The Kim of modern children's literature

7th January 2000 at 00:00
Geraldine Brennan meets the professor who has the low-down on the latest trends for vampires and ghouls

THERE are many people making a noise about children and books but Kim Reynolds is the individual who has done most in recent years to give us a clearer picture of the child as a public and private reader. Her energy and enthusiasm, much admired by colleagues, mean that she is continually called on to be the voice of children's literature in radio broadcasts and debates. he is also the first to know if vampires are back in fashion.

One of her research interests over some years has been the series fiction titles that adults are sniffy about but children swap in the playground. Point Horror and Goosebumps are by no means passe, it seems, but they have had to make room for Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Kim Reynolds, aged 44, became the second professor of children's literature in the country (she joins Peter Hunt of Cardiff) just before the start of the autumn term, in the final days of the National Year of Reading. She also runs the National Centre for Research in Children's Literature at her base, Roehampton Institute in London, where the annual MA International Board on Books for Young People conferences which she organises are key dates in the children's books calendar.

The centre is poised for its next extensive survey of under-16s' attitudes to reading and choice of material, an exercise which will be repeated every five years. The first one, Young People's Reading at the End of the Century, published in 1996, is now the definitive point of reference on children and their books. Among the findings gathered from 8,000 primary and secondary pupils was the confirmation of peer pressure as an increasing influence, the recognition that children need some element of their view of the world to be confirmed in a book and the comforting thought that children who play a lot of computer games might well put in just as much time reading.

Reynolds expects to see the impact of another five years of ophisticated child-centred technology in the next survey, to be published in 2001. "There is likely to be evidence of more leisure activity that is not reading - after the Year of Reading that could be a depressing finding - but also more evidence of children taking books home from school to share with their families. The really interesting results will come in 2006, when we will see the effects of Bookstart."

The Roehampton research centre recently took on the evaluation of Bookstart, the Book TrustSainsbury's programme to introduce babies and parents to books, which went national during the Year of Reading. The first Bookstart babies born into the national scheme will have started school by the 2006 survey. The building up of Bookstart from its successful pilot studies is one of the chief achievements of the year, says Reynolds.

"One-year initiatives don't do much, although the year started off many good projects which will carry on. Bookstart has enormous potential for recovering reading in adults - showing them that they can read a book with their child whatever their own reading ability - as well as encouraging it in children."

The future depends on creating a reading climate in the home, Reynolds believes, and as a arent of two teenagers she knows this is not easy.

She is concerned about what she calls "middle-class reading deficit": literate households where there might be lots of books but everyone is too busy to open them, and where the adults who fret about their children's reading are themselves unlikely to read for pleasure.

"There are families who take it for granted that they should make time to do exercise but reading isn't built into their daily life in the same way, although they own books and think they're desirable." She recently gave a talk called "Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body".

"Adults need to read what children are reading, talk about it and swap books so that it becomes part of what they have in common. That doesn't happen overnight, it's something you have to work at."

For teachers who find it hard to build on knowledge about children's books alongside the job, she recommends an expansion of regular in-service training by enthusiasts.

"Teachers need a day when someone reads to them, shows them books from the vast selection that they might not see and passes on enthusiasm. It's available at training college but often not when you've been in school for a few years and you're exhausted. Learning to read aloud well should be part of professional development.

"We stop reading to children far too early both at home and at school. You can read to Year 11s and they'll love it. If I was an local authority, I'd put a lot of money into all this." She'd put more money into libraries too. "They're crucial to the reading life of the family."

Reynolds grew up in the United States. She arrived in Britain in her early 20s to work on two art magazines . "I knew London from children's books, I'd read Ballet Shoes and couldn't wait to walk down the Cromwell Road."

After a BA in English literature at the University of Sussex, she specialised in children's literature for her MA and PhD at Sussex (she also works on women's studies and 19th-century literature) and sought out Roehampton for its track record in an area which is the Cinderella sector in universities as elsewhere.

"The logistics of getting promoted were incredible, because there are not enough highly qualified people working in children's literature. You have to be interviewed by five professors who are your peers and knowledgeable in your field, and it was almost impossible to find people. If I had been working on Renaissance or Romantic literature it would have been a different story. But this field is becoming more mainstream."

Another long-term project is the Roehampton oral archive of children's literature: taped interviews with 20th-century children's writers, funded by an Arts Council of England grant. This currently consists of interviews with more than 20 authors and includes the last interview with Geoffrey Trease before his death. "The interviews are informal, with a lot of clinking of teacups. People who work in children's literature tend to be warm, open and generous - and pleased someone is interested."

Later this month she will participate in a debate about the future of fantasy writing for children. And she has more vampire novels to read. "They're very big in France and Germany at the moment."

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