Middlesex Lecture

Lecture – Middlesex University 2005

Are Books For Children Worth Reading?

I’m not sure if this appropriate but I’d like to say thanks to Middlesex University and to the Deputy Vice Chancellor, Professor Ken Goulding who has made this visiting professorship appointment. And to Professor Richard Tufnell and the School of Lifelong Learning and Education for putting it about that it might be a good idea.

I’d also like to thank the people who saw me through my postgraduate work, Tony Watkins, Dennis Butts and Dudley Jones at Reading University, Ruth Merttens, then at the then University of North London and Jean Webb from Worcester University College and Margaret Meek Spencer from everywhere but especially the Institute of Education in London for supervising me in more ways and for much longer than comes within the remit of PhDs. In fact, since I was about 20, I think, and still going on.

I know these lists can go on forever but I can’t leave out my mother and father, also known as Connie and Harold Rosen. The first time I ever came here to what was then Trent Park college, it was because my mother was teaching a diploma in primary education at the college, and she asked me to come along and read some poems to her group. My father is in the room now and between them, they gave me a life, an education, encouragement, support and great stuff to write about.

And thanks too to my wife for making it possible for me to be standing here now and not sitting staring at the wall, and hello to our baby. He’s called Emile – he’s spelled as if he’s Zola but with a deliberate echo of a book that’s well worth reading, ‘Emil and the detectives’.

And are books for children worth reading?

What a strange question to ask! Most of us in this room have spent years making, reading, teaching or studying children’s books. We’ve devoted great chunks of our lives to this matter. So surely it’s a question that doesn’t even need asking. We just know that they’re worth reading.

Well, perhaps that would be the case, if it weren’t for some problems. Problems that make it harder for us to answer the question. I mean, if you say, are books for children worth reading, I sometimes feel like saying, well, when you think of the way they’re treated, you might think not.

 Let’s begin with education. It’s in schools where most people not only learn to read, they learn how to read. For many people, outside of the regularly book-reading minority, this is the one place where they will learn what reading feels like; and what reading is for. It’s the critical moment when either the reading bug might bite or give up trying. Now, the world of children’s books has always existed in a symbiotic relationship with education, with schools looking to children’s literature for books to read; and children’s literature looking to schools to buy their books for its libraries and classrooms and for schools to create active readers who come back over and over again to read more books. So, no apologies for beginning with education.

But what’s going on with books in schools? Many of us here have been witness to the fact that the way books are read in schools has, over the last four or five years changed. We are full of anecdotal evidence of, say, years 5 and  6 classrooms where whole books are not being read; where  books are being chopped up into fragments which are then turned into worksheets; and these fragments are then used as examples for exercises on spotting verbs and similes.

We can offer eyewitness accounts of how the word ‘literature’ has been abolished. It is, as you know, now called, ‘literacy’. So this has turned the act of reading into a performance to be assessed: how well is he reading? Is she reading accurately? Is she reading fluently? How can we test this reading performance? How can we create a set of classroom activities around reading that will be testable so that we can show that a child is reading at this or that level?

For those of us who write children’s books, let alone for the hundreds of thousands of people who enjoy the business of reading books with the children they know, we’re pretty sure that this is not why we got involved.  The reasons why we write books for children are complex and diverse but amongst them you can find a notion like: wanting to say things that matter to young people. And when I say, ‘matter’ that can take in such ideas as wanting to intrigue, entertain, educate, amuse, excite, stir up and challenge our audience. I don’t know many writers of books for children who would say, ‘I write children’s books so that a class of year 5 children can count the adjectives on page 43 of my latest novel.’ 

But let’s leave the anecdotal evidence to one side, and even my wistful complaints about what’s happening to our precious books in schools. In fact, looking at the people in this room makes me think we should set up an open and independent commission to look into exactly how books are being read in schools at the moment. And before that, to set the field, we could invite people who have thought long and hard about why we read and enjoy literature, to offer some thoughts. And then we could match these thoughts with what is actually going on. I have a picture of taking let’s say A.S. Byatt, Derek Walcott – I don’t know – John Carey, Germaine Greer into a set of primary schools to see a classroom preparing for a SAT reading paper and asking our visitors if what’s going on matches up with what they think literature is for. Come to think of it, it might make an interesting documentary…

In the meantime, we either have the anecdotes and the speculation, or we can look closely at the ideas that have come to dominate how teachers and children read books in schools. Where should we look for these ideas? Compressed into the hundreds of anonymous foolscap booklets that have landed up on headteachers’ desks over the last ten years? You know, the ones full of phrases like ‘research has shown that’ without ever telling you whose research or what the results of the research were.

Or should we look at the part of the process where a model of reading is put before teachers as the most valuable, a model that has the currency that really counts?

Let me read you a story. It’s called ‘You Can Do It’ by Theresa Breslin.

[An excerpt from ‘You Can Do It’ followed but cannot be included here due to copyright]

Now, I wonder if you could help me here. I want you to imagine that you have that story in front of you and you’re in the company of a group of children. Can I ask you to talk to the person next to you about what kinds of things you might do with that story? Before, during or after reading it.

Well, as some of you may or may not know, this was the story that was set in the Key Stage 2 English Reading SAT for levels 3-5 last year. 

So let’s see what kind of activity that exam is, what is the purpose and meaning of a SATs paper in relation to a story? And you can compare that with the kinds of activities you’ve just come up with. But before we get on, just so that there’s no misunderstanding, I’ll explain why I’m doing this. It’s because it’s my view that within and behind the questions asked on a SAT paper is a whole outlook that implies  a way of reading. But more than that: without stating explicitly that this is the approach teachers should take when reading stories to their children, the sheer institutional power of the SATs creates a dominant discourse. Something is being dictated here. Very few of us here need reminding how much pressure there is on teachers, parents and of course the children themselves to do well in the SATs, to get the school a good place in the league tables, to show the Ofsted inspectors and the local press that this isn’t a failing school and so on. That’s the institutional power that lies behind the questions that I’m going to look at now.

So, having read the story, the children begin. You might like to try too. I won’t be marking your papers.

The first group of questions you’re asked goes like this:

‘Choose the best group of words to fit the passage and put a ring around your choice’.

Then there are five multiple choice questions, along these lines:

‘When Fiona waited she remembered how Grampa had
‘saved her’ ‘helped her’ ‘played games’ ‘read to her’.

What the children are being asked to do here follows rule one of all exams:  that a your best chance of being able to answer a question lies in the extent to which you know the game, the extent to which you’ve been initiated into the procedures and jargon of the exam itself;  and it’s much less of a matter of knowing the answer to what is actually being asked. It’s hard to think of a more opaque way of saying what they’re asking than with the sentence: ‘Choose the best group of words to fit the passage…’   Can words ‘fit’ passages? And what’s a ‘passage’ anyway? We should remember, that it is at this very moment, in the difficulties of decoding the code of exam questions that children are graded and selected, rewarded and failed. For some of us, it’s particularly distressing to know that it is the things we write that can be used in this way. Once again, I can say that I don’t know of a writer of books for children who came into the business thinking, ‘I hope that one day I’ll write something that examiners will be able to use to dub some children failures.’

And then there’s the mess of multiple choice to think about. It’s thought that multiple choice questions are more objective and therefore more informative about the candidate than open-ended questions about such fuzzy things as feelings and emotions. In fact, hidden in every multiple choice question is the snag that the wrong answers are not all as equally wrong. Some are more obviously wrong than others. Some wrong answers could at a stretch be kind of right. The marks given never reflect this. In other words, it’s not very objective at all and tell you very little or very misleading things about how a child is thinking.

So, in the question I just gave you, the right answer, says the booklet invitingly called ‘English tests, Mark schemes’ is that Grampa ‘helped her’ but the way he helped her in the pool, you may remember was in a way to play games with her. No marks for using your intelligence and giving both as answers.

We are also asked about what Fiona found after she fell downstairs: ‘a photograph album’, ‘some old letters’ ‘a photograph of Grampa in uniform’ or a ‘letter from Grampa’.  This is a trick question, because, yes, she did find a photo of Grampa in uniform but that was earlier in the story. The right answer is a photograph album.

What is going on here? It’s a crude attempt to impose a rightness on the way a child should read. That there is some kind of correctness and that this correctness is linked to identifying facts about a story in their right order, in the right time-frame. We should remember here that Theresa Breslins’ story is not a whodunnit, where our reading will in part depend on remembering who did what to whom and when.

It’s a story, I would suggest, that is very much about shifts in feeling. The significance of whether she found the photo album after Fiona fell, or the photo of Grampa is minute. It is what I’ll call a ‘spurious facticity’ , an unnecessary and falsely based obsession with what are perceived to be the ‘facts’ of a story, in lieu of its shifting tone and feeling.

Interestingly enough, for a mode of examining that pretends to be objective and factual the next two questions offer a correct answer that introduces ideas not stated in the story. After her spell at hospital, we are asked if Fiona and her dad went to ‘watch television’, ‘see mum and grampa’, ‘collect the old photos’, or ‘help Mum with the packing’. Well, we know that Fiona went to see Grampa but there’s no certainty that Mum was there too.

What is this kind of trickery for? It’s for whose benefit, exactly? What does it prove? Again, and excuse me for repeating it, I think the function of this kind of interrogation is to control teachers in the way that they read stories with children. In order to get your class to do well at the tests, you the teacher should spend time each week, perhaps each day, interrogating children along these lines after you’ve looked at a story or a passage from a story. Once again, we are talking about a process here of showing this model of reading and talking about reading as the one with the most value.

By the way, I’ve got some questions here for SATs setters in case they use passages from some well-known books.

‘On what side of the road, was the good Samaritan walking?’

‘On what leg, is Long John Silver’s wooden leg?’

‘In which way did Odysseus turn the stake in Cyclops eye, left, right or both ways?’

‘How sharp was Hamlet’s sword to go through an arras tapestry, Polonius’s clothes and in sufficiently far to kill him?’

As with all systems that draw attention to their own correctness, SATs frequently contain errors and misleading information.

We are asked, ‘Why did Fiona’s mother feel annoyed at the beginning of the story?’ And we are offered page 9 as a place to look. In fact at least one possible answer is stated quite clearly on page 10…Mother is calling up to Fiona with various things like ‘what is keeping you so long?’ and then,  ‘I don’t want Grampa to be waiting too long.’

Because the examiner and child are locked into this ballet of correctness, when misleading or unhelpful, or not-helpful-enough information is given us, we never have the courage to defy what we’re told. If it says see page 9 they must be right. The answer won’t be on page 10, and even if it looks like it is, it can’t be, because they’ve said it’s page 9. This is, in its own way, an example of the classic psychologists’ test of conformity. Better to conform than to be right. Better to risk nothing than to be right.

Then we are asked what grampa’s proverb means: ‘Those who hurry fastest are the first to fall.’ ‘Explain what he meant.’

Now, let me begin to look up from this dreary business for a moment. Faced with a story that has an old person passing on his thoughts to a young one in the form of a proverb, just think of the interesting directions you could go: you could ask the children to collect proverbs and sayings that their own grandparents and parents say. You could ask what it feels like to be told these things? And you could even ask, if Grampa’s one or any of the others that the children collect, are, in their view, true?

In this way, we would make the children equal to the story, not part of a process that rewards and humiliates. We would also, and I’ll be coming back to this, be treating story as something open-ended. A place where we acknowledge that the reader brings with him or her a knowledge that he or she responds with and that this is one of the unavoidable and utterly delicious things about reading.

By the way, you get two marks if you say something like ‘people who rush things never get them done.’ But only one mark if you say something like ‘he meant don’t rush what you’re doing, take your time.’

In direct contrast to this approach to response, the next question crystallises all that’s wrong with this approach to literature:

‘…pain flared in her knees. (page 12)

Why is this an effective way of describing how Fiona felt after she fell down the stairs?

We are so indoctrinated into this way of talking to children about literature, it’s sometimes hard to see what’s so appalling about it.

Who says that ‘pain flared in her knees’ is ‘effective’? Where is the author of this opinion? How does the author of that opinion justify it? No, we have the pure silence of authority, embodied in the dull, voice of the examiner. The exam states that it’s ‘effective’, so it must be. Conform children, conform.

The question also reveals an obsession that lies behind the teaching of literature, in particular, poetry – that’s to say ‘metaphor’. For quite complicated reasons, metaphor shoots up the league table of priorities in the teaching of literature and is considered much more worthy of close examination than say repartee, mimesis, intonation or lying. Again, we have here an example of indoctrination-of-teachers disguised as exam-question: teach the children metaphor if you want them to pass their exams. Why? Where’s the justification for this? Where’s the intellectual rationale that makes metaphor king of the castle? Nowhere to be found.

I’ve got nothing against metaphors but even within the parameters of its given high status, consider the possibility of asking children to come up with their own ways of saying what it felt like when they hurt themselves. Did things ‘flare’, as Theresa Breslin, or did they explode, rip, stab…etc? Why tell children that Theresa is the goddess of effectiveness? The reading of literature shouldn’t be someone forcing you to your knees at the feet of authors in praise of their effective metaphors.

The next question likewise reproduces one of the classic misleading notions that lie deep in the heart of old school literature teaching: ‘Why do you think the author included these details about how Grampa used to look?’ the details in question are the photographs that spill out of the box, him in his uniform, his strong face and dark moustache.

This is the process whereby the correct answer is the one in the examiner’s head, who for some magical and mysterious reason had a direct channel of communication with the author’s mind.  So what you now have to do, is not include any random or Freudian reasons that you might come up with like, say, Theresa Breslin likes men with dark moustaches. Nor should you suggest that it might be for any ideological reasons to do with this family being quite well off with Grampa’s ‘big old house’ and that such people often mark out their lives with nicely kept photo albums. Nor should you suggest that this is a story that relies on two kinds of flashback, the one in the narrative and the one in the objects that are referred to, sometimes both at the same time.

No, the correct answer, is, I thought because using details makes stories come alive, or something like that. I don’t think I would have got a mark for that. 2 marks for pointing out that it’s a way of comparing the state of Grampa now with what he used to be like, but only one mark for saying that ‘it shows that people change as they grow up.’ To be honest, I think they got out of their depth with this one and can’t distinguish between questions about author intention, questions about rhetoric and questions about what is thought by these people that a bit of writing will do to you.

Again, we could say, why not first ask children about what it’s like when they go through photo albums and see pictures of what their grandparents and parents looked like when they were younger? And the thoughts you might have here would inform  you about Fiona’s reactions.   But the snag with that, is that we wouldn’t know what they would answer, and the children wouldn’t go through this bit of pretend mind-reading that is always thought to be so important. Instead, they would spend a moment guessing what was in their own heads. They would be the authority of their own experience, rather than novices in the process of becoming experts on examiners’ heads. As it happens, in my experience, exam-setters are amongst the least able to divine what authors are up to.

By the way, I have noticed the pseudo-liberal ‘Why do you think the author included these details…’

It’s pseudo liberal because there are only two kinds of right answers allowed. This leaves teachers in their daily practice with the job of setting children this kind of question so that the children can learn how to make their mind-reading guesses fit the examiners’ requirements more and more closely. Under ‘Assessment focus 6’ this is known as ‘identify and comment on writers’ purposes and viewpoints, and the overall effect of the text on the reader.’ (All that took about a term on my MA on children’s lit at Reading) By the way, his has nothing to do with encouraging children to respond to what stories feel like to them, nothing very much to do with daring and experimenting with what they might think a story might be about. Nothing to do with investigating story for all its possibilities. And it’s this readerly sense of indecision, wonder and experiment that many writers deliberately play with. Vital to active writing and reading; irrelevant to SATs examiners.


We have another question now, which is surely one of the most mysterious in the whole exercise.

It quotes a line: ‘But it hadn’t been like that at all.(page 12)

What does this sentence tell you about Fiona’s feelings after Grampa came out of hospital? Explain your answer fully.

I love that ‘explain your answer fully’. More exam-ese, a phrase that is hermetically sealed into the language of testing and never emerges to see daylight in everyday speech.

But back to the question…what does this sentence tell you about Fiona’s feelings? I’m sorry, but the sentence, ripped from context, as the examiners have done both by quoting it, and referring to it as ‘this sentence’, tells you absolutely nothing whatsoever about Fiona’s feelings. As a sentence, it is entirely un-freighted with the language of feeling. It merely sounds, on its own, like a sentence of contradiction of some sort, which might imply anything from fussy pedantry, to anger, disappointment, mockery, irony, irritation, good humour, contempt, horror, surprise. As you might expect, though, there are three marks up for grabs if you ignore the instruction to look at the single sentence and pour into it all the contextual stuff about Fiona hoping that Grampa would be the same old Grampa and what he was like in reality. Knowing how to do this, wins you three marks but if you write: ‘everything she had dreamed of did not come true’ will only get you one.

This part of the story interestingly includes some examples of what’s known as free indirect discourse, much loved of writers probably since Jane Austen but certainly since Madame Bovary.
‘Then they would play cards and she would win most of the games. But it hadn’t been like that at all. He sat slumped in his chair by the fire most of the day, his eyes were vague and sometimes he dribbled his food. Just like a baby!’

The phrase ‘just like a baby’ is probably not the same voice as ‘sometimes he dribbled his food’. Now I’m not suggesting that we should be firing questions about free indirect discourse at children. However, when we can get away from interrogating children in the ways that we’ve seen so far, there might be times when we could invite children, particularly when they’re doing some writing themselves, to think of narrative sometimes as a bit like a game, where you can be in one person’s head and speak their feelings, then in another person’s, sometimes in everyone’s head, sometimes only in one person’s. And that there are different ways of speaking from inside a person’s head. Or sometimes you can avoid being in anyone’s head. And that stories nearly always mean that somebody or something is the centre of attention, but you can shift this around and, indeed play with it. But ‘play’ and ‘games’ is not on the agenda here.

Then, and I suspect that this is as a reaction to the kind of criticism, I’m making here, we have two questions that suggest that someone somewhere deep in the heart of test-land has realised that stories are indeed often largely about how people’s feelings change and why.

How does Fiona’s accident change how she feels about Grampa?


What do you think Fiona might have written in her diary after visiting Grampa two weeks after he had moved to his new flat?

Needless to say, it’s not as open-ended a question as all that, because the candidates are then told what to think:

‘Think about:

what she thought of the flat:

her friendship with Grampa’

What?! Why? Fiona the diarist might not want to mention the flat. Her diary could be about a programme that they watched on the telly together, a story that Grampa told her about when he staggered down the market to buy some carrots, a story about Fiona’s mother when she was young, an article in the paper about a fire in the flats next door…or anything! That’s the whole point of asking this kind of question. Well it should be but not in these folks’ hands. It seems as if even as the examiners give with one hand, they take away with the other.

Finally we are asked:

a) What made Fiona remember things that happened in the past?

Which I answered with ‘she was good at remembering catchphrases like ‘what are friends for’, ‘you can do it’ and ‘those who hurry fastest.’

I’d have got no marks for that.

Why are Fiona’s memories important to this story?

I answered that by saying ‘because the story is about change’, which would have got me one mark but not two. I should have said ‘because the story is about Fiona realising that in the past her Grampa helped her and so now she must help him. or because you need to know what happened before and compare it with the present.’

So here we tie the whole story up with a bit of liberal moralising, which to tell the truth passed me by. We are told, then, by ‘English tests Mark schemes, key stage 2, levels 3-5 2004’ that there is a right meaning to this story, a nearly right meaning and a whole load of wrong ones; and in so doing, it tells you that that’s what stories are: things that have an overall right meaning that some clever people, like SATs-setters get and other dullards like me, don’t.

This is a model of reading, that as I’ve suggested worms its way back into teachers’ practice through the institutional power of the compulsory SATs system.

And it’s a model of reading literature that I reject, for the simple reason that it makes books for children not worth reading.

It makes them dull, tiresome and irritating. It draws attention away from what moves us, or even from questioning why things move us or don’t. It centres the facticity of story and de-centres the importance of changing feelings – And it takes the meaning of stories away from you into some strange, slightly frightening and abstract place occupied by Those Who Know Better And More Than You. They know the meaning.  ‘Play this game and you might be able to join them. Get it wrong and you won’t.’

When we remind ourselves that in many schools, the reading of whole books has come to an end, many children don’t get to know how things turn out in a story so they will never feel the experience of change when they read. They will never feel what I think is the most important thing about story, the presentation of possibles – possible behaviour, possible scenes and possible worlds. And you need to feel the sensation of how these possibles work out, to get it.

In short, you won’t ever get the buzz of reading the stuff. So why bother to do it when, say, you’re on your own? Or when you’re bored? Or when there’s something else to do?

Which brings me to the second reason that suggests that books for children might not be worth reading.

It’s one of the curious ironies of our time, that though children’s literature has just been discovered. it’s precisely at this moment that large sections of the public arena are intent on avoiding a discussion about children’s books that treats them just as we might talk about books for adults.

First a little anecdote: I’m very lucky to work for the country’s public service broadcaster, the BBC. For ten years, it ran a programme called ‘Treasure Islands’ which for 18 shows a year, looked exclusively at books aimed at children. It wasn’t a children’s show. It was aimed at people who would probably be looking for books for children they knew, but not entirely so. The programme had to be sufficiently interesting in its own right, to interest people who were once children themselves, or who might become one while listening to the programme, or even for people to wonder what kind of place or what kind of time it is or was that produces or produced this or that kind of book.

It was taken off the air for the explicit reason that there wasn’t room for ghetto programming. Children’s books would be now looked at as part of arts and book magazine programmes or in separate features.

Yes, children’s books appear more frequently for children with Go4It and BBC 7, but the question remained, do we need a place where a conversation goes on about children’s books, just as we have conversations about children’s minds or children’s behaviour. About children but not always in the language of children themselves.

Meanwhile, TV finds almost no time for this kind of conversation about books for children, unless it involves an author who sells prodigious numbers of books (hooray for that); there’s a scandal; or there’s what is described as a crisis in childhood, a crisis in literacy or a crisis in parenting.

The popular newspapers are utterly uninterested, and the broadsheets stutter along: The Guardian’s pages for children’s books, where I’m an occasional reviewer, I see, often has to justify itself with a quarter page ad, whereas an interview with an adult fiction writer can, quite properly, spread to three pages, or a page of fiction reviews go without an ad entirely.

I know that editors like Julia Eccleshare, Nicolette Jones and Jill Slotover, struggle to get regular reviews in, paragraphs here, interviews there but all of them (and others) can tell you how hard it is to get the stuff noticed and taken beyond brief reviews and news.

So what’s going on here? Why is there,in the midst of weekly announcements,  about literacy standards, schooling, constant heartsearching analyses of children’s behaviour and parenting problems an unwillingness to open a conversation about children’s books? A conversation about the ideas embodied in the books and the social conditions and traditions they come out of?

It’s hard not get conspiratorial about it. Or should I say, structural? It can’t be an indifference about literature in general because books are getting as good a whack from the media as they’ve ever got. It can’t be to do with a lack of interest in what, as adults, we think we’re doing with our kids. So where’s the problem? To tell the truth, it’s a problem this culture has with children themselves.

The difficulty surrounding books for children is that they are unashamedly on the side of children. They also suggest that children should be taken seriously. That’s not to say that they are serious, though they may well be, but that how children think, feel and behave is something that matters. This is implied both in what the stories seem to be about, but also in the very manner in which they are presented, the very fact that they are presented at all; we say: here is something that you may well enjoy, you are someone worth entertaining, have a laugh, get scared, be amazed, be bewildered. See if you can follow this. What’s more, on close examination, different children’s books imply different kinds of reader and flip that over, we find different kinds of children reading in different kinds of ways. Behind the 20 millions and 50 millions of readers that hit the headlines are complex and interesting patterns of reading going on…

Now that’s a cluster of ideas that is hardly on our culture’s dial. Children, our culture, seems to suggest, are often a problem – we have asbos and curfews and off-site units; we have anguish-laden articles about children with problems of the body or mind; we have programmes proving that they are more stupid now (never more clever), their education is worse, their materialism and sexuality are out of control.

Our culture also tells us that children are often best left at home with baby-sitters, it’s hard to travel and eat out with them; we find it difficult to create mixed-age occasions.

We have governments who make detailed and expensive plans on how to contain, control and grade children inside educational institutions but very rarely take any notice of places where children play and could or actually do entertain themselves. That’s left to low-paid youthworkers and librarians and constantly closing play facilities on one side, or Hollywood and the TV moguls on the other.

In other words what children do, think and feel is well below the radar of the prevailing ideas of the powerful. It doesn’t feature as part of public discourse. A possible reason for this is that though children rate as consumers (or their parents on their behalf) they don’t rate as producers. Rather like Old Age Pensioners. They don’t make anything, so they matter less for what they are, only for what they will become; they’re not a state of being, they’re a state of being on the way to somewhere else, called adulthood. Again, an ironic state of affairs considering the massive rise in therapies that place our adult lives in the grip of our childhoods. It’s as if we’re saying, children are boring, but my childhood is fascinating..let me tell you about it…

So, this thing we’re in, books for children, has to struggle with this structural indifference. A structural indifference that always mouthes that books for children are worth reading, but rarely puts its money where that mouth is.

Meanwhile, within higher education, the fledgling of university courses on children’s literature is beginning to take flight. For the public conversation about children’s books to be thoughtful and helpful, we need people doing first degrees and postgraduate work to have some time to look at the ideas and theories surrounding children’s literature. For example, children’s literature has always played an important, sometimes central part in how western societies have constructed ideas about gender, race, class and identity in general. Think of the power and position in the making of consciousness as such books (and their film and TV adaptations) as ‘Little Women’, ‘Treasure Island’ or  ‘The Wind in the Willows’ or more recently ‘Where the Wild things Are’ or, of course ‘Harry Potter’.  Again, it is around the reading of books in classrooms and bedrooms and in the talk surrounding those books that we learn how story works: how to pick up on sequences, patterns and symbols; how to see points of view represented by people; how to see consequences; how to allow ourselves to be deceived by narrators and protagonists; how to be disappointed or delighted with the way things turn out. University courses have the time to look at the kinds of satisfactions offered to readers in terms, say, of wish-fulfilment, yearning and desire, projection and transference, and indeed those books that appear to run against the grain and defy, subvert and challenge prevailing ideas of gender, race and class. And yet again, it can look at traditions within the literature, how writers have tried again and again to address such matters as coming of age, transgressive and subversive behaviour, redemption, bravery, in-groups and outcasts, loneliness and solidarity, and how and why these themes have changed according to the epochs in which they were addressed.

Yesterday on the semester on children’s literature Piers Bilston and I teach at London Metropolitan we looked at Benjamin Zephaniah’s ‘Refugee Boy’. It’s a book that puts the outsider on the inside. It makes someone who comes from the least important, most outcast group in society, a child refugee from an African country, into the lynchpin of the narrative, the focal point of your attention. The students on that course will go their various ways into a mix of teaching, librarianship, therapy in this country and in other countries having seen that the very narrative method itself, the book’s own narratology, has a politics. We speculated whether the book’s main protagonist is a ‘hero figure’, whether stoicism is heroic, and whether the heroic structure dissipated when the collective that supports the lead character becomes more important than him, and what that said about the ideology of the book. We touched on the question of what kind of reader was implied by this text, was it calling for empathy in its readers or something cooler. Wouldn’t we need to talk to some young readers of the book to know? Could  reader-response surveys and studies be the final arbiter of the value of a book? And quite coincidentally, one of the students said that at her local synagogue, three boys had chosen a passage from the book as their presentation pieces for their bah mitzvahs. We were just about to wind up, when a student from Nigeria said that she was reminded of parts of Chinua Achebe’s ‘Things Fall Apart’, sometimes dubbed the first post-colonial novel and we were able to finish with questions about this post-colonial tradition. Was Benjamin an inheritor of the idea of  ‘writing back’. You, the white writers of the west, used to write about us, now we write about ourselves. With Achebe it was within Africa, with Benjamin it’s here.  I think that the world of children’s books needs people out there who can engage with children’s books on all these levels.

My third problem lies with the publishing industry. What? How can that be? Surely, they are the champions. They’re the ones producing the stuff that you, Michael Rosen, are rooting for.

Yes, but.

To tell the truth, I think the publishing industry is not simply interested in publishing books but primarily, not entirely, but primarily interested in publishing new books.

Excuse me while I become economistic. It was about fifteen years ago, that some huge upheavals took place in the world of publishing books for children, and these upheavals had a very specific intention but it was one that was never fully spelled out.

Most of the small independent publishers were taken over by multi-nationals. The multi-nationals brought in a very logical ethos that said that if the commodity of the book – that’s to say the number of copies – wasn’t selling at a certain rate, it wasn’t making money for the company and so should be deleted, remaindered, junked. This could be measured quite objectively by the speed with which it disappeared from its highly expensive-to-rent shelf in the warehouse. Indeed, if it went below a certain rate, it wasn’t just not making money, it was losing money. Go, book, go.

The problem with this is that you would soon end up with only a few book titles on your list and that could lead to the law of diminishing returns: fewer books, less noise, less hype, and indeed less money-making. The way to solve the two problems was to create an entirely new publishing policy. It would be to treat the book-making business much more as if it were the magazine trade. Publish books for what in your heart of hearts you would know was a fixed term of about twenty months, then pulp. Every book has a graph of sales and for most it looks like an inverted tick, a short quick rapid rise to a peak and then a fairly rapid tail-off. The trick, surely, is to publish all books so that they are only half a tick. Pulp them before the down stroke descends too far. The best publisher would be one who produces the most number of steep upward ticks, and who pulps at a time that anticipates the plunge. Shelf-life twenty months or less.

Now, I would suggest to you, who like me, may think of books as places of ideas, feelings, possibilities, strange knowledge, intrigue and incredible laughs that this half a tick process is a bit chilling. Might it not be possible that some incredibly brilliant books might just disappear? Of course, all authors think that it’s their own book that falls into this category and are very sore about it: ‘my best book went to the shredder in 1999.’ That sort of thing.

But what is the real structural consequence of this: well, I think it contains dangers and the dangers are in what is or is not hazarded, what models are replicated, what sequences are repeated. Yes, it’s a familiar cry, that the engine of capitalism squeezes out the oddball, the divergent, the subversive, the minority, the small. I think there’s an element of truth in that but of course, the warehouse watchers have got a perfect riposte haven’t they? The democracy of the market place. ‘If the kids don’t wanna read your book, then why should I publish it. I’m not a charity. You write something they wanna buy and I’ll sell it for you…’

Well, there is an alternative, and it takes us back over all three of these impediments to our believing that books for children are worth reading.

And I’ll call this, after the strange titles of some old folksongs and broadsheets: the grand conversation.

You see, there is a democracy about books that runs along different lines from the publishing production lines. It lies in the talk and writing that we all have about books for adults, but only fitters and splutters along when it comes to books for children. It got stamped out when all over the country local authorities said that they couldn’t afford to sustain the relationship between libraries and schools. It got sidelined when teacher-training courses found that they didn’t have time to run modules or semesters on children’s literature. Same again, when courses for teachers got so tailored to the curriculum and the literacy strategy that the only way in which schools could get money to second teachers onto courses was if it was for literacy, spelling, grammar, handwriting, behaviour management, gifted children, special needs children and how to run an assembly. Anyone who has worked in and around teacher training and inset training knows how hard it is to get a course off the ground that might be called, let’s say, ‘Having a laugh, great books for Friday going home time’ or ‘What to do when the whole class is crying: books that move the heart.’ Or ‘Any old books – teachers and students on this course will talk about books that they’ve read to their class and what happened when they did’.

But a democracy of reading, requires a different way of talking about books. In the first part of today we saw one model of how to have a conversation about books. It is, I’m arguing, a highly un-democratic one, even in the fact that the people who ask the questions are represented by nothing more nor less than mysterious initials: QCA. Who are these people? Why are they so shy? Most authors I know love their names to be on the books and articles they write. Why is it so hard to get hold of SATs papers. It must be about the only public document that you can’t get on the internet. You have to bribe, cajole and shmooze a headteacher to get hold of one.

I think you only know if books are worth reading if you have a chance to find out what you think of books – and it helps a lot, if you have a chance to find out if anyone else wants to hear what you’ve got to say. I suggest that the starting point for this is for a curriculum that puts the reading of whole books back on the agenda. It also suggests that the best way to ask children questions about books is either to ask none, or to ask questions that the questioner doesn’t know the answers to. Questions like: does this book remind you of anything you’ve met in real life? Or remind you of anything you’ve read elsewhere? When you compare the book with these things you know from your life and from your reading, what similarities and differences do you spot? Is there anything about this book that puzzles you? Is there anybody in the room who thinks they can help with this problem? Is there anything you like or dislike about this book? Why’s that then? Is there anything we would ask any of the characters in this book? Is there anywhere we can go to find out answers to any questions we have about this book? Thanks to the writer and critic Aidan Chambers for some of these.

But there are also ways in which we can enter a story without interrogating children…

I suspect many of you came up with interesting ideas after I read the story used by the SATs examiners.

I want to finish by looking at a book called ‘The Gardener’.

[An excerpt from ‘The Gardener’ followed but cannot be included here due to copyright]

Every time I read this, I get the feeling that it’s worth reading. I don’t ask ‘worth reading for children’, or ‘for adults’…just I think it was worth reading it.

I’ve been making a pilot for a programme that may go out on the new teachers channel and whaddyaknow, it’s about reading. Not ‘reading’, in the literacy sense (you know, are synthetic phonics better than plain phonics? No, not that sort of thing), but reading in the sense of ‘reading books’. This is how I got to know about ‘The Gardener’. I was asked to interview a teacher who had been reading the book with her class. I asked her how.

She told me that they read the book in stages. And at each scene, each tableau that we’ve just seen, the class would re-create the moment. When Lydia stood on the station, they acted out a scene of them standing on a station. They wrote letters to Uncle Jim and when Lydia gets to the city, they wrote letters back home. When Lydia planted bulbs, they planted bulbs. They made bread, they decorated cakes, they made a secret place and at a crucial moment, someone, an adult at the school, dressed up as Uncle Jim, appeared with a birthday cake, covered in flowers, and like Jim, didn’t smile. They debated the question of why some people smile and why some people don’t and what that’s about and they talked and talked about the picture in which Uncle Jim is saying goodbye to Lydia. I’m not doing either the teacher or her class justice here, but I hope you’re getting the drift. One of the ways in which children find out if a book is worth reading or not, is to live it.

For most of us in this room, as I said at the outset, the question is hardly worth asking, are books for children worth reading? We know it. For many children though, this is not self-apparent. We have to prove it to them. To do that, we need an education system that encourages teachers to find all sorts of different ways for children to live in books. We need a public discourse that can go beyond treating children’s books as scandals, sensational sales figures and symptoms of some crisis or some ‘seismic shift’ in something or another. And we need a publishing industry that remembers that books are not only or simply commodities, but carriers of ideas and feelings. But the industry can only do that if the public discourse and the reading of books in schools wises up.