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.

11 comments:

Elen Caldecott said...

That's a bookshop?! I assumed it was a school library, with reading-tree type books. Chacun a son gout, as you say...but our gout is better.

Penny Dolan said...

Charlie, what a wonderfully interesting project to be involved with! Great to step into the wider world, even if it's not what you'd expect.

Must admit I am fascinated and slightly jealous of your forthcoming experiences - except for any freezing cold. Will you be using your steep holm blog to tell us about it, or can we look for updates here?

Charlie Butler said...

Hard to believe, isn't it, Elen? The picture book section was more colourful, but as soon as it got to chapter books, the uniform size and colour coding kicked in.

Penny - I will probably be updating over at Livejournal, as and when I update at all. I tend to use my blog to rant and maunder about things in general, but I'll try to make room for this.

Nick Green said...

Surely I've seen a Two Ronnies sketch that arranged books in this way?

"All the big blue books are on this shelf... all the small green books are on this one... it's a very easy system."

Charlie Butler said...

Nick - There was certainly a well-known line in Porridge, where one of the inmates says: "I read a book once. [pause] Green, it was."

Saviour Pirotta said...

As someone who has a second home in Spain, I have spent whole days haunting bookshops there, in various cities as well as smaller towns. Yes, the Spanish do tend to squeeze most titles into seemingly never-ending series. The few of mine that have been published there even had their formats changed to fit in with the look and colour banding of the series. To us it all looks a bit dull but it seems to work for the Spanish many of whom are obsessed with collecting things. On the plus side, you do see a lot of international literature in these series, much more than you see in Britain. Having said that, you do not often see kids reading in public, as you do say on the tube in London.

Charlie Butler said...

Saviour, the lack of books in translation for children (or indeed adults) in this country is something of a scandal, and that's one of the aspects we'll be considering. I was very struck by the amount of Roald Dahl in this particular bookshop - two of which you can see in my photograph, with their distinctive Quentin Blake covers.

Rosalind Adam said...

This is fascinating. I'd never thought that bookshops would have such different approaches.

I agree that the bookshelves photographed above look uninspiring but in our bookshops there is often an expanse of brightly coloured display pushing the latest accessory/TV programme linked books at children. It's difficult for young readers to find books that are going to be inspiring for their age and ability. I think that something of a compromise would be the best.

Do please blog some more about your findings across Europe. I look forward to reading the next instalment.

Lee said...

You should have included Germany (obvious reason)!

Charlie Butler said...

Well, my German's certainly better than my Turkish, Spanish or Icelandic!

Leila said...

I find this really interesting, having lived abroad quite a bit. In Belgium, as in France, books in bookshops are shelved by publisher, not by author - and the covers keep a standard look, so you have more 'branding' and sales power on the part of publishers rather than authors. In Italy, Monadori (publishers) have their own small bookshops - they are a bit like WHSmiths.