A Hierarchy of Books

“A classic is something everybody wants to have read,
but nobody wants to read.”

Mark Twain

This week I had lunch with a friend who I hadn’t seen in ages. It was lovely to catch up with her, and it was especially enjoyable because she is a school librarian, so we spent the entire time talking about books. Just in case your school uses Accelerated Reader, I will spare you her evisceration of the scheme. Suffice to say that she reserved her particular ire for the idea that a computer can tell you what ‘level’ a book is at, or whether it is ‘suitable’ for a particular young reader. We chatted about our own kids, and the books and authors they are into at the moment. And we talked about how wonderful literature is for young people these days – how much of an amazing choice there is out at there at the moment. (Thank goodness for The Book People, is all I can say.)

Some educators talk about books as though they are a kind of medicine. The “Mr Gove” approach to reading, you might say. This is especially so for that category of books known as “The Classics”. They might not always taste nice to read, but the children must swallow them down, because they are good for them in the long run. (I don’t think they always are – Jane Eyre did awful damage to my youthful conception of what relationships between men and women should look like.) What I’d like to know, though, is how on earth we can agree on what “The Classics” are? Do you have to be male, white and dead to get entry to the Classics Club, or can you still come in if you are female, black and alive? If we insist on creating a hierarchy of books, in which some reading is ‘better’ than others, and all books are ‘better’ than comics or graphic novels, then who gets to say what goes at the top?

My kids are both avid readers: the most commonly heard complaint in my home is “I’ve run out of books!”. And one of the ways I got them to become avid readers is to literally shower them with books, and with texts of all different kinds, from the moment they were born. I never insist that they finish reading a book, just because they started it. I certainly don’t tell them that they must read a specific book because it is “good for them”. Wimpy Kid, The Hunger Games, Animal Farm – who cares which one is best if you love reading and you are willing to give them all a try? (You can find lots of other ideas to get your children reading for pleasure here.) The statistics tell us that a tiny minority of adults buy the vast majority of books, and shockingly that almost 4 million adults in the UK never read for pleasure. If we persist in placing books in a hierarchy, where some kinds of reading are seen as better than others, then we will continue to turn children off reading. Surely we don’t want reading for pleasure to stop, the moment our children exit the school gates for the final time? So if you’re busy administering “The Classics” medicine to your students, to fill them up with “Cultural Capital”, please remember this:

There is no such thing as a child who hates to read;
there are only children who have not found the right book.”
Frank Serafini

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One Response to A Hierarchy of Books

  1. Pingback: What Should Children Be Reading?

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