I was recently introduced to the lovely Bookwitch, and spent time today catching up. One post was about moving on from children’s literature to adult literature. And there was my bête noire: John Steinbeck.
At school we read The Red Pony (in 2nd year) and The Pearl (in 3rd year) and I loathed every second with them both. They made no sense to me, they were completely foreign in setting, in tone and in understanding, and I was left with a deep distaste for anything by the vicious swine who so happily poured death, disease and destruction upon his unhappy characters.
As a teenager, I struggled to move on from the childhood books. I disliked, and still dislike, books set in my world, concerning the problems of people like me. I already live in this world, and I already have my own set of problems; instead let me loosen my mind to explore elsewhere with people overcoming issues that I will never (hopefully) have to face. And while there was the beginnings of young adult material, it was all so worthy, and to be honest, completely boring. So I struggled, and also put up with a fair bit of grief because the rest of the class were determined to read the grown up stuff, and I just couldn’t. Not hanging around the right shelves didn’t help in the cool stakes – not that I ever had any desire to be cool (which is just as well really).
However, I did feel a bit lost so one day, I turned to our school librarian for advice – I have nothing to read. You got any suggestions? – and she laughed – oh come on, Jennifer, how can you have nothing to read. That’s ridiculous! – and walked away.
(Incidentally, I have a sneaking suspicion that that’s almost certainly when I became a school librarian, and definitely someone who would never do that to another person).
I remember staring after her feeling totally bereft, and then turning around and seeing the Earthsea trilogy in the shelf. Thank you, Ursula Le Guin, and every other fantasy, science-fiction, steampunk and writer of the unusual I’ve managed to read since.
I certainly never forgot that feeling of being lost as a reader with no idea of where to move on to, and it’s a feeling that many pupils have. Where do you go after Jacqueline Wilson? Michael Morpurgo? Roald Dahl? Jeff Kinney? Dave Pilkey?
Two 2nd year pupils brought this home to me last week: one of them was a pupil who asked for a reading list to expand her literary education, and the other was my daughter whose report card suggested exactly the same thing. Stop what you’re reading, and go read grown up books. Go read classics.
Well, first of all, I don’t think there’s any need to move away from anything. If you like an author, keep reading them!
Secondly, the list I’m creating for school includes a vast variety of authors, and not just ‘the classics’. What keeps people reading are good stories, told in a way that brings the characters alive, bringing them into the very heart of the action. Some classics do that, some don’t.
Thirdly, the date of a book has absolutely no bearing on whether it’s worth reading or not. As a result, it’s a constantly growing list as I discover new things to add to it.
And of course, it’s vital not to forget that every pupil is entitled to books that meet their needs, and that includes those who want to read about exploding star freighters, or Mary Queen of Scots, or dragons, or people living in normal streets doing normal things or all of them at the same time!
Finally, I’m including some books usually aimed at younger children too. Why? Because they deserve to be read. Because variety is vital in keeping people interested. Because moving away from the known to the unknown is a scary business: there’s got to be a leap of faith and that requires trust, so we make sure the leap is only as big as the reader is able to make at any given time.
Besides, you never know when a reader is in need of saving: I want to have all the lifebelts I can lay my hands on at my disposal, ready and waiting for whenever they’re required.