Give the kid a book

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There was an article in the Independent today about how children are reading less nowadays, and how this is a bad thing, and giving suggestions on how things might be improved.

Well, I have to say, it was a breath of fresh air, because for once the writer was not demanding that schools, and teachers, take responsibility for yet another failing of parents. Interestingly, the author also recommended buying an ebook reader – because more than one person can read the same book at the same time, they’re easy to keep tidy, and you can adjust the font size.

I agreed with everything she said – reading is a habit that you have to get into, and children do have to be introduced to books.

But I would go a little further – let’s just have a look at the kind of books we’re introducing kids to, shall we?

Have a think about what books you were given to read at school in English lessons. Mine, as far as I can remember were:

Moonfleet, JM Faulkner.
Smith, Leon Garfield.
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens.
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte.
The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde.
Macbeth, William Shakespeare.

All important literary books. All pretty heavy going, if you’re not a reader. You could say, yes, I was in the top set and could cope – but then, not being a reader is not wholly the province of the less intelligent. Are these the books that would persuade a child who was not usually a reader that reading was a fun thing to do? Personally, I don’t think so. My sister certainly didn’t think so. I remember her saying “If they picked a book that some people liked and some people didn’t, it wouldn’t be fair. So they pick books that nobody will like.”

What a comment on the education system’s book choices for children!

I remember the bottom set got to read The BFG (Roald Dahl). Oh, how I envied them. I remember thinking that it really wasn’t a great encouragement to work hard: work hard, get into the top set, and they’ll make you read Moonfleet. On the other hand, if you doss about and end up in the bottom set, they give you a fun book like The BFG!

If we have a problem with children not reading, then we should give them books that they’re going to enjoy. Yes, parents should be taking care of this, but, as usual, some parents won’t, so the only place little Josh or Molly is going to get books is school. And if they’re not readers, the only time they’ll read is when they’re made to, and that’s English lessons. In English lessons, they’re a captive audience. We can introduce them to reading books that say ‘reading is fun’; ‘reading is exciting’; ‘reading takes you to places and introduces you to people beyond your wildest imagination’.

So what do we give them? The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas.

Now there’s a book that would probably put me off reading, and I’m kind of the definition of “I think, therefore I read”. Literary merit, yes, in spades, but is it the kind of book that says “You had fun with me… you could do that again – look, the school library’s just down the corridor”?

If you’re faced with reluctant readers, you need to give them something fun, something they’ll enjoy, something that’ll make them want to read more. Then once you’ve persuaded them that reading per se isn’t a bad thing, in fact, it’s fun, then you can introduce them to the more serious stuff.

Here’s my really quick list of kids’ books I think are good, in no particular order:
Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling. Say no more.
Wee Free Men, A Hat Full of Sky, Wintersmith, I Shall Wear Midnight by Terry Pratchett. All the best of Pratchettism, but for kids. And besides, the main character is called Tiffany.
The Changeover by Margaret Mahy.
Anything by Roald Dahl.
Anything by Diana Wynne Jones.
This Place Has No Atmosphere by Paula Danziger.
Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books – a little dated now, possibly, but she obviously understood children, and remembered what it was like to be a child. And that hasn’t changed.
Juniper and Wise Child by Monica Furlong.
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr.
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken. And sequels.

I think I’ll stop there. There are also authors who usually write adult books who are now starting to write for children: Simon Scarrow is one; if his kids books are as good as his adult books, they’ll be well worth reading.

OK, so what books would you recommend for schools?

Remember, it’s got to satisfy two conditions:
1. It’s got to be fun to read.
2. It’s got to be well written enough, and deal with enough important issues/concepts, that you could get some English lessons out of it.

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