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English teacher interested in language and culture, and also in fiction using magic, myth, folklore and the supernatural. Now teaching part-time in a Leicester Upper School (ages 14-19) and also writing for children, teens and teachers.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

What should children and teens read?

A few things have made me think about this lately: Gove's ill-fated 'approved' reading lists for UK children, that Wall Street Journal article that prompted the #YAsaves hashtag on Twitter, and my 12 yr old's struggle with a book outside her usual reading.

As with most things related to children, people have opinions about what's 'good' for them to read, or even more prescriptively, what they should read. Our hapless Education Minister believes in the canon and the classics, suggesting that there should be lists of books to be recommended for each school year, and that kids should expect to read 50 books per year. Often these arguments end up linked to general intelligence or, more disturbingly to morality, as though only morally upstanding citizens read, and a good dose of literacy could innoculate our youth against crime.

The WSJ article that has caused so much outrage focuses on concerns about what type of reading should be available to kids. Centred on the belief that only 'dark' material is available to teens these days, it implies that negative experience shouldn't be presented in books for this age group (or perhaps for anyone...). Quite rightly, authors and lovers of YA are protesting that in fact there is a range available - not all teen titles feature horrific future worlds or supernatural violence - and anyway, within these dark storylines, the message is frequently one of hope, strength and generally positive attributes that we would want to nurture in our teens. Hence the wonderful #YAsaves hashtag.

Finally, my own daughter's slight struggle in reading "The Railway Children", which of course I remembered fondly, showed me loud and clear how problematic it could be to force challenging older ('classic') texts onto reluctant readers. As is clear from the reviews here, I am a reader of YA and I read it because I enjoy it, and also because I enjoy writing it. Having taken another look at the E Nesbit classic, at my 12 yr old's prompting, I realise how much more difficult a read it is. Obviously there have been differences in the language in the 107 years since it was first published, but also people's behaviours, expectations and beliefs are quite different to today. She enjoyed it nonetheless, but probably wouldn't have read to the end if she hadn't been required to, and she did find reviewing it difficult, because she wanted to say that it was hard to read, but felt that was too negative a comment. This was the third book she'd had to review and the first time she wanted to discuss a review book with me.

In all, I suppose my (not very earth-shattering) conclusion is that children and teens should be encouraged to read by being allowed to explore a range of material. Unfortunately, however, it seems to need saying at the moment.

I don't think we can (or should attempt to) shield kids from anything and everything negative in the world, and I believe that books have a role in allowing us to explore and extend our emotional lives, which is best achieved by letting us into experiences that we wouldn't necessarily have ourselves. As a teacher and a parent, I am convinced that setting books which won't engage kids is the very best way to turn out non-readers. Seeing my booky daughter struggle has absolutely shown me that a kid who didn't already believe in the power of books would simply see that difficult text as evidence that they were right to see books as boring.

2 comments:

  1. If what they read doesn't engage children/young adults they have as much right as anyone else to give it the boot. We don't all read Anna Karenina et al all the time.
    Thanks for the post, Beth.

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  2. Very true. All my attempts to get one of my boys to read some older, "better" novels were blown apart when he discovered Percy Jackson and went from reading next to nothing for pleasure to caning all of these in 3 weeks! Now I just let him read what he's interested in (with the occasional gentle nudge).

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