I had a really interesting chat to an English teacher the other day all about 11 + kids, what they might be reading and why they might be not reading.
She made a really good point with which I heartily agree (don’t you love English syntax…) – children should absolutely not be made to read the things that we read when we were young, and those things which we would describe as ‘classic’. Not that they’re not good, and not that they won’t read them eventually, but they don’t allow for the fact that attitudes have changed considerably, as has writing itself. The classics that we read (Oliver Twist, Swallows and Amazons, Treasure Island Brave New World, 1984, Animal Farm etc) are all excellent, great stories and so on, but they were written in a different time, for a different generation, with different attention spans! Another friend of mine said she’d asked her son what sort of thing she could pick up for him at the library and he’d said ‘someone has to die on page one’ – hardly suprising then that The Hunger Games is a wee bit more popular than 1984 (same boy also complained 1984 was ‘full of sex, they never stop having sex!’ so maybe adult themes aren’t always a draw).
Back to the teacher – she ‘blamed’ the well meaning parents – at the start of every year she urges them not to give their children ‘improving books’ and they all agree, and then within about two months she sees children cumbered about with books you might possibly understand and get your head round when you get to A level. I’ve said before that there are no bad books, which may be a little glib, but at a certain age it’s true. let them read stuff they can understand and decode, don’t force them to read ‘good books’, let them read things their peers are reading, and which are targeted at their age group.
I am always giving my children books I loved when I was their age, I am particularly guilty of the ‘you’ll love this, the writing is fantastic!’ school of behaviour and I can see it turn them off. At best they’ll read Animal Farm when they’re too young, they’ll enjoy the story about the animals, and when it comes to doing it in history or English they’ll be ‘I read that, yeah it’s good’ and not re-read. I don’t want to sound like a broken record (an appropriate metaphor as nobody has listened to records for about 10 years) but children don’t particularly re-read (I think Harry Potter is an exception as my GCSE-doing child still climbs into her younger sister’s bed for a good wallow in Order of the Phoenix). There is so much choice they can always find something new to read rather than going back to an old fave. When I was young (sigh) there was way less choice, therefore you got real mileage out of a good book.
Same teacher was getting quite sad about how some of those who had been her best readers were so over-encouraged by well meaning parents that in ‘quiet reading time’ they were the ones not reading at all. Don’t make it become a chore where you feel compelled to give them things that challenge them. Get books in tandem with them. if you’re desperate for them to know a particular book, read it to them. Or get it on audio book. Then you are on hand to explain to them what ‘riding to hounds’ means (I’m reading Flambards to one of my children at the moment and I’m finding some of the phrasing slightly taxing…)
So I feel we need a picture now, or even a mini-list…
Mal Peet – I’m sure I’ve mentioned him before, but Keeper is a great, well written book about football. There’s a degree of msyticism involved, some magic realism, but I loved it (and I think my son did too, he certainly asked for ‘something else about that sports journalist guy’) and I don’t think he was doing it to shut me up. However, it is complex and magic realism can be a little hard to get your head round; I would say it’s not really for pre-year 7s unless you’re going to read it to them. I would really hate them to be put off it, so handle with care. So that’s actually a useless recommendation… great book though.
He’s (Mal Peet) also written other excellent books – Tamar is about the Dutch resistance in WW2 (exciting and intercuts with a contemporary story so we don’t feel too periody), Life, an exploded diagram is a coming of age love story about strawberry picking in Norfolk intercut with the Cuban missile crisis (funny and moving) and Penalty is ‘something else about that sports journalist guy’ which I got for my son. It’s Othello, but about a footballer – what’s not to like? He hasn’t read it yet, nor have I, so watch this space.
Diana Wynn Jones – I don’t quite know why she isn’t more hugely popular. The Lives of Christopher Chant (I think it may be called The Chrestomanci series) are fabulous magic stories about a wizarding world full of kids, and yet haven’t had quite the same traction as the all conquering HP.
They are genuinely funny, there’s weird language in there (he’s called Chrestomanci) and they’re silly and irreverant. Diana Wynn Jones has written many many childrens’ books which are rightly famous (Howl’s moving castle among many others). Reliable and good. I know they’re old, but somehow they haven’t dated.
Michelle Paver – Wolf Brother, Spirit Walker and so on.
Great – mystical prehistoric action adventure series – contemporary so loads happens fast, and they’re really well written. The deaths are earned (if you get my drift).
While we’re on the subject of unearned deaths, the Young Samurai series (Chris Bradford) went down very well with my son. As long as you mix it up with some Malorie Blackman (dsytopian, but beautifully written, thoughtful and engaging) or some Frank Cottrell Boyce (Framed, Cosmic, Millions – all very funny and not remotely killing-y), then it’s a happy mix.
Skulduggery Pleasant – Derek Landy
You’ve got to love a character who is a skeleton and also a goody. This is a funny series – it’s sad, thoughtful, fantastical and downright weird. Exactly what children want in a series. Great names too.
Here’s one that made me a bit sad. I tried to get the kids to read (Eagle of the Ninth – Rosemary Sutcliffe) before we went to the film and they said it was really boring. It improved when I read it to them, but even then they weren’t wowed. Another amazing book from my childhood dismissed as ‘yeah it’s ok, just takes a while to get into’.
One that did work though was Knight Crusader – Ronald Welch. It’s a bit old fashioned, some of the politics of Outremer can slow them up a bit, but it’s just really exciting. Ronald Welch is pretty good at putting a fight or an ambush in the first few pages so you know where you are. Ahead of his time, and yet out of print (I think Knight Crusader is gettable quite easily, the others you can find either reissued at https://foxedquarterly.com or www.abebooks.co.uk)