My attention was drawn a few weeks ago by an article along the lines of “children should read the classics to improve literacy”, reporting on yet another education minister standing on their hind legs and declaring that children are both a) stupid and b) becoming stupid adults, because they aren’t reading enough Hardy.
Despite my horrendously sluggish approach to blogging, the reason I blog at all is because sometimes something really makes me want to write something down. Writing is a thing I’m okay at, and enjoy; and so sometimes my response to life is to write about it in much the same way as even an amateur musician might respond to an event by sitting down and putting something together with a guitar. That love of writing, and any occasional quality it may possess, is a result of a love of reading developed as a child. The only thing that matters in terms of getting children reading is to help them find a book they enjoy, and then to help them find another. It is easy for us to sometimes stereotype librarians as irrelevant organisers, but it is such an important skill to see the book the child has just told you they enjoyed, and to be able to give them a similar kind of story or theme or author so they become, as I did, a devourer of books.
However I understand said education minister feels that the ‘kidz bookz’ are fine, but that the children aren’t then making the transition to ‘Literature’ with a capital L and importantly the Classics, with their crucial capital C. There is no right way to make a child or young person engage with a particular text, but I’m pretty certain that top of the list of ‘wrong ways’ is to plonk it in front of them and tell them to read it because it will be good for them. I grew up in a house absolutely full of books, to the point of genuine space issues. I had access to anything I wanted on the shelf, and nobody told me what to read. At seven, I had a reading age of 14 (not sure how that was assessed but it was a fact issued at a parent’s evening), and I had started reading at the same time as my peers with Roger Red Hat and the rest of his town of twerps. As is the case with many kids, my quick learning to read and rapid move into more complicated books was helped by being read to frequently as a child. This has been proven to make a difference and if an education minister really wanted to create a more equal literature foundation they wouldn’t allow libraries where kids can be read to as a group to be closed. I read lots of classic children’s books with a small c, which don’t necessarily appear on any lists but everybody reads as a child – Winnie The Pooh, The Borrowers, Alice in Wonderland, Tom’s Midnight Garden et al. But my progression into other books at a relatively young age was fuelled by what I was exposed to at home, and I didn’t head for the ‘Classics’.
My father used to buy and be gifted, and record off the radio on cassette, a lot of BBC radio collection adaptations of various books. From a very early age I was sticking my fingers in my ears for scary bits of Sherlock Holmes plays, and so, because they were already there on a shelf, I then started to read the books. I was bought up on the Goon Show and Hancock’s Half Hour, and again on my father’s shelves were books of the scripts which I would probably find a bit flat to read now in my twenties, but as a child being able to see the words on paper which I had heard being done in various silly voices hours before was interesting and no doubt without me realising did no end to improve my comprehension skills as I knew already how the words on the page were meant to come across and what they meant. Again, reading the less than straightforward Conan Doyle, if I ever got to a part that was maybe a little advanced for me to fully grasp the meaning of every word, I had the back up of having heard a play and could be guided to the tone and emotion of something on the page by the way it had been delivered.
It was through this method that I discovered the two that would still top my list of favourite authors; Dorothy L Sayers and PG Wodehouse. Obviously the latter is much more famous than the former. The Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L Sayers were all done on the radio and again, my dad owned and played the cassettes. It’s very easy to get in to a detective story, so I did, and again I read the books after. The first book I read of the series is actually one of my least favourite – it just happened to be the latest tape dad had bought – but reading it made me immediately want to read all the others. Her characters are the reason I can re-read her over and over again, and why some of her books would definitely come to by desert island. Nobody needs telling why PG Wodehouse was a genius, but if you’re unsure go and find the Fry & Laurie TV versions of the Jeeves and Wooster which are pretty faithful to the text. Again I came to these via some Richard Briers dramatisations. The Code of the Woosters was my first, I immediately read the book and then set off to read all the others. My exposure to the Goon Show lead me to reading Spike Milligan’s kids poems but from there, keen to read more Spike, I went to the shelf and read his war memoirs. Some of the language may have been a bit hot but I was at the age where that was just funny anyway. I read his very sweary version of Black Beauty not long after I’d read the original. I was already riding horses, and I knew enough to know that the language is Spike’s version was probably more accurate!
The key thing is nobody was telling me what to like or what to read. I was being given access to resources but left to find out for myself what I enjoyed. Of course I read the Goosebumps books and Babysitters Club like other the ten year old girls in my peer group, but the difference is I genuinely did hop from “Say Cheese and Die” by RL Stine to “Aunts aren’t Gentleman” by Wodehouse. I was already ignoring my A Level English teacher’s suggestions I continued with the subject at university, but when I discovered she had never read any Wodehouse I pretty much ignored everything else she ever said. If she’d announced the building was on fire I’d probably have checked for myself.
I came to the capital C classics eventually. But I came to them for the right reasons, out of a desire to read something I’d heard of but hadn’t read. There’s still plenty I haven’t done. I haven’t read as much Dickens as I should have, and I find Hardy incredibly hard work and so have only waded through one. But that means there are still plenty of apparently good books that I have still got to look forward to reading. But it makes me crosser about that kind of news story, all any education secretary needs to worry about is that somehow kids are getting turned on to books and reading is becoming a pleasurable habit. If that happens, they’ll all eventually read something that introduces them to new ideas or new words or new horizons. If you make it feel like a chore, you’ll never create kids who for the rest of their lives enjoy picking up a book. Certainly, they might all sit quietly and read Great Expectations for you when you put it in front of them and tell them to but they’ll get nothing from it, they’ll never read it again, and they’ll never read any other Dickens either. If the capital C classics are giants in their field, and you create kids who love to read, they’ll come to the giants eventually; in the way that a young keen pianist will want to play a Chopin concerto if they love the instrument and the playing of it first.