Saturday, 29 April 2017

Encouraging reading - Hilary Hawkes

“Apparently our kids aren’t reading the ‘right kind of books,’” huffed my friend at our last catch-up.  Then she let out a knowing chuckle – the sort of knowing chuckle you could only make about kids not reading the right kind of books if you taught English to Year nines and were a parent to teenagers. She’s both.

Being a writer, bookaholica and lover of all things books I was keen to know more. An article my friend had read had bewailed the fact that, in its author's opinion, so many children’s books these days just 'aren’t challenging enough'. 

Too many teenagers stick to books aimed at younger readers and so don’t (according to this article) progress to the kinds of books that would develop their reading and literary tastes. They must be encouraged to put back the Harry Potter and select Anna Karenina instead.

This all slightly reminded me of a teacher I disliked at my primary school many years (ok, decades) ago who made scathing remarks about Enid Blyton. Enid Blyton was, at that time, one of my favourite authors. Then there was the book brigade at a primary school my children attended at one time who had a list of “banned books” – J.K Rowling and Roald Dahl were on it. But not in our house they weren’t.

When it comes to teenagers, many would say the fact that they are reading at all, especially older ones,  is wonderful and something to be celebrated. It's certainly true that not all children grow up in book filled homes or see their parents absorbed in the classics. Some homes have no bookshelves let alone rows of classics or Booker Prize winning titles.

The feat for many parents and teachers is to first of all get their children reading for pleasure at all and then, the real challenge, to keep them reading through adolescence. I don’t personally think that future book lovers and book buyers will evolve from a generation forced to read books they didn't want to read and didn't enjoy.

My own three children loved books. Two of them, as young people in their twenties now, still devour novels. Thinking back I can see that their enjoyment of books came about as the result of being allowed to choose what they wanted to read: on our library visits, from the classroom bookshelves, or in bookshops as they spent birthday or Christmas gift vouchers. Never was their like for reading due to being force fed a list of books they didn’t, well,  like. There were lists at secondary school, of course – texts that needed to be studied for exams. On the whole, though, they were ready for them and even enjoyed most of them. This is most definitely not the case for all teenagers though, and for all sorts of reasons.

Experts do love to tell us what we ought to be doing and, when it comes to books, what children ought to be reading. I really dislike this kind of over the top "book policing". Maybe the real experts are the parents and teachers who already know the obstacles to helping kids develop a reading habit that might turn into a lifelong love for books. Like my Year Nine teacher friend, I’m all for suggesting other books that youngsters might not come across. The kind of guidance good parents, teachers or librarians can give, based on young people's interests, needs and reading abilities is helpful. But making them feel the books and authors they enjoy are somehow “not good enough” is very different and unwise. This is especially true for children who, for all sorts of reasons, genuinely find reading a struggle.

Our family run children’s project recently sent lots of lovely new books to children on the other side of the world. A boxful went via Book Aid International This isn’t because children there aren't reading the right kinds of books – it’s because they don’t have books at all. The schools, libraries and education systems in those places, in their baby stages, are desperate for them. And publishers, authors and projects are sending them.  I mention this because I think Book Aid International and their beneficiaries have good priorities and aims for books which the "book police" have lost sight of.

I think we can help young readers everywhere by encouraging them to select the books they want to read and enjoy reading.  Because books are supposed to be fun and mind expanding. Not tolerated. And once the habit and joy in reading is established all sorts of possibilities open up. As Book Aid International would say, books can change lives.

Anyway, what do you think? If we want to encourage young people's reading should we force them on to a list of "right" books? Do you as an author, parent or teacher have any experience of the effects of such lists?

Hilary Hawkes


Sue Bursztynski said...

As a teacher-librarían, I have to agree. Kids will read what they want and good luck to them. I've bought stacks of books I didn't care for because the kids did. You know what? I found Twilight excruciatingly dull. Nothing happened till about 3/4 way through. BUT - I saw kids curled up in doorways in the school grounds reading it. Kids sharing their own copies. Kids taking about it. They were excited - about a book!

I bought two sets of the quartet. I reserved the right to say I didn't like them. But that's another story.

But something I hate is when adults roll their eyes and sigh, "Oh, well, at least they're reading." It's inferior, but we can put up with it because... They're reading. This attitude is often expressed with non fiction. Kids, especially boys, love non fiction. Yet I've seen teachers tell them to put down that non fiction book at once and get a novel! Only novels are of any value. Of course! As if the true story isn't really a story.

Still haven't read Anna K and provably never will.

Susan Price said...

I have read Anna K - but only because I wanted to!

Hilary and Sue B - could not agree with you more wholeheartedly if I tried. I always remember one of my brothers who, up until about 14, seemed to read nothing but The Beano (with the rest of us), a non-fiction about the history of early flight and Biggles. Then, overnight, it seemed, he was reading Steppenwolf and difficult, obscure Science-Fiction, Dickens and many other classics. But still reading The Beano (with the rest of us, including our Dad.) And he still has an in-depth knowledge of the history of flight.

Our mother never pushed us to read anything in particular. She never said, "At least they're reading." What she said was, "Everybody needs to read all sorts of stuff - comics and magazines, bad books, good books, newspapers and children are no different. Let them get on with it."

Lynne Benton said...

What a wise mother you had, Sue P! I think it's always going to be counter-productive to limit children's reading to so-called "good" books. I remember when I was a teenager I'd been reading one of the "William" books (which I always enjoyed), when one of my "friends" said in disgusted tones to my English teacher, "She's reading 'William'!" Bless her, my English teacher said, "There's nothing wrong with 'William' - as long as it's not all you read." (Knowing that in my case, I was an avid reader and read anything I could get my hands on!)

An interesting post, Hilary. Thank you.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Yes great post! I wonder if we each had a single pivotal book that rocketed us forward. Like you Sue I was also brought up on Beano comics bought and enjoyed by my uncle. But then I had Collier magazines lying around our home that came from the States and some achitectual ones too and probably became an expert on Frank Lloyd Wright's houses at a very precocious age. I think exposing young people to all forms of the printed word is key and somewhere there'll be a gear shift in their reading patterns.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Lynne - I don't know if you've read Morris Gleitzman's Once series. The young hero is a Jewish boy running from the Nazis during WWII. He is a huge fan of William. So, it turns out, is a Hitler Youth boy he encounters, who lets him escape. As an old man, in a later novel seen from his granddaughter's viewpoint, he still has his collection, up is missing the one he gave the Hitler Youth boy as a thank you, and his granddaughter finds him a copy on line.

Dianne - my mother just let me read whatever I wanted, after finding I was not reading the books she had given me, so I was reading Enid Blyton, pony books and Robert Graves's The Greek Myths all at once. And then an old copy of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar I found lying around. Well, I didn't know they weren't for kids! Parents who let the kids get in with it will find they read what makes them happy.

One of my students, by the way, told me she had read her first book in Grade 5, after a childhood completely about sport. It was Twilight. She was still a mad, passionate Twilight fan, but she was reading plenty of other stuff as well.

catdownunder said...

I was allowed to read anything in the house - which meant I read Lawrence's "Sons and Lovers" at the age of 12 (set text for my father's degree) along with Harnett's "The Woolpack".
I brought the first Twilight book home from the library to find out what the fuss was about. My father and I didn't get beyond the first few pages but my 94yr old father, who isn't at all keen on science fiction, discovered Diana Wynne Jones at the same time - and has now read the lot.

Rowena House said...

Adding my voice to the chorus of approval for your viewpoint, Hilary. I can't remember any censorship of reading material at home. On nature v nurture, though, my brother's reading was never curtailed in any way either, yet I'm an avid & life-long reader & I don't believe he's ever read a novel in his life. My husband is also a passionate reader; our house is stuffed with books of all genres, yet our son hasn't read a book for pleasure since early in his primary years when he was forced to stick to a rigid reading schedule. Luckily, he loves audio books & theatre. As writers we're bound to feel a deep connection with books, but perhaps as story-tellers we also need to be flexible about the way our audiences absorb our tales. No one size fits all.

Sue Purkiss said...

I agree too, absolutely. People read what's right for them at the time, and when they're ready, they move on to something else.