Read any good books lately?


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.

Ian Eyres
Senior Lecturer
The Open University

4 thoughts on “Read any good books lately?”

  1. Hear hear! Let’s stop telling children what they should and shouldn’t read and help them find the books that are right for them. Especially those children who struggle with reading and thus find so little pleasure in it. If Alex Rider does it for some kids all well and good. Surely it’s something to celebrate?

  2. I couldn’t agree more! My 9-year-old daughter reads voracioulsy-she has read the entire “Harry Potter” series 6 times. However she often really struggles with the books that she is given to read from school as they do not always engage her and she very much has a sense of having to read because someone has “told” her to rather than because she wants to. I think if teachers had the confidence (and time) to allow children to explore their own tastes more the reading experience at school could be a lot more satisfying. As Ian Eyres says in his excellent post, “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.” So maybe my daughter is a wizard in the making…

  3. Yes, absolutely. Let children read 200 Beast Quest books if they must, just quietly make them aware of The Edge Chronicles or The Hobbit occasionally. They’ll know when they’re ready to move on.

  4. I also hate ordering children to read what others have deemed “good books,” and censorship is counter productive. As a child, I experienced a highly controlling school that banned anything they thought was subversive let alone low quality, and luckily found where they dumped the books, and carried them away in armfuls to gobble up. If a child is an avid reader – they gobble anything and everything voraciously and probably always will.

    However – (a little however) – as we all know, in these days (unlike in my childhood where the threat was the comic) the book is not the only source of entertainment or storytelling. Indeed, it is almost outflanked by devices (mainly visual) with gaming and any number of “storytelling” genres that give immediate thrills and spills, and it is quite natural for children not only to be drawn to these, but to seek the equivalent in books. (It is also natural that publishers, in trying to compete with these devices, favour books that reflect them.) But after a number of school visits in the past month or so, I myself have been wondering whether this saturation of the visual media has had an effect on the child’s imagination – or rather what the child thinks of as being imaginative, and I feel I’ve seen this reflected in their “creative writing.” So much of their “storytelling” comes from their exposure to these kinds of visual special effects, and it is this that they seem to be trying to emulate. Good thing, or bad thing? A good point for discussion. All I would suggest is, (as with other arts like music – especially classical music -) if they aren’t introduced to “literature” (for want of a better term) at school, then is it a gamble that they will make the discovery later when they’ve left? Does it matter? Should one capitalise on your captive audience and make sure that they are introduced to more challenging works aided – one would hope – by enthusiastic and knowledgeable staff ? Is it worthwhile? Again, does it matter? I think it does – just like good food is better than junk food. So it’s getting the balance right. It’s NOT censoring, but it is putting more onus on parents and teachers to interest children in what is perceived as “good” books – or rather the books which stir, not just their “imagination,” but their perceptions of the world they live in; the world of ideas, pioneering morality, philosophy, the shaping of attitudes – all to be found in “good” books whether it’s Little Red Riding Hood or “War and Peace.” Rather than pussy-foot around the term “good” and “bad” – I’d welcome far more critical analysis of what makes a good book; books that can answer Rudyard Kiplings 6 Honest Men: the five w questions and the h. Books from which they will be excited by, not just the fabulous tales of human experience, but also the very building blocks we all need for communuication: good language, clear ideas, and a real ability to explore individual creativity. It’s following the agenda we all want: that the reader becomes the writer and the writer, the reader.

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