Here is a list, recently published by the TES, of the 100 fiction books that every child should read before leaving primary school:
The first interesting thing about this list is that it’s in an educational journal rather than a parenting magazine. That in itself speaks volumes about what we expect of teachers today. When I was a child, if a child never read a decent book it wasn’t automatically considered to be a failure on the part of the teaching profession. But let’s pass over the causal link between impoverished reading choices and the wholesale closure of local authority libraries for the moment. That’s a whole separate post.
I’ve been running a primary school library for over 15 years. It’s an affluent area, the school is continually oversubscribed and the local population statistically one of the most highly educated in the country. So we are not talking about cultural deserts here.
Nevertheless, I read this list with slack-jawed astonishment. I have dealt with many very able kids who read voraciously, but never encountered one who willingly made their way through the entirety of Black Beauty or Treasure Island. I didn’t even get around to Treasure Island myself until my late 40s.
Culturally, the list is contradictory enough to give you vertigo. Treasure Island and Kipling sit cheek by jowl with a token contribution from Benjamin Zephaniah. Enid Blyton’s Malory Towers, set in a 1940s independent girls’ boarding school, rubs shoulders with the admirable gender-neutrality of Tyke Tyler. Unbelievably, there isn’t a single mention of Harry Potter, yet the entire Skulduggery Pleasant and Artemis Fowl series are in there.
I’ve had parents complain that Skulduggery Pleasant really isn’t suitable for primary school age children (It’s about a dead detective, by the way. A skeleton, since you ask). I’ve also had teachers politely turn down Mr Men anthologies (the entire Roger Hargreaves canon makes the cut), on the grounds that they are stereotypical and reductive. Now all these decisions are to some extent controversial. Nevertheless, the fact that the list bristles with books that could be deemed offensive for all kinds of reasons, by different people, illustrates the difficulty of ever producing a definitive list of this kind.
Does it really matter? After all, everyone is entitled to their opinion. And that’s all this list is – the opinion of the unspecified teachers consulted. We aren’t told anything about the way that the question was phrased – were exhausted teachers at the end of another long day put on the spot and asked to remember a book they adored as children? Were they working in the independent or the state sector, were they retired, were they gay, straight, Muslim, evangelical Christian, etc? Before we take pronouncements like this seriously, we should bear that in mind.
So I repeat, does it matter? Yes, I would argue. It matters because anxious parents and educational professionals will take it seriously. Some will use it as yet another stick to beat teachers over the head with, demanding to know why children haven’t yet encountered the complete range of unmissable classics (or protesting strongly about the casual racism and cultural appropriation of some of its most cherished inclusions). There are a lot of worried parents out there, and they share their worries very readily with teachers, a profession where morale is already pretty much at rock bottom.
And meanwhile, the kids most in need of a varied, accessible range of books, and quality reading time with carers, will muddle through as best they can, increasingly under-resourced because the public libraries and Sure Start centres that provided such a valuable starting point for a love of learning are closing left, right and centre.
I’m not even sure that teachers are the best people to ask about the books children ought to be reading. Shouldn’t that be librarians? I know some brilliant teachers but they value my role because they freely admit that they haven’t time to keep up with children’s literature. They’re too busy ticking boxes.
And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 15-plus years as a librarian, it’s that there is no point whatsoever in trying to force Kidnapped down the neck of a kid who’d rather be reading Beast Quest, or The Railway Children on a seven-year-old devoted to Tom Gates. How many adults would read widely and happily if they were continually being berated for not tackling War and Peace?