Aged 14, my grandfather ran away to sea. Below deck, thousands of miles from home – Liverpool’s docklands, where the hungry thirties had bitten hard – the story goes that he educated himself by reading the Encyclopedia Britannica in its entirety. If he hadn’t, it is highly unlikely that any his children would have attended university, highly unlikely my father would also have been largely self-educated and highly unlikely I would have grown up in a house full of books.
The proverbial "house full of books" has long been a trope of articles like this one. Writer from working class background "saved" from material deprivation by rich diet of reading choices. A cliché, but true. Research has repeatedly shown the advantages of growing up with a sizeable "home library", although cynics point out the crucial distinction we must make between correlation and cause. It may well be that yardage of book shelving is directly proportional to other socio-economic factors that have far more impact on a child’s education and life chances than whether there’s a single Argos catalogue, a small shelf of crime thrillers and celebrity biographies or a bespoke library of floor-to-ceiling literary fiction in the home. But there is something – isn’t there? – about the atmosphere physical books create, and a message transmitted to children by how adults relate to books.
This is where public services come in. If the millions of teenagers growing up in bookless households can no longer stumble across great fiction to which they can relate in schools, libraries and school libraries, where will they? And in a society where many parents lack the confidence and skills to transmit the joy of reading, if we teachers have less time to spend engendering a love of literature, then instead we find ourselves entrenching gangrenous inequality.
Alexander Solzhenitsyn called it right when he wrote: “Literature, together with language, preserves and protects a nation’s soul.” In stories, we find our culture, our sense of community, our common humanity, and ourselves. Picking adjectives out of extracts, putting apostrophes in the right places and being functionally literate enough to competently construct a letter of complaint is important. But being literate depends also on being able to make connections, recognising that the information in front of you is joined to a wider story, one that goes way beyond the slides of a Powerpoint or the pages of an exercise book, to places deep inside yourself, and to other worlds.
This is a golden age – the golden age, perhaps – of YA fiction. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy (1995-2000) and the Harry Potter behemoth (1997-2007) were swiftly followed by Twilight (2005-08), The Hunger Games (2008-10) and Divergent (2011-14). There’s a pattern here: the paranormal, dystopia: a prevailing sense that 21st-century teens want to escape everyday realities.
When I was a teenager, as short a time ago as the 1990s (I am surprised to note that Northern Lights and The Philosopher's Stone were first published while I was still a teen) YA fiction was rarely labelled as such. We pre-millennials muddled through on a varied diet of books specifically written for teenagers, books that happened to be about teenagers, and books that were, really, nothing to do with teenagers at all. It may not have been the golden age of multi-million selling YA novels turned into blockbuster movie franchises, but it was – perhaps – the golden age of something else: the class reader.
Indulging in reading
In the days before the National Literacy Strategy (1998) and its successors, teachers could "get away with" lessons spent simply reading books. An entire educational culture and atmosphere is evoked by memories of The Stock Cupboard: class sets of dusty, dog-eared hardbacks covered in graffiti, often with a useful list inside the front cover: every pupil who had read the book before you. Pre-internet, pre-smartphone, things were simpler. How to encourage reading for pleasure? Well, read for pleasure, of course.
In Year 7, we read Carrie's War, Nina Bawden’s 1973 tale of wartime evacuees to the Welsh valleys. In Year 8, the theme continued with I Am David, a 1963 novel by Anne Holm about a young boy escaping from a concentration camp. Crucially, we also read books that related to the world in which we lived. Although the themes of Buddy (1982) by Nigel Hinton – neglect, petty thievery, racism – were thankfully rare in our small corner of mid-Wales, this contemporary real-world story easily elicited our empathy. For me, A Pair of Jesus Boots (1969) by Sylvia Sherry was even more evocative, given its setting in the backstreets of post-war Liverpool, the landscape of my father’s childhood.
I was invited to read (pretty much) the whole novel to the class, on the strength of my ability to do a Scouse accent. An observer of Mrs Rees’ lessons that term might argue she was being overindulgent of a precocious pupil who liked the sound of his own voice (I would have hated to teach my early teenage self), or even that her allowing me to take over the reading was an abdication of her own responsibility. But here I am nearly 30 years later, recalling the scene in that particular class with such a vivid sense of both the atmosphere in the room and in the story that there is at least a valid counter-argument to suggest indulgence in reading is part of its point.
In Year 9 we read Talking in Whispers by James Watson (1983), a book set in the last days of Salvador Allende’s Chile. Then came the GCSE syllabus: Of Mice and Men, The Tempest, An Inspector Calls, Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. It wasn’t until a few years later, training to be a teacher myself and back at my old school for some pre-PGCE work experience, that I read the specification and realised we hadn’t been required to read all of these texts; the days of teaching narrowly to the test were yet to come; we had gone above and beyond the exam board’s requirements because Mrs James had enjoyed reading these books, and therefore so had we. We read Paddy Clarke, Roddy Doyle’s masterpiece of child narration, simply to inspire our own stream-of-consciousness autobiographical writing – and it worked, too.
What of working class Britain today?
The books we read, as much as the experiences we had, served to hardwire our minds. And that wasn’t only true for those of us – like me – who went on to become writers, English teachers, magazine editors. It’s anecdotal evidence of course, but my brother – for 20 years now a gamekeeper – first had his imagination captured not only by the countryside surrounding our home, but also by an audio cassette of The Hobbit and the books of Roald Dahl. Fantastic Mr Fox was swiftly followed by Danny the Champion of the World (every time he was off school sick or off school pretending to be sick he would watch the film version starring Jeremy Irons and his real-life father and son). My brother’s literary and then real-world obsession with the class divide between poachers and landowners, and particularly with pheasants, is somewhat redolent of what is perhaps the emblematic working-class novel of the era: Barry Hines’ A Kestrel for a Knave. Along with the novels of Alan Sillitoe and the plays of Willy Russell, these works – along with many of the others I have mentioned – portray a world that has largely disappeared. But at least this world – working-class Britain between the Second World War and the election of Tony Blair – is preserved in its literature. What of working-class Britain today?
Despite a golden age for the literature of escapism and some welcome redress to the longstanding lack of diversity in YA fiction through recent titles such as Wonder by RJ Palacio (2012), What's Up With Jody Barton? by Hayley Long (2014) and The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas (2017), there are still more hand-wringing articles and blogs about a lack of working-class representation in contemporary fiction than there are books that address this gap. There have, in recent years, been some inspiring initiatives to plug the publishing gap for working-class writers in general, but these books are not finding themselves into the hands, let alone the hearts and minds of a generation of working-class teens whose thoughts are preoccupied with Snapchat, Fortnite and McDonald's.
Unless we engage with the world as it is for the pupils we are teaching, we will soon find ourselves stuck in a world where books are increasingly semi-detached from even educational culture. Books used to be synonymous with learning, and stories with culture. If we are to avoid returning to a world where it takes the happenstance of running away to sea to discover a love of reading, we need to revive every classroom as a house full of books and restock our cupboards with stories that speak to this generation of kids who are growing up without them.
Dylan Moore is the author of Driving Home Both Ways (Parthian) and Creative Wales Hay Festival International Fellow. He has taught at secondary schools in Newport, south Wales since 2002.
The Hay Festival takes place on 23 to 24 June and has a a blockbuster panel of writers including Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Tishani Doshi, Huw Edwards, Daljit Nagra, Chris Riddell and Jeanette Winterson. Book tickets here.