A strange question to ask the readers of BfK! Most of you have spent years making, reading, teaching or studying children’s books. Yet in schools, books for children are being turned into worksheets so that young readers’ ‘performance’ can be assessed. Michael Rosen on how literacy is undermining literature.
This article is an excerpt from Michael Rosen’s inaugural lecture as Visiting Professor at Middlesex University. The complete text of his lecture is also published online in this issue.
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.
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?
Saying what matters to young people
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…
A cultural problem
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.
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.
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.
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 mouths that books for children are worth reading, but rarely puts its money where that mouth is.
Finding out what you think of books
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?
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.
This article will also appear in Waiting for a Jamie Oliver: beyond bog-standard literacy, alongside contributions by Bernard Ashley, Anne Fine, Jamila Gavin, Michael Morpurgo, Chris Powling, Alison Prince, Philip Pullman and Jacqueline Wilson.
Waiting for a Jamie Oliver, edited by Chris Powling with illustrations by Quentin Blake, is published on 31 October (0 7049 1454 9, £4.95 inc. p& p) and is available from the National Centre for Language and Literacy, The University of Reading, Bulmershe Court, Reading RG6 1HY. is a poet, writer and broadcaster.