Choosing a Good Book
About the over-elevens
There were 480 of them, approximately one third of the 1,500 children who joined the scheme. Of these,
80% were between eleven and fourteen
67% were girls
46% belonged to specified ethnic minority groups
30% spoke a language other than English at home
The majority said that neither parent was a member of the public library.
They joined one of three schemes.
Bookworm – read at least five books (20% joined this)
Bookwizard – read five books, review one (40% joined this)
Bookmaster – read four books, review all of them (40% joined this)
Each scheme has its own specially selected list of books. Librarians, who have read all the books, are always available to talk. Rewards come in the form of badges, certificates and presentation ceremonies. For my research the children filled in detailed questionnaires and took part in taped interviews. I also looked at the reviews they wrote.
What makes a ‘good’ book
The best liked categories of fiction were funny stories, mysteries, adventure, ghost and horror. The most important characteristics of a `good’ book were that it should have a `good’ story, be interesting and have `good’ pictures. Books that didn’t have a ‘proper’ story, that is one with a clearly defined plot and finish, were usually disliked. Also given the thumbs down were books which contained difficulties or distractions, such as use of dialect or a narrative which is not strictly chronological but jumps about.
A ‘good’ story was almost invariably a fast moving and easily comprehensible one. Several children specifically mentioned that they looked for long descriptive passages – if they found them, the book wasn’t going to be good! Another common definition of a good story was that it should be `real’. Boys and girls usually had broadly different interpretations of reality. For the girls it centred on people and social situations, so that they liked `stories about teenagers like myself, love stories and school stories. Boys were more interested in things and events – they preferred science fiction, war stories and non-fiction generally. Young reviewers had no trouble indicating whether a book was a `boys’ or `girls’ book. Self-perceived and self-imposed lines of demarcation between boys’ and girls’ reading, and the difference in interest expressed in non-fiction was strong, although ghost, mystery or funny stories could and did transcend all such boundaries.
Title or cover attracted most children initially, largely because visual clues to subject matter were important. Girls were more likely to look out for particular authors or series, and the older children more likely to care that the books should look, or be, new.
The blurb or first page was usually read, and three-quarters of the children said that recommendations were important – usually meaning recommendations from friends. Length of book or size of print were less important to this group. Forty per cent of the children said that `enough illustration’ was important. (It was said that pictures `help to fix the story in your mind’.)
Choosing a good book from a library wasn’t seen as being easy. Suggesting what would make libraries better for them, the majority of children wanted to improve guidance; but they wanted more and better aids to self-help, rather than recommendation to individual books. A majority of children in all age groups agreed that it was difficult to choose a book from all those on the shelves. A recent DES publication* noted similar difficulties among its sample of eleven-year-olds.
A major factor in the popularity of the Westminster schemes was that the set lists made the process of choice easier. A totally free choice of books was as unpopular as one `set’ book. The children also liked the fact that the librarians had read every book and could describe storylines if asked – this was seen as helpful in the process of choice.
(*The DES publication Jean Bird mentions is Language Performance in Schools, Primary survey Report No. 1, Assessment of Performance Unit, 1981.)
Resistance to extending their usual range of reading interests was evident, particularly among younger readers, less avid readers, and boys. However in some cases once a relationship had been built up between librarian and reader this resistance lessened. In general, introducing new authors within the child’s usual interest range was far more successful.
Many children said that being obliged to read books carefully enough to be able to answer questions and formulate opinions, helped to make sense of the book. The scheme also made them read books in a relatively short period of time and think about what they were reading.
The chance for genuine self-expression without any perceived element of marking – or even necessarily having to like every book chosen – undoubtedly contributed to the enjoyment and relaxed atmosphere of the schemes. Confidence that adverse criticism could be voiced and would be accepted was enjoyed by the children. Even competent reviewers saw school reviewing as largely an exercise in saying nice things about books, if only because adverse criticism would probably attract attention and would need confident justification.
The schemes did get many children reading during the summer where they might not have done, but also – perhaps more importantly – they got many children experiencing and enjoying the process of successful, independent library use.
The recent Schools Council report, Extending Beginning Reading, noted that the ultimate intention of teaching reading should be `to produce children who do read’. Feeling confident about choosing fiction and feeling able to formulate opinions about books are important factors in the move from being a child who can read to one who does read. Westminster’s well-executed, non-evaluative schemes foster and enhance confidence and pleasure in both reading and library use, as well as keeping youngsters reading during the long summer break. Perhaps they have something to teach schools.
Jean Bird’s report, Young Teenage Reading Habits, is available from the British National Bibliography Research Fund, Sheraton House, Great Chapel Street, London WIV 4BH. Reports of the Bookmaster Schemes are available from The City Librarian, Westminster City Libraries, Marylebone Road, London NWI 5PS (1980 Scheme £2, 1981 Scheme £1).