Monday, 8 August 2011
The Reading List by Keren David
But the main intellectual introduction to this new educational adventure is a reading list of 25 books. Five each from the genres Fantasy/Adventure; Around the World; Real Life; Humour and Historical, they include a graphic novel (Maus by Art Spiegelman) and a novel in verse (Karen Hesse’s Out of the Dust). They have a chart to map their reading, and they can add their own choices too. They’re expected to read at least one book from each genre.
The list came with a letter from the English department. ‘We think reading is interesting, fun and the best way to improve your English,…wherever you like to read best - on the beach, on the bus, on the lawn, in your bed, in the park, in the bath - please record your reading experience. You will have opportunities to share your favourite reading experiences of the summer with other students!’
I’m not sure how long the school has used the same list, but most of the books on it seem to be about ten years old. He hadn’t read any of them - and I'd only read two - although he did know authors such as Michael Morpurgo (Across a Wide Wide Sea) and Gillian Cross (Dark Ground). The ‘Real Life’ and ‘Around the World’ sections weight the list towards ‘issues’ books, and as a whole the list is serious. At least three are about refugees (Benjamin Zephaniah’s Refugee Boy; Beverley Naidoo’s The Other Side of Truth and Ally Kennan’s Bedlam) and two about the Holocaust (John Boyne’s The Boy with the Striped Pyjamas and the afore-mentioned Maus).
There are books set in Afghanistan (The Breadwinner, Deborah Ellis), South Africa (Gaby Halberstamm’s Blue Sky Freedom), France (Sally Gardner’s The Red Necklace) and Israel (Crusade by Elizabeth Laird). There are ghosts (Eva Ibbotson’s Dial a Ghost), wolves (Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother) and Mer-people (Ingo by Helen Dunmore). It's totally shaken up his reading habits, which had recently become dominated by the Glory Gardens series about a fictional cricket team by Bob Cattell.
Michael Gove wants to introduce a reading list for schoolchildren, and in general I’d support the idea, although - as always with our Education Secretary - the devil is in the detail. It’s best if schools can pick better pick their own lists and take into account the school demographics and the availability of books. That's the biggest problem with a list like this - how to get one's hands on them exactly when you need them.
Buying 25 new books was beyond our purse, so we’ve borrowed some, bought others second hand and will be visiting the library for others. Almost every book on these lists is available on Amazon for one penny plus postage - so even buying second hand, with nothing going to the author or publisher, to buy the whole list costs nearly £60. I feel guilty buying second hand - and worried – the 1p Amazon thing drastically shortens any book’s shelf life. In mitigation, the list has already inspired me to buy one sequel (Maus 2) and one prequel (Ice Maiden by Sally Prue, prequel to the stunning fantasy Cold Tom). It also showed me - me, champion of libraries – how normal it’s become for me to look for books by sitting at my computer and logging onto Amazon.
As for my son, he’s already read and reviewed seven books - not bad for someone who loves to be active and sees holidays as a time for cricket and swimming and football and hanging out with his mates. Real Life is his favourite category, and Bedlam and Maus his favourite books so far. Humour is the most disappointing category – ‘This book was good - it just wasn’t funny!’. Cold Tom, his only fantasy book so far confused him at first (‘What is he? Why doesn’t the author tell me?) but won him over. (And it bowled me over - I've read it three times in the last fortnight) And, after reading and enjoying Crusade, he’d like to tell authors everywhere that they should be careful not to make character names too similar.
He’s hoping to read 24 books out of the 25 – I vetoed one, on the basis that I’ve heard bad things about the author (no, I’m not telling!). Having a list has given him powerful motivation to try new authors, subjects and forms and - even more importantly - find time in his busy life to read. I hope that the English teachers at his new school will make him feel that the effort was worthwhile. His sister had a similar list to work through before she started Year 7 at a different school. ‘We never heard anything about it again.’
Last word to the boy himself: ‘I think the list is a good idea because it encourages people to read. Most of them are good. The best one so far is Bedlam by Ally Kennan because it was very real and it had some good jokes in it.’