What I learned about children and reading this holiday…

Middle son is 14 and likes to read on holiday. Since he was little, he’s enjoyed reading favourite books over and over again, hence Harry Potter’s series was read 15 times over, and The Lord of the Rings and His Dark Materials received similar treatment. He reads books to a pulp. But this summer, he did something new – he asked me to choose some books he might like. I felt a little sense of dread as I looked at my bookshelf. Get it right and he’d trust my judgement, get it wrong and the Hunger Games would come in for its tenth reread. Unlike Michael Gove, I don’t really care if my child is reading Twilight or Middlemarch, but I do care that they read – not to add lists to a future university application, but so their futures are filled with the pleasure that books can bring. So I looked at the shelves, and then rang eldest son.

Eldest son is/was a voracious reader but unlike his brother, raced through to the next book as fast as he could. Reading for him was like a competitive sport – he wanted to have read as many as possible and was less likely to fall in love with one. Still, I figured he’d be more in tune with the taste of his brother. ‘Catcher in the Rye’ he said without hesitation, so that went in the bag. I knew middle kid liked the film ‘Life of Pi’ and reading the book might appeal to his tendency to repeat, so that went in too. He thought Twilight was ‘alright’ so linking to the vampire theme, I added ‘The Historian’ and then on a whim, ‘The Kite Runner’. He loved them all and each one opened up discussions over Greek salads and souvlaki about the many more books he might read. He’s looking forward to John Irving,  Harper Lee, Jane Austen (on his brother’s recommendation, not mine) and Amy Tan. Few of these books would appear on a literature canon, but they’ve been chosen for HIM, based on what he has enjoyed and themes he has engaged with. And so this is what I learned…

Reading is like spinning a web – things connect. It turns out that one of the things he enjoyed was learning about other places – India, Istanbul, Afghanistan and what life is/was like there. So I can now recommend all sorts of books which are set in other countries and cultures. He liked the first person narrative style of The Catcher in the Rye, so I can recommend books with similar voices. His canon will link to his interests and it may be that this crosses over to the classics. But choices will be personal and linked to what he has enjoyed so far. This is how readers are created. One thing leads to another.

And this is why I resist and will continue to resist the idea that some books should be read by everyone. Because we all have different webs and it makes the world a more interesting place. By all means let’s introduce children to great literature, but let’s do so by finding their individual ways in. Let them personalise their web; find their connection. The result is that when they’re grown, you can argue over whether Lear or Hamlet is greater, whether Anne trumps Charlotte or whether Pip or Nicholas captured our hearts. We can have these discussions because we had the freedom to find our favourites, not have the same texts thrust upon us. Our literary heritage will be very much poorer if we reduce our children’s reading to prescribed lists of recommended texts; creating straight paths rather than a web. There’s something very controlling about that. We need, in schools, to find out what makes children tick and find books that feed their interests. We need to know the children. And we, as adults, need to read and read widely so that recommendations can flow.

This is one thing I learned on holiday.

12 thoughts on “What I learned about children and reading this holiday…

  1. Hi Debra. I was curious: why is it that both those ideas can’t exist together? ie. some content is prescribed and we all read and study it, other content is guided by personal tastes, and is not formally studied.

  2. Mmm…I think there’s a distinction here between a shared reading experience and an individual one. A shared experience can be great – like when as a class you all read the same novel and discuss. But to prescribe one text that all will read narrows possibility down too much in my opinion. Let’s say everyone was told they MUST read ‘The Tempest’ for example, it would fast become the most read and produced of all of Shakespeare’s plays. It would, for many, be the only play they ever read. But what of the others? What of Marlowe? When those children grow up, the conversation could go ‘Did you read the Tempest at school?’ ‘Yeah, we all did…it was great/boring/alright’ ‘Yeah’. But if children have read different plays, there’s a possibility – perhaps a vague and idealistic possibility – that the answer might be ‘No, we read Twelfth Night – it was brilliant’ ‘Oh, not read that one…but it’s on next week – shall we go and see it?’ I know that’s fanciful, but the idea is that rich reading comes from variety and the more varied the reading diet, the more we’re likely to be introduced to something new from a source we trust. In any case, I know that for this one particular child, building his personal connections to texts will have a far greater impact that being told he must read this because an adult says so.

    1. Well I’m sure we can agree that we should never be saying ‘you must read this because I, as an adult, say so.’ Wouldn’t that be baffling, to prescribe something and not even know why we’re prescribing it!

      You raise some valid points. I’m still left with lots of questions. I wonder for example how likely is that nightmare vision, if we’re agreeing to a mixture of prescription and personalisation? Won’t there also always be those who are well read, able to expose us to new things? If I imagine a group where that’s not at all the case, I imagine them uninterested in pursuing literature/plays/theatre much further, simply because in one school they studied The Tempest, and in another Twelth Night…

      I’m left wondering about curriculum design as well. As I currenty understand the models, a curriculum will better serve young people if it is planned and connected expertly over the longest possible period of time. The more disparate and free reigning we allow that study choice to be, the less likely curricula are to be designed that way.

      Wondering about knowledge content. if what we know and what we’ve read really does affect our ability to engage with democratic society, over and above our enjoyment of the books, then I worry if there’s risk of teachers making poorer study choices unawares? I was flicking through Gombrotch’s ‘Little History of the World’ again earlier, and once again was reminded of just how much I left school not knowing, and how often I’ve seen the stories and characters in that book referenced in the media and popular culture; it’s like there being a whole other rich and fascinating world beneath the one we see on the surface, and we’re cut off from it until, if we’re lucky, someone gives us what we need to know to see it, and join in. I’d hate more kids to leave school, like me cut off from that wider world of deeper meaning, due to ignorance.

      No quick and easy answers I’m sure. Just lots of wondering…

      1. Now we’re veering onto the idea of Core Knowledge which is a whole other bag of debate and I was simply writing a little observation piece as a Mum and wondering how it might impact on the classroom. But ok, let’s take a piece of knowledge which many deem to be essential – the story of Troy. Some say you must read Homer, but the story can be found in hundreds of sources including film and the Horrible Histories kids books. So do we say children must read Homer? Is it the Greek poet which is the essential element, or the story? The answer will be disputed depending on the point of view of the person arguing the case and this is why prescription is so complicated and can never really work. And then could we ask why this particular story and not others are prioritised? Too often it’s simply down to tradition. There are also other expert ways of building curriculum which take complexity into account and which resist linearity. Read Ricca, Wallin, Masny etc for some insight into this.

  3. I think this is both/and. For me the one thing I try to balance the whole time is the tricky thing of promoting the ‘canon’ while trying to avoid putting my children off reading. For my eldest daughter (14) there is no problem (although she only takes advice from her mum) and she loves both Twilight and Pride & Prejudice. My youngest daughter (10) is reading HP, which is fine by me. However, my son (12) is a trickier customer. He reads very well, technically, but has always been reluctant to work his way through a book.

    When I was his age (at Secondary School) I loved books until my English teacher gave us Kenilworth. It was such a shock, because it was the first book I’d ever started that I couldn’t finish. I had discovered that books could be boring. Not for everyone, my teacher loved it, but for me it was a trial of the worst kind. I literally couldn’t finish it, I tried, but my brain shut down, the words floated around the page and lost all meaning. The only lesson I learnt struggling through Kenilworth was that Scott was a byword for death.

    Of course, as an adult I know this is stupid, but at the time it was an a-priori truth and no amount of persuasion from my dad or my teacher was going to convince me otherwise. I lost interest in literature, almost completely. I kept reading Sven Hassle and Tolkien etc, but anything that hinted at ‘culture’ was anathema.

    As a teacher and parent I’ve always remembered that horrible feeling, and I’ve tried as hard as I can to mediate material my students and children might find difficult. I believe children should be exposed to high culture and great literature, but it needs to be taught sympathetically and in ways that will interest them and help them make sense of the content. Sometimes this means starting with books about subjects they enjoy and then gradually introducing more challenging material, but, at the same time, also introducing them to stories they would find hard to read alone and need help to understand.

    Something my English teacher failed singularly to do.

    1. Any particular papers you could recommend? I’m more likely to read them, eventually, if I can download the paper to my iPad – I’m likely to forget about them otherwise!

      I’m very sympathetic to what Tim said. What we might try as a parent, and a teacher are very different things. Parents have far more time with their kids than any teacher. Always, if we’re turning people off reading, something’s gone wrong somewhere. Such a tricky balance… but then we hear of teachers like Esquith who somehow seem to manage it. But yeah, that whole debate is huge, not really worth getting into here and now.

      There is only one observation I’d make – you noted that prescription was complicated because people would struggle to agree. That’s fair enough – I for one have no idea whether Homer is needed versus an overview of the story. I think we can accept that there will never be 100% agreement, but whenever I or something else suggests we shouldn’t do something because it’s not perfect, I ask ‘What is the alternative?’

      Is the alternative 0 prescription? If so, surely that’s not perfect either? Doesn’t that just come with it’s own bag of problems? Doesn’t it then become a choice between the lesser of two ‘evils’, rather than a search for perfection? (perhaps not the best analogy to use in talking about our choices in the education system!)

      On a similar note, a friend keeps reminding me ‘not to make the best the enemy of the good.’ In other words, I have a propensity to over think things, try to make them perfect, and in the process suffer from not doing anything – note the best entrepreneurs seem to do exactly the opposite: jump in with only half a plan and learn from experience as they go along! May not be perfect, many might fail, but at least they get started; I have to admire that. In this context, indecision and complexity shouldn’t be the criteria by which we judge the relative merits of prescription. It may never be perfect, that doesn’t necessarily stop it being good.

      1. Yes, you’re right – complexity shouldn’t lead to inactivity and there can be a danger that it will. And personally I’d rather engage with an over thinker even when we might disagree than a no thinker who makes huge assumptions, so it’s always a pleasure to discuss these things with you!

    2. I remember feeling that for the first time too Tim. Though it was at uni and I still can’t shake off the feeling of a general hate for 19th Century lit. Wondering if I’d have come to it in my own time then maybe I would have fallen in love with it as so many other readers have. Or would I have never been introduced to it at all? I’m hoping to teach in a style similar to the one that you’ve mentioned too.

      I love the ideas in this post. I think it’s clear that Debra’s talking from the position of a mum too 🙂 I like that the post isn’t focussing on students of texts but on readers. I really enjoyed reading it.

    3. This reminds me of something that happened to me at school. We were reading A High Wind in Jamaica (probably the year pre-O Levels). Everyone in class was finding it hard going and dull. The teacher (who eventually left teaching to pursue writing plays) one day announced that we were going to stop reading the book because it was dull – we did, and started something else instead. What did I learn? That not all books are interesting (this will depend on who you are and where you’re at), and that it is OK to stop reading…..surprising in the context of school, but the result was that I wasn’t put off reading.

  4. This is the debate at the heart of Trivium 21c, there is more that binds us, than divides. @SurrealAnarchy Sent me this today, its great. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOdMBDOj4ec

    I completely agree that being a parent is totally different from being a teacher. I was just anecdoting in the manner of the blog. I also completely agree it is better to have strived and fallen short in this matter, than not to have strived at all. We can think of a thousand reasons for not trying to establish a canon, but I feel the process is every bit as important as the final list. Probably more. I welcome the debate.

  5. Kris, the other day you said to me on Twitter: ‘There aren’t books for the normal ppl and and books for the elite, just books.’ But you clearly believe that some books have more value than others, and that apparently the authors must be dead (and mostly white and male) for this to happen.
    Or would you advocate some modern novels and plays being put included among the mythical ‘canon’? I think the very biggest danger we face is that of school putting children off reading, and just as Debra says here, to avoid this we must do what we can to follow the individual child’s interests and approaches. (Thankfully this is what we can do as parents, but some children don’t have parents who will do this.)

    Where the gov’t (or any group of people) decides what is and isn’t ‘of value’ to read, this mitigates against the individual teacher’s knowledge of his or her own class and their personal contexts. In any case, there are so MANY wonderful books out there to read, that I think your fear that we somehow miss out on some vital bit of knowledge by not reading specific ones is just plain wrong. I have gaps in my reading, just like everyone (I’ve never read Homer, uh oh!) but to be honest it doesn’t seem to have harmed me or held me back in being a writer/teacher, etc.

    Sorry to hijack your thread, Debra, hope you had a lovely break.

    1. Hi Sue. A series of great questions; all deeply pertinent. I’ve been mulling them over since yesterday morning, and am still doing so. I’m also trying to decide the best way to reply; I don’t feel like I can properly answer your questions in a couple of hundred words, but then how dull to read another 2000 word comment! I’m still thinking, and will respond when it looks like I’ve found a way to do so – it may even be that writing my thoughts up into a blog post will prove the better way to go. Shall let you know.

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