By Ian Eyres, Senior Lecturer, The Open University
Spring is here, and along with it comes yet another headteacher telling children what they should or shouldn’t read. The Alex Rider and Twilight series are probably the most famous on the latest list of publications deemed to be ‘so simplistic, brutal or banal they are barely worth reading’. This time, the list has been compiled by Andrew Halls, head of King’s College School in Wimbledon. In their place, he’d like to see children reading a range of ‘good’ books running from the works of P.G. Wodehouse to Lord of the flies. Books, he says, should be helping children develop empathy through their deployment of ‘complex characters leading believable lives’, not simply delivering undemanding thrills.
As a reader, I have some sympathy. I read slowly and don’t get as much time for reading as I’d like, so I won’t waste my time on pulp fiction; I really don’t enjoy reading it. As a child was I so discerning? Well, I read a lot of the William and Jennings books of which Hall approves (though at the time I didn’t realise they were ‘good’) but also a lot of Biggles (the dogfighting ones, not the tedious detective ones) and of course, most of the canon of Enid Blyton (rarely brutal, but certainly simplistic and banal). I may have mentioned this before, but almost every writer I have ever asked about their juvenile reading habits has confessed to devoting a good deal of their childhood to working through this particular oeuvre. They’re always a bit embarrassed but they always reveal genuine and deep enjoyment. And they always then talk about the many other books, both ‘good’ and ‘bad’, that they went on to read, including the special ones which shaped who they were to become as writers.
To my mind, the flaw in the mindset that sorts books into ‘good’ and ‘bad’, is the idea that quality is a property of the book alone. Reading is a relationship between the book and the reader, with the reader bringing a great deal of personal knowledge and experience to their engagement with the text. That’s why different people like different books. As a child I liked Jennings, but the school books I really enjoyed were the ones by Nigel Molesworth. I didn’t go to a shabby posh school like St Custards, but the overlaps with my Home Counties grammar school were enough for me to see the joke. (Michael Rosen says something similar about his encounters with ‘the gorilla of 3b’). On the other hand, my own children discarded them before the end of the first page, because they meant nothing to them. I wasn’t daft enough to remonstrate that these were ‘good’ books.
I’m inclined to agree with Anthony Horowitz, one of the authors on Halls’ proscribed list, that we should ‘have more confidence in the ability of children to find the books they enjoy and which inspire them’. That’s not to say that teachers don’t have a role in shaping children’s developing tastes, but in that role we need to understand the young readers as well as we understand the books.
Almost without exception, the Teachers as Writers project teachers have sung the praises of just writing both for themselves and for the children they teach. Here’s to just reading.
The Open University