Friday, February 03, 2006

What Children Should Read - Reprise

I make no apology for coming back to this topic again as someone kindly got permission from the RSL to reproduce the article on the "children's canon" and sent it to the Child_Lit discussion list, so I am sharing it here. What particularly interested me were Ben Okri's 10 1/2 Inclinations for Reading (I especially like Inclinations 6 and 9):

1 - There is a secret trail of books meant to inspire and enlighten you. Find that trail.
2 - Read outside your own nation, colour, class, gender.
3 - Read the books your parents hate.
4 - Read the books your parents love.
5 - Have one or two authors who are important, who speak to you; and make their works your secret passion.
6 - Read widely, for fun, stimulation, escape.
7 - Don't read what everyone else is reading. Check them out later, cautiously.
8 - Read what you're not supposed to read.
9 - Read for your own liberation and mental freedom.
10 - Books are like mirrors. Don't just read the words. Go into the mirror. That is where the real secrets are. Inside. Behind. That's where the gods dream, where our realities are born.
10 1/2 - Read the world. It is the most mysterious book of all.

© Ben Okri 2006. All rights reserved.

From The Royal Society of Literature Review: A Shot at a Children's Canon

What should young people in twenty-first century Britain be encouraged to read? Anthony Gardner asks a clutch of Fellows to nominate their top ten books for schoolchildren.

The question of what a child should have read before leaving school has as many answers as Watership Down has rabbit holes. For some people, indeed, it is unanswerable: when asked to nominate ten works of literature for this article, Wendy Cope replied simply, 'There are children who love reading and there are people who go right through life without ever finishing a book. I can't make a list that would be right for all of them. It depends on the individual.'

Nick Hornby was similarly pragmatic. 'I used to teach in a comprehensive school,' he wrote, 'and I know from experience that many children are not capable of reading the books that I wanted them to read. This makes the kind of list you propose impossible, because if I choose ten books that I think would be possible for all, it wouldn't actually be a list that I would want to endorse. I think any kind of prescription of this kind is extremely problematic.'

Even among those who were prepared to have a stab, there was a general reluctance to be bound by the rules. 'But this is difficult,' complained Philip Pullman.'The myths and legends and fairy tales would be far better TOLD to the children by a teacher who knew them well, than read in a  book.  And there's no room for Oliver Twist, or Animal Farm, or the Sherlock Holmes stories, or... Difficult, did I say? Impossible! I can think of a hundred stories and poems and plays - a thousand - how can I possibly select? Why, I haven't mentioned this - or that - and how could I have  left out so-and-so? The first three titles [Finn Family Moomintroll, Emile and the Detectives, The Magic Pudding] are personal favourites of mine, so I suppose - reluctantly - that some other books might replace them; but... Impossible!'

Victoria Glendinning thought it better to recommend writers rather than specific books, offering only Alice in Wonderland and Catcher in the Rye as essential titles.

Anne Fine wondered whether she was allowed to choose her own books A Shame to Miss, 1, 2 & 3 - 'Poetry collections for, respectively, younger, middle and older children, compiled by me. It seems strange and immodest, but this "should have read before they leave school" criterion is exactly why I put the three age-based collections together in the first place.'

Ben Okri took a different tack altogether, preferring to offer '10 1/2 Inclinations'. For those exercised about whether children should be pointed in the direction of characters whose backgrounds are similar to their own, or encouraged to let their imaginations roam freely, there is an unequivocal answer in his second inclination: 'Read outside your own nation, colour, class, gender.'

Maggie Gee chose books 'that I think would both show teenagers how wonderful writing can be and also make them think more deeply about the world they live in. I have, to a certain extent, chosen these books for subject-matter rather than just for literary duality... I chose Cat's Eye, for example, because I think it is one of the best fictional treatments of bullying, which may be a particular concern with teenagers.' But, she concluded, 'Let's be frank and say that if only all school-leavers had read ten books, more or less any ten books, from start to finish, and thought about them, we would be ahead.'

Finn Family Moomintroll by Tove Jansson
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay
The Rime of the Ancient Mariner by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak
The Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens (or other good anonymous ballads)
First Book of Samuel, Chapter 17 (the story of David and Goliath)
Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
A good collection of myths and legends
A good collection of fairy tales

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
Animal Farm by George Orwell
The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter
The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
Hamlet by William Shakespeare

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
The Once and Future King by T. H. White
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
Stiff Upper Lip (or any other Jeeves book) by P. G. Wodehouse
Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons
Tristan and Iseult by Joseph Bedier
The Lord of the Rings by J. R .R. Tolkien
The Hound of the Baskervilles (or another Sherlock Holmes story) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
A Shame to Miss, 1, 2 & 3

The Odyssey by Homer
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
Hamlet by William Shakespeare
Paradise Lost by John Milton
Lyrical Ballads by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë
Great Expectations by Charles Dickens
Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot

The Hobbit by J. R. R. Tolkien
Vanity Fair by William Makepeace Thackeray
Disgrace by J. M. Coetzee
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
The Red Queen by Matt Ridley
Small Island by Andrea Levy
Go Tell It On The Mountain by James Baldwin
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times edited by Neil Astley
High Windows by Philip Larkin
Cat's Eye by Margaret Atwood

Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Romeo and Juliet, Julius Caesar or Antony and Cleopatra by William Shakespeare
Far from the Madding Crowd or Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
Some poems by W. B. Yeats , T. S. Eliot and Philip Larkin
A novel by Ernest Hemingway
A novel by Graham Greene
A novel by J. G. Ballard
A novel by Evelyn Waugh
A novel by Martin Amis
A novel by Margaret Atwood

© The Royal Society of Literature 2006.

I like Victoria Glendinning's idea of recommending a writer rather than a specific book.

* * * * * *

I'm currently reading Serenity, Keith R A DeCandido's novelisation of the film (not quite as good as watching the film, but better than nothing !) and The Science of Middle-earth by Henry McGee, whom I heard speak on the subject at last year's Oxford Festival of Literature, thankfully he's a better writer than he is speaker ! Look out for reviews of them both soon. (Today is a day of minor importance - my Blog is now 6 months old; my thanks to everyone who's been reading it during the last 6 months.)

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