David Bennett reflects on choosing novels for class sharing.
Stock cupboards up and down the land must have their piles of immovables – those sets of texts that some enthusiastic colleague persuaded other teachers would be ‘just the right thing for a class reader’. After the first flush of enthusiasm, the set got used less and less and now it gathers dust out of most people’s reach on the top shelf. My first school had so many discarded Men and Gods that I seriously wondered whether the former Head of English had shares in Heinemann.
Choosing texts for class readers is far from an easy matter, as I’m sure most readers of BfK will appreciate. There’s the persistent spectre of tightening budgets to contend with for a start. Maintaining current stock in reasonable repair and adequate numbers gobbles up allowances before you begin looking around for new titles … and then there are all those piles of abandoned books, gathering dust and weighing on your conscience. For good or ill, I took the chance to off-load some of mine recently on a charity looking for reading material for deprived countries. Even as you read this, some Polish child could be savouring the delights of Rogue Male, which we readily ditched with the demise of the GCE set books syllabus. There’s an irony there if you think about it.
In 1984/85 Joan Barker and I produced ‘Books for Sharing – Lifeline 3’ in Books for Keeps Nos.27-32. We worked on the premise that book sharing should be central to language activity in the classroom. The shared experience leads to greater enjoyment and provides much that is socially worthwhile for pupils. A book well read can encourage pupils into texts for which they would normally lack confidence or stickability and generally introduces them to titles and authors they might not otherwise discover. Then, importantly, there is the opportunity for a wide variety of book-based work that arises out of the sharing. That’s important in itself, but more crucially underpins the creation of a positive reading excitement and pleasure that can permeate the whole school.
I still believe these are worthwhile enough reasons for using class readers. What has changed since 1984 is the basis for choosing what to invest in, and that is due to a variety of new factors.
Firstly, what factors haven’t changed? In Years 7 to 9 we aim to programme an overall balance. A variety of writing styles is essential; the diary form of Nicholas Fisk’s Grinny, the poetic prose style of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Dragon Slayer, the turn-and-turn-about narrative of Paul Zindel’s The Pigman, Ian Strachan’s Bang! Bang! You’re Dead! the entire action of which takes place in 24 hours, and finally the short story collection Nothing to Be Afraid Of by Jan Mark, are good examples of what we mean here. Where we can, we try to break the beginning/middle/end narrative which characterizes so much else of what the children read and watch on TV.
Another consideration is to provide a wide spectrum of story types: Sci-Fi, animal stories, adventure, fantasy, social realism, historical, etc. Where possible we go for a variety of lengths and levels of difficulty and try to cross-reference an author’s work across the age groups. So, Chris Powling ‘s Daredevils or Scaredycats turns up in Year 7 and then Mog and the Rectifier is included in Year 8. Nicholas Fisk’s Highway Home used to be in Year 9 to follow Grinny, but the former has now departed to languish on the sagging top shelf! We also seek to ensure that the boys don’t get it all their own way. There are tales with very strong female characters. Then we purposely cover important areas like multi-cultural (Susan Gregory s Martini on the Rocks is a popular recent addition), disability (Welcome Home, Jellybean by Marlena Fanta Shyer seldom fails) and the environment, etc. I must say we’ve borne these issues in mind for years and they’re now a prescribed feature of the National Curriculum Cross-Curricular Themes. Finally, and here’s the rub, we’re after a good story, well-told and capable of being shared.
When we’re looking for suitable material it’s no use splashing out on a set of books just because we as adults enjoyed a particular novel and feel we’d like to introduce it to our pupils. As a reviewer I read dozens of books a year, many of which I thoroughly enjoy, but only a minute fraction of those do I ever consider for whole class use, and a large number of those my colleagues and I finally reject. Very few books manage to meet all our requirements for what is, after all, orchestrated mass consumption. Most children’s novels, in point of fact, are essentially the author to ONE reader at a time. There is, I feel, a personal relationship intended between author and reader, which should not and cannot stand the intervention of a mediator. That is why I can never bring myself to share more than the shortest extracts of Cider With Rosie; it’s not a mass-consumption-in-total work of the order of, say, Animal Farm or Lord of the Flies. Most books are for recommending, sharing and encouraging one to one. Ideally this will take place in an atmosphere generously created by the whole group, who, at the same time, will be sharing with their teacher those rare works that really do manage to meet all that is required of them and are consequently adopted as class readers.
In a nutshell, besides the aforementioned, they must be easily serialised and not too complicated to read aloud or to follow when listened to. I expect the language to be rich, and where appropriate humorous and inventive, and the characters and their actions believable within the context of the story. Not much to ask is it?
As I’ve already indicated, at the present time even more factors are affecting our choices and must be taken into account. My experience is that since 1984 pupils are being exposed to more material in Primary school that formerly we in Secondary could call our own. Betsy Byars’ The Eighteenth Emergency is a case in point. There is something to be said for selecting familiar texts in the first half-term of Year 9-the literature of security – but titles like The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp and Stig of the Dump by Clive King are moving rapidly towards the dusty hell of the top shelf! I’m not exactly complaining; the same is happening in other areas of the curriculum and anyway we must expect some stories to date. The worst case of this which we have is probably Jean George’s My Side of the Mountain.
Alongside this children are manifestly more worldly at an earlier age. The delights of Charlotte’s Web seem somehow out of kilter with eleven-year-old pupils who use ‘condom’ in everyday conversation (not whispered and sniggered in private huddles) and openly speculate whether they might turn out to be gay or not. The loss at an earlier age of what was formerly regarded as innocence must have a bearing on what pupils will readily accept as ‘suitable’ class reader material. The new, thin veneer of teenage sophistication has meant that in recent years many of our sets have drifted down through the age ranges. Jan Needle’s My Mate Shofiq, for instance, went from year 11 to 9 in one move. Similarly Nigel Hinton’s Buddy and David Line’s On the Run.
I’m afraid that I suspect television, and more especially soap opera, has some bearing here. Pupils perceive the rent-a-crisis/event-infested lives of the characters as what real life really is. We’ve a gang of pupils at school who conduct their lives like soap operas for which they themselves are writing the script. (Their pastoral tutors are the ones who look aged beyond their years.) It’s a struggle to get these youngsters to make an effort with the class sharing of James Vance Marshall’s Walkabout or A River Ran Out of Eden when real life is embodied in EastEnders, Neighbours and Brookside.
Lastly, lest we forget, there’s the National Curriculum. Essentially it hasn’t changed our literature-based approach much so far, although we do acknowledge that we need to make a conscious effort to find suitable books for sharing that are acceptable non-fiction. There’s talk of bringing one of the James Herriot ‘Vet Books down from the top shelf, and looking at the Dahl autobiographical books more closely to see whether they’re a possibility. Literature from other cultures is also under investigation, with James Berry’s stories in favour at the moment. I’m keen to introduce more folklore material into our repertoire so Kevin Crossley-Holland’s British and Irish Folk Tales is doing the rounds of colleagues for a consensus of approval; a single personal enthusiasm is not enough to warrant the expense.
And then there’s pre-twentieth-century reading – admittedly not something we’ve emphasized till now other than with Years 10 to 13. We’ve generally felt that there’s such good, recent prose material written specifically for the age-group with which we are dealing, why inflict upon them long, difficult novels, usually intended for adults in centuries past? The odd extract maybe, but not the whole bang-shoot! We’re aiming to keep them open to print, not turn them off. Specific personal recommendations are more in order, not Wuthering Heights for all, ready or not. Nevertheless, we’re on the lookout, as ever, for the rarity that meets every diverse requirement and might, just might, make a successful book for sharing, not another expensive mistake, a one-hit wonder that rapidly descends to the top shelf!
Paperback details of the books David Bennett suggests are suitable for ‘orchestrated mass consumption’. . .
Grinny, Puffin, 0 14 03.2164 0, £1.75
Dragon Slayer, Puffin, 0 14 03.0254 9, £2.25
The Pigman, Tracks, 0 00 671768 3, £2.50
Bang! Bang! You’re Dead!, Mammoth, 0 416 13192 1, £1.75
Nothing to Be Afraid Of, Puffin, 0 14 03.1392 3, £1.99
Daredevils or Scaredycats, Lions, 0 00 671897 3, £1.75
Mog and the Rectifier, Knight, 0 340 28046 8, £1.99
Martini on the Rocks, o/p
Welcome Home, Jellybean, o/p
Animal Farm, Penguin, 0 14 01.2670 8, £2.99
Lord of the Flies, Faber, 0 571 05686 5, £2.50
The Eighteenth Emergency, Puffin, 0 14 03.0863 6, £2.25
The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler, Puffin, 0 1403.1135 1, £2.50
Stig of the Dump, Puffin, 0 14 03.0196 8, £2.50
My Mate Shofiq, Lions, 0 00 671518 4, £2.25
Buddy, Puffin, 0 14 03.2717 7, £2.50
On the Run, Puffin, 0 14 03.0337 5, £2.50 Walkabout, Puffin, 0 14 03.1292 7, £1.99
A River Ran Out of Eden, Heinemann Windmill, 0 435 12110 3, £3.25 non-net
British and Irish Folk Tales, Orchard, 185213 265 5, £2.99
David Bennett is a senior teacher responsible for the English and Modern Languages Faculty at George Spencer School, Nottinghamshire. He is a regular reviewer for Books for Keeps.