dared even move. This could only mean one thing, trouble. The knock sounded again, louder. “Don’t answer it,” came a voice from the kitchen. But it was too late. Kate could already feel the cold air rushing in.
What she saw was the strangest thing. Two friendly looking faces. Two smiles. Two cheerful ‘hellos’. “They’ll be wanting to sell us something.” Their mother marched in. “Go on, be on your way.” “We’d like to read the children a story, if that’s ok. We have a whole rucksack full of them. I’m Andy and this is Rachel. We don’t want to sell you anything. We lend books and read stories for free.” “We don’t like stories,” said their mother. “Yes we do,” said Kate. “They can’t come in,” their mother said, to no one in particular.
“We can do it right here on the doorstep,” came the reply. “We normally do. Look, we’ve even brought our own stools.” And so it was that they sat on tiny stools and began to read, Andy with Alex, Rachel with Kate.
“Reading is stupid!” said Alex. “It’s for wimps, it’s for idiots.” “Is it?” said Andy. “It is well boring.” “These are stories,” said Andy. “Not reading. It’s different.” Andy saw that Alex, even if he wanted to sit still and listen, just couldn’t. He was so easily distracted. As Andy read on, he noticed Alex’s gaze was elsewhere. He followed it. The boy’s eyes were glued to a column of ants.
Andy stopped reading. They watched the ants in silence together. “Their nest is over there,” said Alex. “But these are only ordinary ants. There are much better ants, like trap-jaw ants, or bullet ants, which are like this big, and their sting is like a bullet, that’s how they get their name.” “Wow!” said Andy. “In England?” “In the jungle. Jumping Jack ants are cool because of their venom.” “How do you know all this?” said Andy. “Monster Bug Wars,” said Alex. “It’s the best.”
Everyone agreed, even Alex’s mother, who had quite enjoyed the peace and quiet, that it would be a good idea to meet the next week at the same time to read more stories. When the day came around, Andy said he had a surprise for Alex. “It’s called ‘James and the Giant Peach’,” he said. Now if you don’t know this story, you definitely should since it’s full of amazing insects.
Alex loved the story from the very first word. He was swept away. He was desperate for the visit not to end. He wanted Andy to read on. Andy had a better plan. “You keep the book,” he said. “And when it is finished, we’ll change it for another one.” Alex took the book to his room, and held it in two hands for a long time. He ran his finger over the pages. He had never had a book of his own. It seemed to hold something magical within it. When he was called for his dinner, the book went with him.
Some weeks later Alexâ€™s mother let everyone read inside. No one told Alex he had to learn anything. No one made him do exercises. There was no theory. Everything was left to the story. Little by little Alex stopped watching the ants. He stopped fiddling and interrupting. Instead, he began to watch Andyâ€™s finger as it moved over the words. Little by little he knew how they would sound before they were spoken.
One day, with his heart beating, he plucked up the courage to do something he had been planning for some time. He tapped Andy on the arm. “I want to read,” he said. “I want to read out loud.” But when he tried, he found that the words stuck in his throat. They came out ten times slower than he heard them in his head. His tongue felt thick and his mind went blank. He tried to fight a rising feeling of shame and helplessness, until he could no more. Years of frustration and rejection and things going wrong seemed to well up inside him all at once. Almost choking, he opened the window, screamed, threw the book out and burst into tears.
He was desolate as he watched the pages soak up water. Everything would end now, he knew that. Everything would go back to how it was before. He would be scolded, called useless, told he was bad, sent to his room. There would be no more reading. He put his hands over his head and waited for his world to cave in.
He felt a gentle hand on his arm. “You have been very brave,” Andy said. “Believe me, I know how brave you have been. You know what we are going to do? We are going out to get the book. We will dry it on the radiator. And though we don’t normally allow people to keep our books, this one I’m going to let you keep forever, as a reminder of the day you learned to read. Because I promise that you will learn to read. You have just done the hardest part.” It felt like the first time anyone had ever told him he could do something.
From then on, slowly but steadily things began to change in all sorts of ways. The Doorstep Library volunteers spoke to the childrenâ€™s mother, and showed her how reading together could improve and deepen her bond with the children. It worked! They had bedtime stories. They talked together more, discussing the tales and their characters.
Alex found he could pay attention more. His marks improved. His confidence grew. He stopped disrupting the classâ€Ś quite so much. His sister had the even bigger advantage of starting her reading much younger. When the doorstep visit came, they were already waiting. They couldnâ€™t wait to explore the rucksacks for new books.
The day someone sent him a message on his phone, and he found that not only could he reply properly, but be funny, was the day he made a new friend. And then there was the day his mother came back from an errand to find the house in silence. Nothing. The television was not on. The children were not fighting. Were they even in? She went into their bedroomâ€Ś and she screamed.
Alex and Kate were side by side: reading! It’s true, the constant fighting between them had (almost) stopped. Even the lollipop lady smiled at Alex one day; Mr Jones was heard to say that he was ‘not so bad’; and Mrs March of all people commented in passing that he was ‘quite quick,’ which she said almost as rapidly as she meant it.
And if this all sounds too much like a fairytale to you, let me tell you that these benefits of reading are proven, again and again. Itâ€™s all been researched and it has all happened in the real world. Alex really was in danger, because the sad truth is that many thousands of boys and girls like Alex and Kate from disadvantaged backgrounds are in danger of falling behind in their reading. They are the ones most at risk. And when that happens, and where there is no help from charities like Doorstep Library, there is no way back for them, not just in their studies, but in their lives. The disadvantage just gets bigger and bigger.
How do I know this to be true? Because I am Alex. I am now 35. I learned to read and I studied. I did well enough to get a job where I’m pleased to say I’m happy. I’m still working with bugs – no surprise there – now part of my job is trying to save the bees! Some people even still call me the ‘Bugman’. So I hope you don’t mind the pun, but I can’t resist it. The biggest and most important bug was the one that bit me all those years ago with James and the Giant Peach. The reading bug. I have Andy to thank for that. I will never forget what he did for me. Now and then I hold that very book in my hand, still stiff and crinkly from the puddle. The day we placed it carefully on the radiator is the day my life changed forever.
A young boy of eight, Alex is in more danger than he knows. Obsessed by insects, but in trouble almost everywhere else, he hurls his most cherished possession out of the window. It lands in a puddle. He bursts into tears. His whole future rests on what happens next. What makes a boy do such a thing? This short story is about the power of words to take us places we never imagined we could go.
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