Teachers' favourite books

5th April 2013 at 01:00
From Pride and Prejudice to Harry Potter, responses to a TES survey of teachers' favourite books reveal a lot about what they read, what they think they ought to read and how they try to pass on a love of literature to their students

"The Very Hungry Caterpillar?" Cat Shepherd says. "Now that's a classic." The advanced skills English teacher pauses, weighing up her precise literary response. "I think it's brilliant. It's iconic. Just the graphics alone tell a tale to children that they'll never forget. I'd pick that over Pride and Prejudice any day."

Very little, beyond politics and religion, divides people quite like a list. And so, perhaps, it is unsurprising that a TES survey of teachers' top 100 favourite novels should generate what one might refer to as differences of opinion among those discussing the results.

"People tell me it's a very good book," Simon Gibbons says, on hearing that Pride and Prejudice has unequivocally claimed top spot. Gibbons, chair of the National Association for the Teaching of English, takes a deep breath, then sighs. "I don't personally hold that view - I'm just not a massive fan of that period of English fiction. But people who like that book tend to be female rather than male. And there are more female than male teachers, so perhaps that's a reflection of gender as well."

Possibly proving his point, Dr Bethan Marshall, senior lecturer in English education at King's College London, takes a very different view. "Pride and Prejudice is a brilliant book," she enthuses. "I would say that it's probably my favourite, too."

Respondents named 10 favourite books

Five hundred primary and secondary teachers from around the country were asked by TES to name their 10 favourite books. Their responses were compiled into a list of the top 100 books among teaching staff. The results are, possibly predictably, as eclectic as the average staffroom.

Second on the list is classroom staple To Kill a Mockingbird. At number three is the Harry Potter series, its high position partly attributable to the fact that all the books in the series have been grouped together. "People interpret the question in very, very different ways," Marshall says. "If you asked somebody to pick the book they wanted to take to a desert island, they might choose a different book from what they would say if they were asked, `What's the best book you've ever read?' I don't think anyone asked what the greatest book they've ever read is would say Harry Potter. But they might want to take it to a desert island."

But are there themes we can draw from the list that might tell us something about the profession?

In fact, the Harry Potter series played a key role in promoting the merits of page-turning readability in a novel. "Ever since Harry Potter, people are happier to talk about how much children's books mean to them," Nicholas Clee, book reviewer and former editor of The Bookseller magazine, adds. "It's become more acceptable. Books like The Hunger Games have crossover appeal. Plenty of adults read them. And the Twilight series."

Ah, Twilight. Stephenie Meyer's paean to sexual abstinence, domestic abuse and sparkly chested vampires appears at number 77 on the teachers' list. (Like Harry Potter, it has been boosted slightly by the fact that all the books in the series are counted as one.)

"I guess there are younger teachers who read Twilight coming through their teenage years and have carried that with them," Gibbons says. "And maybe it's adults delving into the world of what children are reading." He pauses. "But my sister loves those books and she's in her fifties. There's a mass popularity in the Gothic, the rebirth of the Gothic." Another pause, longer this time. "I guess they're relatively easy to read. You can pick them up and put them down, and they're not going to tax you too much mentally."

Two more English curriculum staples appear in the top five, alongside To Kill a Mockingbird: Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre. Classroom perennials Of Mice and Men, Nineteen Eighty-Four and The Great Gatsby also appear within teachers' top 20.

"When you have any eclectic group, including one made up of teachers, there are going to be those who don't read that much," Marshall says. "So they think back to books that they've read at one time, and possibly that might be a set text."

An alternative interpretation is that respondents felt that they should reach for the correct answer rather than, perhaps, the truthful answer. When Shepherd asked colleagues at Sandwell Academy in the West Midlands to name their favourite books, one English teacher hesitated before answering. "Do you want the real answer?" she said. "Or do you want the one I should give?" (Her final selection was Marabou Stork Nightmares by Irvine Welsh. "She doesn't regard it as intellectual," Shepherd says. "So I suppose that's the truth.")

If anything, it is surprising that there is not more popular fiction on the list. Khaled Hosseini's two best-sellers, The Kite Runner and A Thousand Splendid Suns, are there, as is Jung Chang's intergenerational Chinese memoir, Wild Swans, and Stieg Larsson's Millennium series. There is, however, no sign of supermarket staples Sophie Kinsella, Cecelia Ahern or Marian Keyes. But that is not because there is no appetite for escapism.

Escape from reality

"In terms of the teachers I know, they all read avidly," Shepherd says. "A lot of them read real trashy pulp fiction, escapism, highly sexualised novels. I love a bit of historical bodice-ripping, me. You don't particularly want to read about the trials and tribulations of teaching. So you go and read something to escape the humdrum of life. But they don't want to appear to lack intellectual heft, especially when compiling lists of books - there's an intellectual snobbery around that."

The natural conclusion of this train of thought is that the only reason people list Jane Eyre or Lord of the Flies as a favourite novel is because they think they ought to. But Shepherd challenges this. "Quite a few of those books are texts that you teach, so they have to be classic enough to bridge the generation gap," she says. And they are not as dissimilar from the Harry Potter books as one might assume. "Romance, good wins out over evil - people love those, don't they?

"But one thing that does jump out in my mind is that there are very many good-quality film adaptations of them. I find that you say, `Have you read this book?' and people say, `Yeah, wasn't so-and-so brilliant in it?' Quite often when they say, `I love that book,' they don't actually mean that they love that book. They mean that they love John Hurt in Nineteen Eighty-Four or Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice."

In fact, many books on the TES list have been recently adapted into films or television series. The Hunger Games (both a book by Suzanne Collins and a film starring Oscar-winner Jennifer Lawrence) and Life of Pi (Yann Martel's Booker prizewinning novel recently made into a film by director Ang Lee) appear within teachers' top 20. Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler's picture book, The Gruffalo, which has been adapted into a half-hour cartoon, is also on the list.

"The Gruffalo - it's on TV every Christmas," Shepherd says. "I think you're going back to visual media, rather than books. If you'd have asked last year, I doubt many people would have had Life of Pi in there. But they've all nipped down to the Odeon, then thought, `I'll read the book of that'." She pauses. "And then been disappointed. In my opinion, Life of Pi is vastly overrated. But it's about picking up on the zeitgeist."

"I think, in any survey you do, there's a bias towards recently released things," Clee says. "I remember seeing a survey of the top TV series of all time and The Wire was there, The Sopranos was there. But if you'd done the survey in 2000, you'd have had the kinds of series that came out in the 1990s and were hailed as classics then."

He recommends a 20-year - or even 30-year - time lapse on entries to such lists. This would eliminate flash-in-the-pan favourites. "Things like The Hunger Games may feature strongly now, but may sink down rather rapidly once time has elapsed," he says.

Picture books tell a thousand words

There are other books in the survey that have proven their staying power not only across the decades but also throughout teachers' own lives. The list includes several classic children's novels, such as Little Women (at number 37), The Wind in the Willows (number 43) and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (number 60). And there is also a surprising number of picture books intended for much younger children. In addition to The Gruffalo, at number 18, picture-book favourites include The Very Hungry Caterpillar (number 56) and Where the Wild Things Are (number 76). Roald Dahl appears more often on the list than any other author.

"It's going back to visual images," Shepherd says. "If I think of Roald Dahl, I think of Quentin Blake's illustrations - I don't think of the words. And it's going back to those halcyon days of childhood. It's reminiscences. It's security."

Besides, Marshall says, it is easy to underestimate the literary merit of picture books. Displaying the same level of enthusiasm for Yann Martel's award-winning novel as Shepherd, she suggests that the central, transformational plot of 1969 counting book The Very Hungry Caterpillar - which ultimately sees the caterpillar change into a butterfly - is "worthy of Life of Pi, possibly even more meaningful than Life of Pi".

The inclusion of picture books also illustrates the different ways in which people tend to interpret the phrase "favourite book". A much-loved, long-cherished children's book may evoke strong memories - "Roald Dahl's The Witches terrified my children," Marshall says - or may have resonated in a particular way at a particular time. Alternatively, it may have been the book that first made someone realise how much fun reading could be.

"I think people have interpreted the question in a whole lot of different ways," Marshall says, "which is telling, because it means that books do a whole lot of different things for people."

And of course there's the professional interest in children's literature. "What you're trying to do, as an English teacher, is to find the book that individual children will love and treasure, and that will open up the whole world of books for them," Marshall adds.

She has very little time, therefore, for education secretary Michael Gove's decision, in February this year, to place greater emphasis in the English GCSE curriculum on books written before 1900. "It's worth reading 19th-century literature, because lots of it is really great," she says. "But I think saying, `This is what you're going to study, and that's all,' is ridiculous. Michael Gove has cast his net back over 100 years, and that's a mistake. A book can be a classic within 50 years. There are lots of books out there that are really, really good. And there are teenage books, which he doesn't count at all.

"As an English teacher, you want to find a book as a way of encouraging certain children. Imposing a curriculum of 19th-century books on them is slightly rigid. You won't find out what children really love."

`Be wary of teaching favourite novels'

The TES survey suggests that, if one were to draw up a curriculum based entirely on teachers' own reading preferences, it would not look too dissimilar from the existing curriculum: Pride and Prejudice, To Kill a Mockingbird, Jane Eyre and Of Mice and Men would all be there. But, Gibbons says, staff should nonetheless be wary of deciding to teach their own favourite novels. His personal favourite is Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. But he says that he would not want to read it with students.

"It's often quite difficult to teach a book that you really love," he says. He tried, once, with Joseph Heller's Catch-22. "The children didn't get the humour. I spent all my time telling them why it's funny. And if you really, really love a book and have a great stake in it you're less open to the views of the children."

But Shepherd disagrees. She struggles initially to name her own favourite book: "I have favourite books that have been my favourite my whole life. I have new favourites, too. But of all time? What could I not live without?" There is silence, as she thinks. "Probably To Kill a Mockingbird. I see it in a different light every time I teach it.

"I hated English at school but, when I was taught that book, I was, "Oh, my God! This is what a real book looks like.' But I do think it's massively important that teachers do read. Then you can dip in and out of someone else's ideas, and really express yourself more elegantly."


1. Pride and Prejudice Jane Austen

2. To Kill a Mockingbird Harper Lee

3. Harry Potter (series) J.K. Rowling

4. Wuthering Heights Emily Bronte

5. Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

6. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell

7. The Lord of the Rings (series) J.R.R. Tolkien

8. The Book Thief Markus Zusak

9. The Hobbit J.R.R. Tolkien

10. The Great Gatsby F. Scott Fitzgerald

11. The Kite Runner Khaled Hosseini

12. The Hunger Games (series) Suzanne Collins

13. The Time Traveller's Wife Audrey Niffenegger

14. The Chronicles of Narnia (series) C.S. Lewis

15. Of Mice and Men John Steinbeck

16. Birdsong Sebastian Faulks

17. His Dark Materials (series) Philip Pullman

18. The Gruffalo Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

19. The Catcher in the Rye J.D. Salinger

20. Life of Pi Yann Martel

21. Tess of the d'Urbervilles Thomas Hardy

22. Rebecca Daphne du Maurier

23. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Mark Haddon

24. Lord of the Flies William Golding

25. Matilda Roald Dahl

26. Catch-22 Joseph Heller

27. Millennium (series) Stieg Larsson

28. Animal Farm George Orwell

29. The Handmaid's Tale Margaret Atwood

30. Persuasion Jane Austen

31. One Hundred Years of Solitude Gabriel Garcia Marquez

32. Kensuke's Kingdom Michael Morpurgo

33. Goodnight Mister Tom Michelle Magorian

34. The Grapes of Wrath John Steinbeck

35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl

36. The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas John Boyne

37. Little Women Louisa May Alcott

38. One Day David Nicholls

39. We Need to Talk About Kevin Lionel Shriver

40. The Twits Roald Dahl

41. Wolf Hall Hilary Mantel

42. A Thousand Splendid Suns Khaled Hosseini

43. The Wind in the Willows Kenneth Grahame

44. Frankenstein Mary Shelley

45. Great Expectations Charles Dickens

46. Captain Corelli's Mandolin Louis de Bernieres

47. George's Marvellous Medicine Roald Dahl

48. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy Douglas Adams

49. Room Emma Donoghue

50. Anna Karenina Leo Tolstoy

51. Atonement Ian McEwan

52. Emma Jane Austen

53. Middlemarch George Eliot

54. The Shadow of the Wind Carlos Ruiz Zafon

55. The Color Purple Alice Walker

56. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Eric Carle

57. Brave New World Aldous Huxley

58. Sense and Sensibility Jane Austen

59. The Bell Jar Sylvia Plath

60. Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Lewis Carroll

61. Charlotte's Web E.B. White

62. Dracula Bram Stoker

63. We're Going on a Bear Hunt Michael Rosen and Helen Oxenbury

64. A Prayer for Owen Meany John Irving

65. The Secret History Donna Tartt

66. The Little Prince Antoine de Saint-Exupery

67. Crime and Punishment Fyodor Dostoevsky

68. The Poisonwood Bible Barbara Kingsolver

69. Jude the Obscure Thomas Hardy

70. Skellig David Almond

71. The Woman in White Wilkie Collins

72. Gone with the Wind Margaret Mitchell

73. Game of Thrones (series) George R.R. Martin

74. David Copperfield Charles Dickens

75. Never Let Me Go Kazuo Ishiguro

76. Where the Wild Things Are Maurice Sendak

77. Twilight (series) Stephenie Meyer

78. Beloved Toni Morrison

79. The Help Kathryn Stockett

80. Sherlock Holmes (series) Arthur Conan Doyle

81. Half of a Yellow Sun Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

82. Moneyball Michael Lewis

83. My Family and Other Animals Gerald Durrell

84. Memoirs of a Geisha Arthur Golden

85. On the Road Jack Kerouac

86. Cloud Atlas David Mitchell

87. Wild Swans Jung Chang

88. Anne of Green Gables L.M. Montgomery

89. Les Miserables Victor Hugo

90. Room on the Broom Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler

91. Private Peaceful Michael Morpurgo

92. Noughts and Crosses Malorie Blackman

93. Cider with Rosie Laurie Lee

94. Danny the Champion of the World Roald Dahl

95. Down and Out in Paris and London George Orwell

96. The Magic Faraway Tree Enid Blyton

97. The Witches Roald Dahl

98. The God of Small Things Arundhati Roy

99. Holes Louis Sachar

100. The Picture of Dorian Gray Oscar Wilde.

Original headline: Shelf assessment

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