Wednesday, 23 March 2011

"Read this -- it's good for you..."

Michael Gove (British Secretary of State for Education) is getting a proper ribbing for his recent comment that ‘…our children should be reading fifty books a year’. Quite apart from the tragicomic illogicality of saying such a thing at a time of library cuts -- and indeed the absence of libraries in an increasing number of British
schools -- his call for ‘leading children’s authors’ to select titles isn’t going down too well either. Librarians are surely the true experts, as many authors themselves are pointing out.

What really worries me though is the nature of many of the books on any such list of fifty (why fifty?) titles children 'must read'. When grown-ups start waving classic works of children’s literature at their kids, you can almost hear the Angel of Literacy crinkling at the edges as she shrivels and dies.

As a boy of 12 or so, we started reading Treasure Island in English Class. The teacher read aloud for five minutes, then we took it in turns to stumble through Stevenson’s Victorian prose ourselves. There seemed to be a story in there somewhere, but all I could hear was a hesitant drone and the rustle of paper aeroplanes. When weeks turned to months, the teacher finally decided something had to be done. She held a vote and we elected to stop reading and do a mini project on democracy instead. Obviously we all loathed Treasure Island by then.

Years later, when writing my own seafaring tale, I read Treasure Island again (hoping to pinch Stevenson’s research). Needless to say it’s quite brilliant, and Long John Silver is one of the great villains of literature. But as a set text at school, blurted out from behind the hunched shoulders of the class bully, it didn’t stand a

Isn’t it time to abandon the concept of ‘children’s classics’ altogether, and accept that Stevenson, Ransome, Carroll, et al are best left for more mature readers? Let’s stop beating kids round the head with what they should read, and let them take their pick from modern writing, comics, flash fiction, anything that keeps them reading. This is meant to be a 'Golden Age of Children’s Writing,' after all. But it’s libraries, not lists, that could help it become a Golden Age of Reading too.


  1. I got Teasure Island and Jane Eyre at Primary level, and as well as the Victorian prose there was the tiny print, AND no illustrations. Enough to put children just starting out on literature off for ever. I can remember despairing of Aimee's reading matter of choice as a young teen, book after book about the Babysitting Club or some such, but she WAS reading book after book so I had to just grit my teeth until she discovered the 'real deal' for herself. And the whole family benefited from having a 'Library Insider' to keep the flow of books going. As you said, beats me how Gove can make a sweeping statement about getting children to read in the teeth of Library closures.
    Pah! (Oh dear, Grumpy Old Woman Alert!)

  2. At my school we were forced to read Shakespeare from the age of 11. To be honest, it was probably as painful as Treasure Island was for you.

    Our reading list was pretty heavy, but one teacher had the brilliant idea of giving us a 'fun' book as well. In my case it was James Bond, which started a lifetime enjoyment of the books.

    I was a voracious reader from the age of 4, but those books we were forced to read certainly did their best to crush any pleasure from reading.

    I believe it is much better to read anything regularly than one turgid book a year. Let's encourage schools to help pupils learn that reading is a joy, not a task.

  3. I was told I was stupid from an early age, so when we read classics at school I assumed they were dull because I was! I decided pretty early on that I wanted to find out what was so clever about a bunch of dead writers no body aside from our teachers had ever read.

    As Neil said, forcing reading crushes the pleasure.

    I read to my daughter from the go get and it wasn't until she was six that she took an interest in reading to herself - Rainbow Magic of all things - I was glad she enjoyed reading them to herself because they bored me witless! But since then she has chosen her own books and that's the way it should be.

    She reads way in excess of fifty books a year but numbers really aren't the point, are they? I read much less than that as a child but had an interest in books and stories. It's all neither here nor there. I do recall a teacher (my fave as he turned out) telling me to put down that deadly tome and do something worthy of my age - I was memorising Hamlet!

  4. When I was younger I HATED when I was forced to read the classics, it actually turned me off to reading. But along the way I found books I could relate to and began loving to read. It wasn't until late high school that I was able to appreciate the classics.

  5. Thomas,

    I do agree. I hated much poetry at school, for instance - couldn't see the point of it and resented being told something was "great" and that therefore I should like it. I mean, the teacher was right, and I see that now, but some things you have to discover for yourself.

  6. I think the whole problem is having a rigid definition of the books that children should be reading. Some children will enjoy "classics" and others will prefer more modern books, or a mix of the two. I have an ongoing disagreement with my wife, who complains about modern children's books and comics, and wants our kids to read the books of her youth. My children, quite sensibly, read mostly whatever they want...

  7. Many thanks for all the comments. I forget who it was who said 'a book is for life, not just for homework' but whoever it was can say it again any time they like.


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