Tuesday, 26 January 2010
Children's Lit Sans Frontières - Charlie Butler
I recently embarked on a two-year adventure that will take me, in Dan Brown style, from end to end of Europe (with a brief foray into Asia) in search of the answer to the age-old question: “What are the differences in the ways that children’s literature is taught to 8-11-year-olds in Spain, the UK, Iceland and Turkey?”
Okay, it’s not quite the Da Vinci code, but it’s still important! It’s easy to become myopically focused on one’s own situation and history, after all. In England and Wales we debate the National Curriculum and Literacy Hour, and complain about literature being taught in snippets rather than whole books. What has happened to reading aloud in class for the sheer pleasure of it, we ask? Where do books fit into the wider curriculum? Are they simply springboards to discussion of “issues”? Are they viewed as ways of inculcating social values – and, if so, whose? Which subjects are out of bounds, and why? Who chooses the books? Why do we read so little in translation? What do the children themselves think about it all?
I and my colleagues will be surveying both teachers and pupils in the four countries to find the answers to some of these questions – and one result, we hope, will be a sharing of ideas that will in a small way help invigorate teaching across the board. So far I’ve only been to Murcia in Spain, but in a couple of weeks I’ll be off to northern Iceland and the University of Akureyri to plan our next move (why didn’t we schedule that trip for midsummer? Why?). Ankara is slated for later in the year.
One difference I noticed right away in Spanish bookshops, incidentally, was in the way they display books. Think of the colourful, not to say garish, stands of books in the children’s section of your local Waterstones, with dump bins, covers facing outwards, and each publication striving to be as different from the rest as possible. Then look at the Spanish equivalent, above. The colours of the jackets denote neither publisher nor genre, I’m told, but age-banding - which in the UK remains a highly-controversial topic. It all looks very dull to me, but several people have told me that as children they'd have preferred their shelves to have that kind of neat uniformity. So, who's missing a trick, the Spanish or the Brits? Chacun à son goût, I guess.