Why I let the Year 7s tell me what to read

I was interested to read in the Sunday Times this weekend of the move by Andrew Halls, Head of King’s College School Wimbledon, to veto certain books from his school library. In a well-intentioned bid to generate better reading habits, Halls has jettisoned popular modern texts such as ‘Skulduggery Pleasant’ and ‘Eragon’ and sought to promote more ‘worthy’ novels such as ‘Goodnight Mister Tom’ or classics like ‘Moonfleet’ and ‘Just William.’

I have to say, much as I like and admire Andrew Halls and respect all the good he has done at KCS, I do disagree with this move. Not only does the idea of dictating any type of reading matter to anyone in any circumstances feel rather uncomfortable, but, even if you dodge the censorship bullet, I don’t actually think his plan is going to work. No doubt parents choosing schools will remember with fondness books from their own school days over those written since they grew up – a kind of nostalgia trap into which teachers can fall too. And some will be impressed by the scholarly aspect a public move such as this will lend to an institution. However, I’d be surprised if many 11 year olds would feel the same way.

Personally, I have come at modern children’s literature from a different angle. And I love it. Over a period of 20 years of teaching English, I have moved from telling children what they should read, to asking them what they enjoy reading. I have learnt over time that this is more productive in a number of ways. Firstly, reading should be enjoyable. Once it becomes a chore, you have lost. Secondly, if you can find out what they enjoy, you can guide them to the next level more naturally. If they love Percy Jackson, for example, then Homer is an obvious next step. ‘Eragon’ slips into Tolkien, ‘Twilight’ into Austen. But my final reason for asking them what they enjoy is now totally selfish but also totally sincere; I might want to read it too.

Learning is not a one way street. Yes, it is a major part of my role to recommend books to young people but I have also benefitted enormously from having them recommend things to me. Without my pupils, I would not have come across ‘A Monster Calls’ by Patrick Ness (heart-wrenching reality meets psychological fantasy) or ‘Maggot Moon’ by Sally Gardner (dystopian political conspiracy thriller) or anything by Marcus Sedgwick. The latter in particular is guilty of all the YA tricks Andrew Halls might be wishing to eschew – vampires, witches and page-turning plots. But he also has a way with timelines and character development that places him right at the top of my favourite living authors. I would challenge any adult reading this to go to ‘Midwinter Blood’ or ‘The Ghosts of Heaven’ and not get something from those texts.

In particular, without the encouragement of my pupils, I would point blank have refused to read ‘The Hunger Games’ by Suzanne Collins. In my adult brain, I had dismissed the latter as a cheap copy of the Japanese cult movie, ‘Battle Royale’, until I was pushed into reading it by pupils at my last school. I soon learnt that it has more to do with Roman Culture and modern politics than I could ever have imagined; ‘bread and circuses’ seems especially resonant right now. I have also used Katniss Everdeen time and again as a shining example of a powerful young woman when speaking in assemblies or class discussions. I used to hold her up as a contrast to Bella Swan, the swooning protagonist of ‘Twilight’ (and I do confess to not liking those novels – although that’s not the same as telling people that they can’t read them). However, I myself was pulled up by the wonderful Juno Dawson, another Young Adult author. She came to talk about gender at JAGS and described Katniss as a typical version of a young woman behaving like a man in order to lead. Why shouldn’t Bella choose to be a wife and mother if that’s what she wants? And surely debate and discussion of this nature is at the heart of the study of literature. Nothing is totally ‘bad’ just as nothing is totally ‘good’. If we are talking about books, we are winning.

When I was a child, I used to love ‘The Famous Five’ and ‘The Faraway Tree.’ A teacher at my primary school once told my mum that Enid Blyton would shrink my brain as her vocabulary was so limited. My mum cheerfully ignored her advice and, two masters degrees in literature later, you could either say that she was right to do so or side with the teacher as I am still, patently, reading kids’ books for pleasure now!

Personally, I think we are living in a golden age of children’s and teen fiction. Sadly, too many of those who want to condemn it have never actually read it. And, if you haven’t read something, why should you tell a child it’s no good for them? If you have read something, then why was it ok for you to sample it first hand and not for them? Not long ago, I enjoyed a Twitter debate on the merit of David Walliams’ work, ‘Gangsta Granny’. Some on-line worthy was dismissing it as a silly and pointless novel. Now, if any of you have read ‘Gangsta Granny’ to the end, you would know that this was far from the case.

As far as children’s reading is concerned, I would conclude with a summary which fits with much of our handling of the younger generation. Don’t seek to dictate – take the time to understand.

 

Sally-Anne Huang, Headmistress, James Allen’s Girls’ School

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