Whose Book is it Anyway?

When my eldest was 12, he read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I found the copies a few years later when I was passing them onto his younger brother and saw a little note he’d written in the back of the last book:-

“This book broke my heart.”

The spines of all three were broken he’d read them so often. I can safely say he loved them.

Middle son loved Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books. He read all seven of them fifteen times. He quoted ad infinitum. I’d buy him new books but they’d remain unread. Eventually he tired of them and moved on.

Both boys went on to study English Literature at A Level, one went on to continue studying it at University. Thankfully he’s managed to get a job afterwards and not thrown his life away as Nicky Morgan predicted. They love reading and have slowly discovered the classics as their tastes have developed. And now I watch my little one reading Michael Morpurgo with tears running down his face, getting to the end and starting again and I know that something is precious is happening. What Vincent Lien, in his lovely account of his own reading, called catharsis.

I’m not sure how it has happened, but there now seems to be a disparaging set of voices arguing that children must be reading the classics or they’re not really reading. That reading children’s literature is an “opportunity cost”. I find that a bit alarming. For the classics were all written for educated adults, not children. And it worries me that forcing a diet intended for another reader altogether on them too early might put them off reading for life. When is the ‘right’ time to introduce children to classics? And which ones?

I’ve had classes that have loved some classic texts – Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney), The Iliad (translated by Christopher Logue), Hecuba (translated by Tony Harrison) – all as dependent on the skill of the modern translator as the original writer. I’ve seen Year 4 completely captivated by Shakespeare. But none of the kids I’ve taught have been so keen on Dickens. If I’m honest, I find Dickens’ style turgid and heavy. But the stories are great and the characters well drawn. Is it a sin to say I think he was born for televised adaptations? When I’ve introduced Dickens I’ve had to come at him obliquely – through Jamila Gavin’s wonderful Coram Boy for example. In this text, the inequalities of society are writ large; the children can access the Georgian context preceding Dickens’ Victorian period – they can link the text to music, encountering Handel along the way. And there’s a perfect segue into William Blake. They love him. They love the Ancient Mariner too – “all that just for a bird?” they cry and we enter a discussion about justice, the sanctity of life and philosophy.

Books are portals. Portals to historical, philosophical and cultural contexts, yes. But they are also portals to other books. Let’s embrace children’s literature and see it as a valid genre in its own right with some wonderful authors weaving stories that capture the hearts of children. For when we have avid readers on our hands, we have clay that can be moulded and guided. We can lead them to the classics. But we have a great responsibility here to find the right texts. The ones that will make hearts race either with their plot lines or with the beauty of their style. And here we need to make way for personal choices.

I remember Jane Eyre left me cold, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had me desperately wanting more. It’s a shame Anne died leaving only two books behind. My classmates felt differently. But we had a clever teacher – one who wouldn’t give us all the same book, but gave us different ones and asked us to talk about them afterwards. I got Far From The Madding Crowd in our Hardy fortnight – it remains one of my favourite books to date. My friend had the Mayor of Casterbridge. She loves it still. But we were sixteen. Raised on Enid Blyton, then Danielle Steele and Stephen King to become avid if not discerning readers. We met the classics when we were ready to delve more deeply. Perhaps a year earlier would have been good, but before that? I’d have switched off.

If we want to entice readers into a world of reading that will continue for their whole lives we need to value their choices; to entice – not force – them into new areas of exploration and most of all, we need to know them, their tastes and interests. If we don’t do this, there is a significant danger that they’ll have encountered classic literature and only learned to hate it.



10 thoughts on “Whose Book is it Anyway?

  1. Britain is famous for the quality of its children’s literature – and I’m not just talking about the classics such as Alice in Wonderland, Wind in the Willows, Winnie the Pooh but the modern ones you’ve mentioned.

    And yet there seems a determination to push children from these into the world of adult classics from the literary canon. It appears even 20th century modern classics are regarded as less worthy than Dickens or Austen.

    That’s not to say pupils shouldn’t read these but they should do so because they want to not because a politician says they must. Introducing classics too soon kills them. I was made to read David Copperfield when I was about 8 or 9. I enjoyed the start but got bored to such an extent it would have put me of Dickens for life if I hadn’t have had to study Hard Times for A level. I picked up David Copperfield again last year and ditched it – enjoyed the beginning but when David married drippy Dora I’d had enough.

    Books should be a life-long addiction. But if books are linked with boredom then great harm has been done.

    Let them enjoy books, savour every word, weep or laugh with the characters. It doesn’t have to be Dickens of Austen. They’ve got all their lives to read these.

  2. There was a debate on any questions when the previous syllabus was brought it and the politicians on the panel were asked to say what pre C20th novel they would recommend for 14 years old to read – they went for Dickens, Thackery and Austen just the diet for 14 year old boys!

    There is a great deal of snobbery around the idea of “cultural capital” about the things that we “should” be reading rather than the think that people want to read – and the imposition of this cultural capital can be seen in a range of ways – it is interesting it is so prevalent in the book arena I don’t think you would get politicians doing the same for sport, music or art – though there is also some of this.

    At the root of this is the inability of politicians (and others) to see children as children they see them as mini-adults hence much of the rhetoric around the ways they should dress, should behave, should learn and in this case should read.

      1. jillberry102 – agree entirely. Must admit I’m now out of touch with teenage fiction. When I was i/c the library for a couple of years I read many authors writing books for teenagers and young adults – Zindel, Cormier, Hinton, Westall, Blume. I can see I’m going to have to borrow Twilight and Hunger Games from the library.

        The strengths of the authors I mentioned is that their books ask powerful questions about relationships, bullying, loyalty, betrayal, power etc but in a context more resonant to teenagers than 19thC fiction. That’s not to say teenagers shouldn’t read the latter but it should be from choice not because some politician says 19thC literature is superior to the books they enjoy (the implication being that the latter are trash and those who read them are less educated).

        I didn’t read Middlemarch until I was middle-aged although I played the BBC series to my Year 9 top set – their work was displayed in the local museum and featured on the Radio 4 programme Kaleidoscope. There are ways of appreciating 19thC literature (particularly Dickens which dramatises well) than by actually reading it.

        1. You sound so much like me, Janet – and I think we may be of an era! I was second in English & teacher i/c the library between 1986 & 1989 & then Head of English between 1989 & 1993. I read a lot of teenage fiction at that time, and enjoyed the authors you mention here. Robert Westall actually came into the school where I was HoD to talk to the girls (it was a girls’ school) about the process of writing, and he got the girls to do a survey of their current reading habits, which was fascinating. Sadly, he died not long after that.

          There was, then, so much good stuff around for teen readers, and I know there still is. I love writers like David Almond. Have also recently read Wonder (R J Palacio) and A Monster Calls (Patrick Ness) & thought they were so powerful – though the Ness was so poignant I actually found it quite distressing. Kenny Pieper (do you follow on Twitter? @kennypieper – great blog) assures me it does work really well in the classroom.

          And sorry to take over your blog post, Debra!

      2. jillberry102 – I heard David Almond on Desert Island Discs and wrote a blog in response http://www.localschoolsnetwork.org.uk/2013/03/how-can-the-bird-that-is-born-for-joy-sit-in-a-cage-and-sing/.

        My granddaughter introduced me to Skellig after I mentioned the Blake quote – she recognised it from the book. But when I ordered a copy I didn’t realise I’d ordered a version in French. Mon dieu! Have now read the version in English.

        I don’t tweet – there aren’t enough hours in the day.

        1. Thanks, Janet – will have a read and will keep an eye on future blog posts. But don ‘t discount engaging in Twitter at some stage! I’ve found it illuminating!

  3. “I watch my little one reading Michael Morpurgo with tears running down his face, getting to the end and starting again and I know that something is precious is happening.” Just love this, Debra.

    Absolutely with you on this one. I wrote this for the Guardian Teacher Network back in 2012 in response to a Nick Gibb pronouncement that every child should have read a Dickens novel by the time they were 11:

    1. Couldn’t agree more – though still find Dickens heavy going if I’m honest. Before the age of 11? That’s just machismo – like the Michael Gove comment about parents being happier that their child was reading Middlemarch than Twilight. Not a thought for the child – only for middle class competitive parenting!

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