Edge author Katie Dale questions whether cheap classic novels are really the best way to promote literacy.
This week I was thrilled and delighted to be invited to open the new library at a local primary school. At a time when many public libraries are closing, and school budgets are tightening, this was particular cause for celebration. The love of reading at the school was evident, with murals of pupils’ favourite book covers adorning the school walls, and nearly every child raised their hand enthusiastically when asked who enjoyed reading, scrambling to tell me what their favourite book was – titles that ranged from The Hobbit to The Gruffalo.
School libraries have also been in the news this week, with Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for Education, declaring her determination to improve pupils’ literacy. This is an important issue, especially as “evidence shows that children who develop strong reading skills early on are more likely to succeed at school, achieve good qualifications and go on to succeed in their adult lives and the world of work.”
However, part of her strategy is that “every secondary school
should have sets of a wide range of classics so that whole classes can enjoy them together – books I loved as a teenager by authors like Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Emily Bronte” and she’s calling on publishers to give collections of classics to schools at a reduced cost.
Whilst cheap books for schools – whose budgets are ever-tightening – is always a great idea, I have to wonder whether this focus on the classics is really the most effective way to promote literacy? Or whether it might actually backfire?
Classic novels, whilst wonderful, aren’t the easiest or most accessible texts for reluctant or struggling readers, and even the way that they’re deemed “good for you” – and the fact that they’re on the national curriculum – can be an instant turn-off to teenagers. I’ve always loved reading, but remember long hours struggling to plough through dense, dry, set-text classics as a teenager – and the relief of diving into a fast-paced contemporary book at the weekends, which I devoured by the shelf-full. But many of my friends were put off reading for pleasure, and now, in the age of social media, video games, the internet, and smart phones, reading as a pastime is struggling to compete more than ever before.
Consequently, does it really matter what books kids are reading, as long as they are enjoying reading? Nicky Morgan cites the classics as the books she loved when she was young, but I’m not sure how many modern teens would really put them at the top of their list of books to read for pleasure, and surely this is the true key to improving literacy? If a book is accessible, enjoyable, funny, exciting, fast-paced and relatable, won’t teens be more likely to read all the way to the end and, more importantly, pick up another book afterwards? In which case, might a mixture of popular contemporary titles - including graphic novels - be more successful, at least in the first instance?
After all, as most teens these days have smart phones, the classics are already available free of charge – as ebooks.
Katie Dale is the award-winning author of YA titles SOMEONE ELSE'S LIFE and LITTLE WHITE LIES
Simon & Schuster UK
Delacorte Press USA & Canada