When I read that The Independent had produced a “50 books every child should read list” http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/news/the-50-books-every-child-should-read-2250138.html I was quite excited; I love lists, especially of books. And the creators of this list are three children’s authors and two book experts so I was expecting something quite exciting.
But, oh dear, what a disappointment! Instead of an inspirational selection, the list reads like a nostalgic visit to a long-gone childhood. Now, the three authors in question are very popular and have written some amazing and timeless books. They also regularly undertake school visits so meet children and talk to them about reading. And I’m sure that the “book experts” (who just happen to work for The Independent) have access to children’s books and may even have 11 year olds of their own but my first thought on seeing this list was to wonder why the publishers had not thought to ask any “real” experts? Those people who are surrounded by 11 year olds all day long, those people who are knowledgeable about children’s literature (both classic and contemporary), those people whose job it is to inspire children to read, to introduce them to the wide array of books available to them? Yes, you’ve guessed it … school librarians!
Now, don’t get me wrong. There’s some great books on this list and I’m not of the opinion that because a book was written 10, 20, 30 years ago, it’s not relevant to today’s children and that they should eschew it for something more contemporary. Every time I see a lamp in some woods, I’m transported to Narnia and secretly hope that I may spot a fawn scuttling along the path, and I would love every child to have that same magical experience that has purely been the result of reading C. S. Lewis. So that book would be on my list but I’m acutely aware that there are many 11 year olds who would hate it.
There are around 3.5 million children aged 10 – 14 years in the UK. A list of 50 books simply cannot encompass the wide range of reading abilities and varied interests of every 11 year old, it would be impossible to even try. Yet with the number of books available, in bookshops and libraries across the country, I can understand why parents need some sort of guidance … but please, if we are going to have a list, let’s have some titles that will inspire and create readers. Let’s give parents the tools to start selecting books themselves by explaining that they need to start with the child, what they enjoy reading, what they don’t like and what their interests are. Many of those listed are books the compilers enjoyed when they were children, ones that bring back good memories, but this is no criteria for selecting books to recommend. And some of them I would be rather hesitant in recommending to a year 7; their content is, perhaps, more suitable for a slightly older and more emotionally mature child. I also wonder if the books were chosen with an eye on the fact that the general public would be judging the person behind the list by what they had included on it? A bit like the teacher’s best 100 books list that was published earlier in the year where many of the titles were incredibly “worthy”?
The problem with producing lists that say “should read” is that it puts parents and children under pressure. I have already had school librarians contact me as they have been asked by their Heads to send this list to all parents. Why? Are those poor children going to be forced to read the list and not be allowed to choose anything else? Are parents going to feel obliged to rush out and buy these books and push them onto their children (and many will) because they have been told by “experts” that this is what 11 year olds should have read? A far more useful exercise would have been to have each contributor to come up with 50 books … yes, that would be a lot of books but it would give parents a much wider choice. And also, next time, maybe ask a school librarian …