Better turn over than turn off

10th July 1998 at 01:00
Reading Voices: young people discuss their reading choices

By Fiona M Collins, Philippa Hunt and Jacqueline Nunn

Northcote House

#163;13.99 (inc pp).

Order from Northcote House,

Plymbridge House, Estover Road,

Plymouth PL6 7PQ.

Children's Literature and Its Effects: children's tastes in reading

By Cedric Cullingford

Cassell #163;45, #163;15.99 pbk

Reading Voices is a quick and easy read on an interesting subject by authors who care about pupils and their reading. Yet it fails to live up to its promise.

The original data for the book came from a survey into the reading choices of more than 8,000 four to 16-year-olds by the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature, described in a 1996 report, Young People's Reading at the End of the Century. Fiona Collins and her colleagues at Roehampton Institute drew on interviews with some of the older primary and secondary-age children for this book. Topics include reading at home and school; reading privately and being read to; peer group reading networks; access to books in bookshops and libraries; the appeal of series books; gender differences in reading.

The book is too short to do justice to the issues raised (there are only 90 pages of discussion), and devotes too much space to stating the obvious and to trivial advice: "Reading in a 'plain voice' can very easily put children off... The choice of book is also an important factor to consider.Not all books read aloud well", and so on.

The "recommendations" that follow each chapter also tend towards the pedestrian. The children's comments with the authors' gloss in Reading Voices come over as lightweight compared with earlier books on young people's reading choices, such as Donald Fry's Children Talk about Books (1985) or Charles Sarland's Young People Reading (1991).

The intended audience, presumably teachers or students in training, are unlikely to find enough that is new to justify the price. On the plus side is the emphasis on keeping pupils' voices at the centre, and their enthusiastic comments about texts and reading.

Children's Literature and its Effects is more challenging and subtle. Cedric Cullingford is equally interested in young readers' responses to books, but his approach to popular reading is analytical, well-researched and insightful. His range is wide - comics, school stories,adventure yarns from lesser-known writers of the early 20th century such as Herbert Strang and Percy Westerman (new to me) to Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton and Judy Blume, and the bang-up-to-date Point Romance and Point Horror series.

In a masterful opening chapter, Cullingford begins by examining children's responses to books in the context of critical theory. He emphasises the importance of the pleasure principle in reading and develops an argument about critical literacy. As an interesting side issue,he explores the role of food in writing for children. Just think about Enid Blyton's wonderful picnic teas or the fantasies Dahl spins around chocolate.

I have one caveat. While Cullingford seems to appreciate the merits of popular literature and demonstrates how it can be used to extend children's reading, he feels the need to emphasise its simplicity and fails to respect the variety and sophistication of some texts. For example,to get the full impact of a page in The Beano requires multi-layered reading skills.

Given the narrow public perception of suitable literature for children and the mechanistic attitude to reading evident in much of the national literacy strategy, an enlightened and well-informed scholar such as Cullingford should be careful about statements such as this about popular literature: "The most important thing we can do is accept its existence and to hope to make its pleasure temporary." Why? If it turns children into voracious readers, the chances are they will read widely from a whole range of books. And if it doesn't, at least Enid Blyton and R L Stine will have shown their youthful audience how to read narrative and why it is satisfying.

Morag Styles is reader in children's literature at Homerton College, Cambridge

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