Why we're weaning pupils off literary fast food
Read Mr Halls' interview with the Sunday Times here*
Last September, my school, King’s College in Wimbledon, opened a new lower school, which enabled us to admit boys aged 11 into the senior school for the first time in nearly 200 years. It has been exciting to see the boys join us from every type of school, full of enthusiasm and faith in what we have to offer them. But it has been just as much fun thinking of all the different ways we could design a completely new curriculum, one that was both academic and stimulating.
Even the form rooms where the boys would meet each day needed thought, and this is where I felt that books had a role to play. I wanted the boys to see that books should be an essential part of their day-to-day lives. Real books, made of paper. Books that, over the year, many hands would hold, eyes would scan and imaginations would seize.
I remembered my own first year at a large Birmingham comprehensive school more than 40 years ago. My English teacher, Mr Mills, was an inspiration, and some of the lessons he taught us then I have repeated with year 7 classes throughout my career. One thing he insisted on was the value and pleasure of reading. He had a scruffy box of books and challenged us to read every book in it — all chosen by him. I guess there were 40 or 50. I was competitive, so I read all of them.
We decided at King’s that we would put 300 books in each year 7 form room, so that every day the boys would feel these were as important a part of their lives as world maps, codes of behaviour, duty rotas and all the other necessary adornments of a schoolroom. Books, like a free press, stand for freedom of thought, independence of mind, and humane judgement.
A good book is a companion and guide. It challenges assumptions, makes us laugh, makes us ask questions of ourselves and the world around us — just like a friend. It opens our mind and excites the imagination by creating other worlds and characters. To me, this is the most incredible thing of all: by what empathetic genius can the human mind cross into a fictional world, written down in mere words on a page, and believe in it? Even more, feel part of it? No wonder recent research has suggested that reading books of a reasonable literary quality has a direct impact on people’s capacity for empathy.
I cannot think of a more important life skill than the art of reading a good book for pleasure, and it has to be taught as early as possible. I say “taught”, but that is the wrong word. It has to be coaxed, like a flame from a spark — cherished, drawn out. Tutors who are paid vast sums to coach children in English composition or comprehension skills for school admissions tests will often say in private, if only they read a few books! Books introduce new vocabulary and patterns of sentence structure; they illustrate on every page the correct way to set out dialogue or paragraphs; they are, in their quiet way, model pedagogues. But much more than this, they take us beyond ourselves, develop human sympathy, and show the incredible power of the imagination.
I keep saying “good” books. That’s because, unlike some, I do think there are bad ones. Or at least, books that are so simplistic, brutal or banal they are barely worth reading. I wouldn’t ban them, but I certainly wouldn’t bother recommending them. So in our store of 300 books, we included Harry Potter — magnificent books full of imagination and real character development, not to mention humour and pathos — but not Skulduggery Pleasant. We have Northern Lights, Sherlock Holmes, Moonfleet, My Family and Other Animals, Coram Boy, Goodnight Mr Tom, Kes, Curious Incident; we have works by Alan Garner, William Golding, Ray Bradbury and PG Wodehouse. But we don’t have Robert Muchamore’s Cherub series, Anthony Horowitz, Artemis Fowl or Percy Jackson — all lengthy series loved by 11-year-old boys.
Here is an extract from the first volume in Muchamore’s Cherub series, The Recruit:
“The temperature hardly dropped in the night. It was boiling in the shelter, hard to sleep. The wailing birds were harmless but served as an eerie reminder that civilisation was a long way off. They kept a small fire burning to deter animals and insects.”
This witless prose carries on presumably for another 5,000 pages or so, since there were at least 16 Cherub volumes when I last looked.
Here is an extract from A Sound of Thunder, a short story by the great American science fiction writer, Ray Bradbury, describing a tyrannosaurus rex:
“It came on great oiled, resilient, striding legs… a great evil god, folding its delicate watchmaker’s claws close to its oily reptilian chest. Each lower leg was a piston, a thousand pounds of white bone, sunk in thick ropes of muscle, sheathed over in a gleam of pebbled skin like the mail of a terrible warrior. Each thigh was a ton of meat, ivory, and steel mesh.”
In one piece the prose is limp and vague, like a string necklace with no purpose other than to hold the plot together; in the other, colour, menace and power burst from the page and the dinosaur takes shape in our minds.
We have tried to have almost as many authors as we have books. I realise that, say, Anthony Horowitz is a gifted writer, of course — but young readers who latch on to a series can then find their style and taste colonised by a single, repetitive, approach.
In February, Renaissance UK published their latest What Kids Are Reading report, based on the reading habits of 850,000 children. It showed that although in primary schools children are reading books of appropriate difficulty for their age, children in years 9-11 (aged 13-16) were reading books “at well over three years below their chronological age”. In other words, there comes a point where just reading anything isn’t good enough. We wouldn’t feed children on spaghetti hoops forever, so let’s raise the reading bar a little higher too.
I like to think of good children’s literature as like slow food — it takes more effort and time to digest, but it is more nuanced, more nourishing and more memorable. Reading about children undergoing torture to learn how to be a spy in The Recruit is fun, naturally; but Goodnight Mr Tom depicts with grace and gentleness the slow evolution of friendship and respect between a wartime evacuee and his reluctant guardian. In tracing the affection that grows between them, the book touches on love, bereavement and family secrets every bit as shocking as teen torture, but with a depth and compassion quite beyond the frantic plotlines of “series” fiction.
The Renaissance survey found that the YouTube star Zoe Suggs (aka Zoella) provided two of the favourite books for older pupils. Her Girl Online series has been a top seller, but one reviewer said that “the teenagers in this book bear no resemblance to any I have ever met”; others have suggested that the book was co-written, possibly by a committee. Industrialised literary fast-food — surely we can do better than that?
But this would not be an honest piece if I did not conclude by saying that rather a lot of the books I cared about and strongly favoured have so far gone unread. I have just spoken to five bright and enthusiastic year 7 boys. They love Horowitz and Muchamore, and their eyes lit up at the fun of tapping into a series they enjoyed and staying with it to the end. But only one spoke up for standalone books such as Treasure Island, Mocking Bird, White Fang…
In the end, almost all books are worth reading — but the best ones lead the mind to places it would never otherwise have travelled to. Our job as teachers is to make that journey as long-lasting and exciting, and sometimes as tough, as we possibly can.
* Please note that the Sunday Times article has not made clear that the collection of more demanding novels is for the class libraries of each of the year 7 form rooms, not the school library.