'Russell Brand as a modern-day Shelley: Just because a book is old, it doesn't mean it's more intellectual or stimulating'

It is both snobbish and harmful to young people’s enjoyment of literature to dismiss the books that resonate with them as insufficiently ‘highbrow’, writes the former government mental health tsar

Natasha Devon

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On the leafy outskirts of Cambridge city centre, nestled between two Victorian-style townhouses, there exists a strikingly small school.

The Red Balloon Centre, a school for bullied and severely traumatised children who aren’t able to engage with mainstream education, only has around fifteen pupils at a time.

Those pupils spend fifty per cent of their day leaning the curriculum and the other fifty per cent on activities designed to nurture and bolster their fragile mental health and self-esteem, as well as improve their confidence and social skills.

They have group time as well as one-to-one mentoring, nutritionally balanced lunches around a table, interspersed with a generous sprinkling of creative pursuits. And their founder, the formidable and brilliant Carrie Herbert, somehow manages to achieve all of this at less cost per pupil, per annum than it costs the public purse to place children in state schools.

It will come as no surprise for you to discover that I consider the Red Balloon Centre to be paradise.

The environment feels safe and comforting, pupils are respectful of one another as well as enthusiastic about their studies, and they positively radiate the love and attention which has been invested into them. When I visited I never wanted to leave.

The ultimate aim of the Red Balloon Centre is to get children to a point, both in terms of their learning and confidence, where they are able to go back into mainstream education.

They have an impressive success rate, despite the pupils only spending half the amount of time their peers do on curriculum-based learning. What I found particularly intriguing was the way in which they approach the study of literature.

First, tutors ask pupils what they enjoy reading. Their tutor will then familiarise themselves with whatever this transpires to be. They then find parallels between the pupil’s favoured reading material and the texts on the curriculum.

It’s the educational equivalent of that pop-up on Amazon which says "you might also enjoy…."

Disclaimer – before we embark any further. I know, of course, that the current demands placed on your average teacher means that they would never, realistically be able to adopt this approach.

Yet when the revolution comes, as it undoubtedly will, and we design the system again from scratch, I’d like to see the Red Balloon methodology considered.

Shakespeare's 'chick-lit' comedies

This week, millions of Twitter users were sharing their favourite reads under the hashtag #booksthatmakeyou.

When I ventured to suggest that one of the books that left the biggest impression upon me was Bridget Jones’ Diary, I was met with an inevitable deluge of indignation, suggesting that I must be very poorly read indeed and that this did not constitute "real" literature.

Putting aside the fact that these types of people only ever seem to consider books written by white men as "worthy" to enter our collective cannon, what they failed to realise (perhaps because they hadn’t read the book) is that Bridget Jones is literally a modern re-writing of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice.

I happen to enjoy a bit of Austen, but a lot of my classmates found her, in the words of a school friend I saw over Christmas, "fist-knawingly dull". Perhaps, if she had been allowed to read Bridget Jones as a ‘gateway book’, she might have felt differently.

Furthermore, those who insist "oldness" automatically renders a book more intellectually and creatively stimulating have, ironically, failed to understand the historical context of many of the books on the curriculum.

Shakespeare’s comedies would probably now be described as "chick-lit". If social media had been invented in the Elizabethan age, no doubt his fans would have been ridiculed for their tastes.

Dickens was serialised and published in magazines and newspapers, a kind of literary soap-opera. Russell Brand, with his escape to a country retreat in pursuit of the more simple life and increasingly nebulous ponderings on spirituality, could be described as a modern Shelley.

George Orwell….actually, scrap that, George Orwell is becoming increasingly and terrifyingly relevant given the state of modern politics.

I bumped into one of my English teachers at a conference recently, and she said the reason I did well in her class is that I have the sort of brain which is always linking together ideas.

“The thing I remember you saying most was," she said, doing an uncannily good impression of a 16-year-old me: '"ooooh, that reminds me of…." and it could be anything from something you heard on the radio to an article in Cosmopolitan.”  

For me, reading broadly was a way of identifying universal themes, a skill incredibly helpful to the analysis of literature.

I’m not for one moment suggesting we shouldn’t study Chaucer, simply that all reading should be celebrated.

My love affair with books is one that has lasted since I read The Hungry Caterpillar in infant school.

Some of #BooksThatMadeMe since have included Roald Dahl’s Matilda, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre, A Streetcar Named Desire, the works of Shakespeare, Byron, Shelley and later on Angela Carter and Carol Ann Duffy.

Yet interspersed with these "classics" have been the coming-of-age fiction novels, numerous books by Helen Fielding, Marian Keyes, Caitlin Moran and a funny-yet-incredibly-life-affirming teenage instruction manual called Thirteensomething by Jane Goldman.

And no one of these sticks out in my mind as being any less or more valuable, or worthy, or life-changing.

It’s not only irritatingly snobby, but also actively harmful to young people’s enjoyment of and engagement with literature to dismiss the books which resonate with them as insufficiently ‘highbrow’. 

Natasha Devon is the former UK government mental health champion for schools and founder of the Body Gossip Education Programme and the Self-Esteem Team. She tweets as @NatashaDevonMBE

For more columns by Natasha, visit her back-catalogue

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Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon

Natasha Devon MBE is the former government mental health champion. She is a writer and campaigner and visits an average of three schools per week all over the UK.

Find me on Twitter @_natashadevon

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