When my eldest was 12, he read Philip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy. I found the copies a few years later when I was passing them onto his younger brother and saw a little note he’d written in the back of the last book:-
“This book broke my heart.”
The spines of all three were broken he’d read them so often. I can safely say he loved them.
Middle son loved Michelle Paver’s Chronicles of Ancient Darkness books. He read all seven of them fifteen times. He quoted ad infinitum. I’d buy him new books but they’d remain unread. Eventually he tired of them and moved on.
Both boys went on to study English Literature at A Level, one went on to continue studying it at University. Thankfully he’s managed to get a job afterwards and not thrown his life away as Nicky Morgan predicted. They love reading and have slowly discovered the classics as their tastes have developed. And now I watch my little one reading Michael Morpurgo with tears running down his face, getting to the end and starting again and I know that something is precious is happening. What Vincent Lien, in his lovely account of his own reading, called catharsis.
I’m not sure how it has happened, but there now seems to be a disparaging set of voices arguing that children must be reading the classics or they’re not really reading. That reading children’s literature is an “opportunity cost”. I find that a bit alarming. For the classics were all written for educated adults, not children. And it worries me that forcing a diet intended for another reader altogether on them too early might put them off reading for life. When is the ‘right’ time to introduce children to classics? And which ones?
I’ve had classes that have loved some classic texts – Beowulf (translated by Seamus Heaney), The Iliad (translated by Christopher Logue), Hecuba (translated by Tony Harrison) – all as dependent on the skill of the modern translator as the original writer. I’ve seen Year 4 completely captivated by Shakespeare. But none of the kids I’ve taught have been so keen on Dickens. If I’m honest, I find Dickens’ style turgid and heavy. But the stories are great and the characters well drawn. Is it a sin to say I think he was born for televised adaptations? When I’ve introduced Dickens I’ve had to come at him obliquely – through Jamila Gavin’s wonderful Coram Boy for example. In this text, the inequalities of society are writ large; the children can access the Georgian context preceding Dickens’ Victorian period – they can link the text to music, encountering Handel along the way. And there’s a perfect segue into William Blake. They love him. They love the Ancient Mariner too – “all that just for a bird?” they cry and we enter a discussion about justice, the sanctity of life and philosophy.
Books are portals. Portals to historical, philosophical and cultural contexts, yes. But they are also portals to other books. Let’s embrace children’s literature and see it as a valid genre in its own right with some wonderful authors weaving stories that capture the hearts of children. For when we have avid readers on our hands, we have clay that can be moulded and guided. We can lead them to the classics. But we have a great responsibility here to find the right texts. The ones that will make hearts race either with their plot lines or with the beauty of their style. And here we need to make way for personal choices.
I remember Jane Eyre left me cold, but The Tenant of Wildfell Hall had me desperately wanting more. It’s a shame Anne died leaving only two books behind. My classmates felt differently. But we had a clever teacher – one who wouldn’t give us all the same book, but gave us different ones and asked us to talk about them afterwards. I got Far From The Madding Crowd in our Hardy fortnight – it remains one of my favourite books to date. My friend had the Mayor of Casterbridge. She loves it still. But we were sixteen. Raised on Enid Blyton, then Danielle Steele and Stephen King to become avid if not discerning readers. We met the classics when we were ready to delve more deeply. Perhaps a year earlier would have been good, but before that? I’d have switched off.
If we want to entice readers into a world of reading that will continue for their whole lives we need to value their choices; to entice – not force – them into new areas of exploration and most of all, we need to know them, their tastes and interests. If we don’t do this, there is a significant danger that they’ll have encountered classic literature and only learned to hate it.