What should children read?

Education secretary Michael Gove thinks children should read 50 books a year. What a strange thing to say!

The obvious points have mostly all been made. Alan Garner, quite rightly, questions the advisability of “turning books into numbers”. Also, many can’t help wondering why this minister who wants children to read more is part of a government that is closing down public libraries. True, I personally have grave doubts about the current state of our public libraries, but if one’s aim is to promote literacy amongst children, restoring them rather than closing them down might have seemed more reasonable. (Although, to equivocate somewhat on the point, I can’t help wondering why it is that all those kids I see flaunting expensive mobile phones should plead poverty only when it comes to buying books.)

But at least we have an education secretary who recognises the importance of reading whole books, from cover to cover: in a time when children can apparently gain GCSEs in English by reading merely a few excerpts recommended by the National Curriculum, and without having read a single book from cover to cover, the recognition of reading entire books is welcome. But, as Philip Pullman asks, where are they going to get all these books from? Buying 50 books a year does add up in terms of cost.

Philip Pullman believes – I think rightly – that children should be encouraged to read all kinds of books, including “rubbish”; but he adds the vital condition that this “can only happen when there are plenty of good books as well”. Yes, quality does matter. For, if we are serious about teaching literature to children, we have to teach them of the heights that literature can achieve – indeed, the heights that literature already has achieved. Otherwise, what’s the point? Of course I wouldn’t want to deprive any child of the Beano annual. (Although, given my own regard for the Beano, I certainly wouldn’t class the Beano annual as “rubbish” – quite the contrary: given the choice between the Beano annual and some piece of classic tweeness such as the Beatrix Potter tales, or such execrable tomes as The Secret Garden or Little Lord Fauntleroy, I certainly know not merely where my own preferences lie, but also where one may find the greater aesthetic satisfaction.) But I digress. To return: I wouldn’t dream of depriving any child of the Beano annual; and neither would I want to deprive any child of real rubbish, such as those awful teen vampire novels that seem to be flooding the children’s shelves these days. By all means, let the children read whatever they want, short of pornography. But unless children also come into contact with the best that literature has to offer, it is hard to see how they can ever come to know its true value. And what is the point of teaching literature if children never come to know that?

Some time ago, when various worthies were asked what books they feel children should read at school, the then Poet Laureate, Andrew Motion, selected a list of ten titles representing some of the very highest peaks of Western literature. (Or, rather, he picked nine such titles, plus Jane Eyre, which, enjoyable though it is, and even rather fine at certain points, does seem to me to sit rather uneasily in such company.) Motion was much ridiculed for this at the time, I remember. Does he really expect children to read such books? Does he have any idea of what it is like in the classroom, with teachers struggling to impart basic literacy to children? And we got also the usual unthinking penny-in-the-slot criticism: “Motion is merely showing off.” Of course, for a Poet Laureate and biographer of Keats to show off his literary erudition is a bit like a brain surgeon showing off his expertise in brain surgery: it is somewhat superfluous at best. And why Motion, or anyone else, should want to show off erudition in a society in which erudition is generally derided rather than admired remains uncertain. But one cannot these days so much as mention one’s love of serious literature without at least someone somewhere reckoning that one is merely “showing off”, so I suppose one has to live with it.

But Motion’s intent in making this choice seems clear. Being a chap who is rather good with words, he explains himself better than I possibly could:

“Of course it’s a high ambition,” he said. “But I see no intrinsic reason why children shouldn’t read these works. They are wonderful, profoundly democratic works of art, but because some of them have a reputation as difficult they are put in a box and called elitist.

“The minute you do that, the backbone of culture is removed. We admit there is a problem at the moment with knowledge and I feel absolutely no embarrassment about naming these as sine qua nons. I find it maddening that these books should be dismissed as elitist. That way cultural vandalism lies.”

Indeed, that way cultural vandalism lies, and in the five years since he first propounded that list, we have gone even further down this road to cultural vandalism, without anyone appearing to notice or to care much even if they did. Of course, one takes Nick Hornby’s point that not all children are capable of reading such books, but to conclude from this that such books should be taught to no child seems to me a grotesque non sequitur. If one thinks that it is important to teach literature to children (and I appreciate that not everyone does), then I cannot see what possible objection there can be to teaching the best, at least to the more able pupils.

In this context, there is a rather interesting feature on The Book Show on the Sky Arts channel in which various literary guests are asked to choose a book they feel everyone under 21 ought to read. The question as posed is a poor one: there is no book everyone should read, even if everyone were to have the same high ability in literary matters. But most people making this choice seem to assume that we are talking not about “everyone”, but about the ablest. And, seen in this light, it is an interesting question, as it effectively asks the guests which of their own literary values they think most worth passing on to the next generation. So it is not surprising to see here the sort of title that wouldn’t have looked out of place in Andrew Motion’s much derided list – Middlemarch, War and Peace, The Odyssey, etc.

What would be my choice for something such as this, I wonder? I think I may choose something like Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. It’s not necessarily because it’s my personal favourite novel – Bleak House, War and Peace and Ulysses are still fighting it out for that one – but because it is one of those books that demonstrate how vitally important literature can be: The Brothers Karamazov addresses directly some of the most vital issues concerning human existence – issues which, until I first read this book as a teenager myself, had never so much as occurred to me; and suddenly, I found new intellectual horizons coming into view. And it was exciting. Dostoyevsky has a wonderful ability to make ideas appear dramatic and exciting, and I realised on reading this book that intellectual enquiry need not be dull or dry. Quite the opposite.

The Brothers Karamazov also demonstrated to me that works of literature can transcend differences of time and of culture, and that, with a little expenditure of imagination on the part of the reader, the past need not be a foreign country. (And indeed, foreign countries need not be foreign countries either, for that matter.)

Finally, I think I’d like to recommend The Brothers Karamazov to bright youngsters for the perhaps rather curious reason that it is difficult. At a time when English classes seem to be fobbing off even the brightest kids with books that are easy to read, and, hence, easy to teach (that is, when pupils are compelled to read a book in its entirety in the classroom, which is not often the case), this book provides evidence that there is a profound enjoyment to be had from grappling with difficulty rather than from avoiding it. Once a bright teenager has thrilled to The Brothers Karamazov, she or he will be unlikely to be put off other books merely on the grounds that they are “heavy going”. They may even find themselves attracted to some of the titles in Andrew Motion’s list!

But sadly, we are a long way from that right now: the teaching of literature in schools remains a problematic area, mainly, I suspect, because we no longer believe that literature embodies values that are worth propagating to future generations. But if we do believe this, then we must seriously re-think how we teach literature, and why, and also, I think, what we teach. For we have come a long way down that path of cultural vandalism that Andrew Motion talked about, and if we are to find the right path again, the whole area needs seriously to be rethought. And prescribing the number of books to be read while simultaneously closing down public libraries does not strike me as indicative of any serious thinking. Or, indeed, of any thought at all.


12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Maureen on March 27, 2011 at 7:57 am

    You make some excellent points here, not the least of which is easy-to-read = easy-to-teach. In a world of sound bites, 10-second commercials, and popular, youth-directed television series whose producers believe in scene/character change every five minutes (so that no audience member will be forced to wade through an entire thought at a single sitting), encouraging young people to delve into works that address “some of the most vital issues concerning human existence” is exactly what those who guide youngsters should be doing.


  2. Hello Maureen, and welcome to the blog. And thanks for reading my somewhat intemperate rants! 🙂

    Sadly, it’s not merely the youth-oriented programmes that exhibit the features you describe, although, I agree, they display these features more prominently. Recently, I watched on DVD BBC adaptations from the 70s of Tolstoy & Dickens (War and Peace from 1972, Our Mutual Friend from a few years later), and, while the production values were far cheaper than what we’re accustomed to these days, it was noticeable that there were individual scenes that went on for 10, 15 or even 20 or more minutes, as required. You won’t find that in any contemporary television drama, where the rule appears to be that no individual scene must go on for more than a couple of minutes or so. For instance, in the BBC adaptation of Bleak House a few years ago, the vitally important scene in which Lady Dedlock is shown around Tom All Alone’s by Little Jo was cross-cut with another scene. Now, when two secenes are intercut with each other, it should be because they shed light on each other by juxtaposition. But here, they didn’t: they were intercut for no better reason than that the director did not one a single scene lasting for any length of time.

    I think it is for similar reasons that we no longer get classic drama on television. When I was growing up in the 60s and 70s, we used regularly to see plays by Shakespeare, Ibsen, Chekhov, Shaw, etc. on television. I remember still when ITV, the commercial station, broadcast as its Bank Holiday special the National theatre production of Long Day’s Journey Into Night featuring Laurence Olivier. Nowadays, even when a British dramatist wins the Nobel Prize for literature (Harold Pinter), no channel, not even the licence-funded BBC, thinks it worthwhile to celebrate his achievemnt by broadcasting one of his plays. Never mind a new production, they don’t even think of putting on a repeat of an old broadcast.

    Sorry – I’ve started ranting again, haven’t I? I’m afraid that the removal from the mainstream of anything that is of cultural value is a theme that really sets me off! 🙂

    Anyway, pleased to see you here, and please do feel free to drop in & add comments!

    All the best, Himadri


  3. Hello

    Have you heard of “Comme un roman” by Daniel Pennac ? (Translated in English as The 10 Inalienable Rights of the Reader)

    He tells about his experience as a literature teacher and says children should read anything as long as they read.
    His point was that before teaching, he had to make his pupils want to read and he started it by reading books aloud at school. That way, he put the story forward instead of diving into boring analysis. He didn’t choose easy works though.

    I also think that reading anything is better than nothing. At least, it trains the children to concentrate, improves their reading speed and teaches vocabulary. It’s a first and necessary step to read more challenging works. You need to learn how to walk before trying to run.


    • Hello,

      I haven’t, I admit, heard of Daniel Pennac, but I do agree that children – especilly young children – should be allowed to read what they want. I myself remember reading a great many books by Enid Blyton, and, far from doing me harm, they gave me the confidence I needed to read books in English (I didn’t know any English till I was nearly 6).

      I agree with you fully that before children are guided towards more challenging works, we need to help them to build their ability to concentrate, and also develop their confidence. Quite clearly, it is silly handing a ten-year-old novels by Gerge Eliot or Gustave Flaubert: if they would rtherread an Enid Blyton (or whatever the modern equivalent is) then fie – there’s no problem ther eat all. The problem is that even once the children become a bit older, they are not challenged in terms of their reading. At least, not in British schools: I’m sure things aren’t so bad in French schools.

      In response to Alan in an earlier post (the one on why we should teach literature in schools), I mentioned that our daughter, now aged 15, had not been required, until only a few weeks ago, to read a single book from cover to cover. And she goes to a scool that gets good reports from school inspectors. A few weeks ago, she was finally given a book she had to read in its entirety: Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck. It’s certainly a fine novel, but it’s quite a straight-forward work, and she could easily have read this some 5 or so years earlier. Now, I feel this is inadequate. If we are to be serious about teaching literature in schools, then able pupils in their mid-teens do deserve something a bit better than this.

      I am no expert on education, I must admit, but I do feel that something has gone seriously wrong in British schools. How else can I feel when I see bright 15 year-olds haven’t even read any Shakespeare?

      But when they are younger, yes, I fully agree – let them read whatever they want that will prepare them for more challenging works later. It’s when the challenging works don’t come later that we have to concede that there’s a problem.


      • Teenagers should be allowed to read anything too. Instead of children, teenagers or adults, I’d rather say “debutant readers”. I’ve been taking piano lessons for two years now. I’m an adult but I couldn’t play Chopin even if I’d wish to. I need to go through mandatory steps before hoping to play Chopin. Same thing for literature : you can’t read Shakespeare if you’re not used to reading. Or it’s going to be a massacre.

        How are things going in France regarding literature ?
        My children are still in primary school. My son (7) is currently in a reading challenge : he has to read a book from cover to cover, to answer questions and if he passes the test, he can read the next book. My daughter (10) reads books at school when she’s finished her work. Both go to the library with their teachers.

        In collège (after primary school), they still read books in school. Here is a link to the official school program for fifteen-year-old students : http://noe-education.org/D14_L3.php3 Teachers pick books in this list for their classes. I see they don’t have Corneille and Racine anymore. And I studied Vipère au Poing when I was 12. This list is strange: To me Frankenstein is a lot more difficult than The Pearl. I’m afraid things haven’t improved since I left school.

      • Oh absolutely! Everyone – teenagers, adults, debutante readers – is entitled to read and to enjoy whatever they want. No argument there at all. I am most certainly not recommending restricting anyone’s reading. What is bothering me is that at a point when children are ready to be challenged with more demanding reading material, the schools are failing them.

        That your 7-year-old son has to read books from cover to cover merely indicates how poor the British education system is in comparison: there is nothing like that here. As I said, it was only a few weeks ago that our daughter was asked by her school for the first time to read a book from cover to cover for the first time. And she is 15. I do find that deeply shocking.

        Looking at the link you provide, there are some impressive titles in there (despite the lack of Racine & Corneille, there’s Molière, Balzac, Maupassant, Flaubert, Hugo, etc.). Whether there’s a similar list for British schools I do not know. Given how little our daughter has been stretched in her English classes, I rather suspect there isn’t. The standards may have been even higher in your time, but even as it is, the standards in French schools (to judge by that reading list) are much higher than the standards here. (Our daughter does read, of course, but only because we encourage her at home.)

        Generally, by the time children reach their teenage years, they have had many years of literacy classes, and, unless they are suffering from some kind of learning disability, they should be ready to be challenged with more demanding works. By the time they reach their teens, they should be prepared to take their first steps in Shakespeare. But the English classes in British schools are failing very seriously in this respect. It is not the teachers’ fault: they are generally very dedicated and hard-working. But something appears to have gone very wrong with the school curriculum. I am not an educationalist, so I don’t really know what exactly has gone wrong: but that something is wrong does seem to me very obvious. And the Education Secretary’s recent statement does not inspire me with confidence that he has thought these matters through.

  4. Posted by alan on March 27, 2011 at 9:47 pm

    My son’s school teaches Romeo and Juliet in its entirety to year 8 (currently on act 3), but it does not require the play to be read outside of school.
    This is apparently taught in terms of the teacher’s interpretation of the play plus the children being required to produce an interpretation of a small section of the play in a more recent historical setting.


  5. Posted by alan on March 27, 2011 at 10:27 pm

    I appreciate that this is largely a literature and arts blog but other areas of learning may have bigger problems.


  6. Posted by alan on April 3, 2011 at 9:42 pm

    I’ve found a captive audience for you that looks like it may counter your assessment of the cultural awareness of the UK population.


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