That's so 1984

31st July 2015 at 01:00
When we asked teachers to tell us which 100 books all students should read before leaving secondary school, the classics trounced modern works such as the Hunger Games series. Are schools out of touch with what today's young people want to read? And are librarians the missing link? Jon Severs investigates

Harry Potter won't save you. John Green could have done, but he's all the way down at number 63. Suzanne Collins could have ridden to your rescue, but she's stuck at number 36.

So, teachers of Britain, you have to face the music: the top 10 in your list of 100 fiction books all students should read before they leave secondary school (the result of a survey of 500 teachers conducted by TES and the National Association for the Teaching of English) leaves you open to accusations of being out of touch with what the kids are really reading.

Orwell, Lee, Golding, Steinbeck, Dickens, Salinger and Austen occupy nine of the top 10 spots - these authors' books were published before even the parents of most of today's teens were born. Throwing in Rowling's Harry Potter series (at number 6) just makes it worse - the boy wizard is so 2007.

Indeed, none of these books has featured in the top 10 bestselling teen fiction novels for the past few years. Green, however, sold more than 5 million copies of The Fault In Our Stars in 2014 alone and his books frequently top teen fiction sales charts. Collins' Hunger Games series, meanwhile, outsold the Harry Potter books on Amazon in 2012 and also topped teen fiction bestseller lists.

Yet there must be reasoning behind the choices of teachers - an educational explanation for the exclusion of current teen masters. So what is it?

Stretch and challenge

The first thing to point out is that this is not a list of 100 books teenagers would like to read - it's a list of 100 books teenagers should read (see pull-out poster for the full list). There is a tension here that every English teacher has to deal with.

"It's always a balancing act in the books that teachers select," says Chris Curtis, an English teacher at a school in Derbyshire. "Do you go for something that students will enjoy and lap up and read, or do you go for something that will help them cut their teeth?"

A book like The Fault In Our Stars is a challenge of sorts, says Libby Smith, a secondary teacher in Hampshire, but it's not the same sort of rigorous challenge presented by Orwell or Dickens.

"These teen books tend to simplify quite complex emotional issues, and the language is simplified, too," Smith says. "They're great for what they are, and they are incredibly important for teen readers in terms of developing joy in reading and developing ideas about self. But they're not challenging in the same way that some of the established canon is challenging."

Timeless themes

Indeed, it's not just the top 10's storylines that challenge. It's their words and ideas, too - the structure of sentences and the interaction between characters. You could argue that Katniss Everdeen and Winston Smith face the same struggle to overcome an authoritarian regime with slim odds of success. But it would be much tougher to argue that the Hunger Games novels have the same level of artistic, linguistic and thematic complexity as Nineteen Eighty-Four, that they force a student to think equally hard or develop a reader to an equal degree.

"Anyone who has read Nineteen Eighty-Four and the Hunger Games books will clearly see the difference," Smith says. "The Hunger Games is great, I probably enjoy it more than Nineteen Eighty-Four, but Nineteen Eighty-Four is much more of an intellectual challenge."

For a parent trying to get a teenager to read, the Hunger Games series would probably come out on top, but a teacher's recommendation has to be about more than that. It has to develop the child, Smith says.

"When you look at what students read, it's fun, it's safe," Curtis adds.

Teachers argue that it's their job to coax students out of their comfort zones. Indeed, without teacher intervention, classic books that tell us important things about history and society, that have been widely identified as "good" writing, might not find their way into the hands of students.

"Some students will find Nineteen Eighty-Four or Great Expectations, but the majority won't," Smith says. "Even the keenest readers will stay on familiar territory. I would be surprised if any of my class had read Dickens."

A list that includes these "lost" books therefore does students a service by bringing important literature to their attention. "If they read these books, they're in a position to make an informed decision about whether they want to read any more by that author or in that genre. But if they don't read it, they don't know - and they won't get that chance," says Gabrielle Cliff-Hodges, a senior lecturer in education at the University of Cambridge.

In love with the modern world

Yet the counterargument remains strong: other than Harry Potter, these books were written in and encapsulate eras very different from today. If we want to challenge students, surely we can find complex modern works that reflect their lives yet ask the same important questions.

Books that fit this brief do appear in the top 100, but further down the pecking order. Zadie Smith's White Teeth is at 67. Benjamin Zephaniah's Refugee Boy is at 88. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is at 62. These novels are more modern responses to the world than most of the top 10, so shouldn't we be promoting them?

Librarian and English teacher Nicola Davison, who teaches at a school in Hertfordshire, thinks so. "There are too many classics in there," she says. "I've nothing against the classics but they are extremely hard to get through. The list is not reflective of the world and what children are reading today."

Yet teachers argue that although many of the books in the top 100 take place in a different time, place or even reality, students do not necessarily need to have been US socialites in the 1920s in order to understand The Great Gatsby (number 21). What's more, teasing out the themes that resonate today can help students to reflect more deeply on their own time and place.

Aislynn Matthias-Rosser, subject leader for English at Bay House School and Sixth Form in Hampshire, maintains that an important part of reading literature is exploring situations that you will never encounter, and evolving your own ideas about society and yourself as a result.

"You want to teach novels that are about journeys," she says. "You want characters who experience various trials and tribulations along the way that shape them - they become better people by the end. Part of teaching literature is about developing empathy and links to the rest of society."

A job for a librarian

But if teachers are channelling all their efforts into challenging students with rigorous novels, who is tackling the equally important task of fostering a love of reading in general? A list of recommended books should surely include a mix of the mighty and the mightily enjoyable.

Thousands of new books for 11- to 16-year-olds are released each year, and the tastes of teens are ever evolving, so it's understandable that teachers, with endless demands on their time, can struggle to keep up with anything more than the most popular trends in fiction. This is where the school librarian comes in, they say.

"The librarian is pivotal," Curtis says. "They can drive things - they have more time to read and explore."

Librarian John Iona says that one of the most valuable functions of his role is building a bridge between students and teachers; between what students should be reading and what they are actually reading.

"Teachers aren't necessarily able to keep up with what's being published and what kids are reading - it's the nature of the job," he adds. "To be honest, it's even hard for librarians to keep up. But we can provide that link between reading for pleasure and making that transition to classic literature."

However, with school budgets being squeezed, the library may not be as central to a school's plan as it once was. Teen fiction author Alan Gibbons, who visits schools across the country, says he is seeing redundancies, closures and librarians being co-opted into tasks that take them away from their core role. The risk is that children who could become voracious readers will not get the support they need and will therefore not realise their potential.

"If they don't have a close public library, if they don't have a school library with a trained librarian, we will lose that middle ground of kids to the curriculum," Gibbons says. "We can't have reading narrowed down to filleting a text in order to pass an examination."

That would suggest that if we reran the top 100 survey in five years, English teachers would have compensated for this loss of library services by making the list more evenly shared between pleasure reads and pedagogical ones. However, Matthias-Rosser argues that it is possible to teach - or at least pass on - a love of literature and reading through the classics.

"What teachers read as children definitely has a huge impact on what they recommend to children, particularly when they start out in the profession," she says. "You go in with those memories of what you really enjoyed at school and they do stay with you. There's something about that connection that the children respond to as well."

A literary playground

So, could our top 10 be more diverse in terms of subject matter, authors and its mix of the fun and the fearsomely intellectual? The answer must be yes. But the reasons behind the choices made by teachers are sound.

Teachers want to push teenagers to embrace a broader set of ideas than they will be exposed to naturally. They want to engage young people in challenging texts. They want to encourage students to work hard for the pleasure that can come from a difficult book. And they want to offer teenagers a glimpse into a world that is not their own, one that can inform their world view and make them think in ways that they otherwise might not.

The list of recommended reads needs to progress, certainly, but beyond the top 10 there are signs that this is happening already, with newer texts and authors finding their way into the reckoning.

And teachers are not saying that this is the list students should adhere to. Rather, it is a collection of significant works that can send children out into the world as rounded, informed characters, capable of independent thought.

And is that not what teaching is all about?

Top 10 fiction books all students should read before leaving secondary school

1 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

2 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee

3 Animal Farm by George Orwell

4 Lord of the Flies by William Golding

5 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck

6 The Harry Potter series by J K Rowling

7 A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

8 The Catcher in the Rye by J D Salinger

9 Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

10 Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

`George Orwell teaches us to think'

Richard Blair, George Orwell's son and patron of the Orwell Society, writes:

Although George Orwell (born Eric Arthur Blair) died 65 years ago and most of his essays and political writings date from the 1940s, he is still widely read today. Why is this so?

For the majority of readers, he is best known for his visionary fairy tale Animal Farm (1945), a book that can be read at different levels by children and grown-ups alike. The lessons of Animal Farm were later hammered home in his dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949).

But there was far more to Orwell than these two novels: pick up any of the many well-edited books of his journalism, political writings and wonderfully descriptive essays and one can see the huge range of his musings.

Above all, he wanted to make political writing into an art form. It is his ability to observe so precisely what was going on around him, coupled with a clarity of thought and simplicity of language, that makes his work so easy to understand. His subjects are far-ranging, from critiques of authors to musings on the common toad.

These highly readable works run like a thread through the decades and are as fresh today as when they were written all those years ago. Young people should be encouraged to read Orwell (pictured, above) because he teaches us to think; to write down our thoughts as individuals and not be afraid to express ourselves.

Librarian John Iona's top 5

1 The Humans by Matt Haig

2 A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

3 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell

4 Hold Your Own by Kate Tempest

5 Skulduggery Pleasant by Derek Landy

Teacher Chris Curtis' top 5

1 To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

2 Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck

3 Animal Farm

by George Orwell

4 Lord of the Flies

by William Golding

5 Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens

Academic Gabrielle Cliff-Hodges' top 5

1 First Term at Malory Towers by Enid Blyton

2 Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bront

3 The Weight of Water by Sarah Crossan

4 The Seeing Stone by Kevin Crossley-Holland

5 The Other Side of Truth by Beverley Naidoo

Author Alan Gibbons'

top 5

1 Rubyfruit Jungle

by Rita Mae Brown

2 Persepolis

by Marjane Satrapi

3 The Stand

by Stephen King

4 The Metamorphosis

by Franz Kafka

5 Native Son

by Richard Wright

Teacher Libby Smith's top 5

1 To Kill a Mockingbird

by Harper Lee

2 Atonement

by Ian McEwan

3 Brighton Rock

by Graham Greene

4 White Teeth

by Zadie Smith

5 Of Mice and Men

by John Steinbeck

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today