"You can’t use that book," a parent once told me, "it is far too hard and, what is more, isn’t it written by your father-in-law?"
Guilty on both counts. The book was too hard for her child – although he was cheerfully unaware of the fact – and it was written by Kevin Crossley-Holland, a children’s writer known for Norse and Arthurian legend, who is, indeed, my father-in-law.
Reading this week that Professor Topping at the University of Dundee has found reading preferences for many children lie about three years below their chronological age, brought this all strongly to mind once again. (The English teacher in me thinks it is perfectly delicious that he is called Professor Topping, like something straight out of Roald Dahl.)
Should I have persisted in teaching a book that was probably too challenging for some children in the group? Maybe, but even though I thought it was a good book in terms of language, plot, and characterisation – and I’d got a great deal on a class set via the family connection – I stopped teaching it.
The charge of some kind of nepotism rather stung – still, strangely, rather stings – even though I always thought there was an element of the absurd in it. I mean, in my mind, the book was clearly there on literary merit. I wanted to immerse my pupils continually in brilliant, inspiring literature.
Powerful subject specialism
Gatty’s Tale, the book in question, is about a distinctly spirited young woman (Gatty) who abandons rural Wales to go on a pilgrimage to the Promised Land, basically in pursuit of a love interest in the shape of a young Arthur figure. It’s a good tale, perhaps a bit long. I would never have got through it – but maybe some of the class would have liked bits of it and might have liked to finish it.
Even if I was wrong in the choice of book for that particular group of children, I have never felt apologetic for talking about and quoting freely from my own literary loves – hopefully not so much a teacher inflicting their own likes on a captive audience as much as communicating a pure (sometimes distilled) enthusiasm for subject.
It might be one of the reasons that subject specialism can be so powerful. The children can sense a love of what you are talking about: they smell it and know when it’s genuine. When I am talking about certain stories, I know I come to life in a certain way. Just typing a favourite quote from Oliver Twist, in which the chimney sweep Gamfield explains to the workhouse custodians the "humane" virtues of his trade, provokes an involuntary laugh: "Boys is wery obstinit, and wery lazy, Gen'l'men, and there's nothink like a good hot blaze to make 'em come down vith a run."
During half-term, I saw a friend reading Pride and Prejudice to his 11-year-old daughter. It was fantastically over her head, the subtlety of the humour completely lost. But she knew what was happening, knew all the characters in the book and within a couple of chapters had guessed who was going to be married to whom and be betrayed by whom. She also had this very lovely experience of beautiful language being read to her aloud and being able to see and hear the visible enjoyment of the adults around her – more or less rolling on the floor laughing as Elizabeth rejects Darcy for the first time.
World Book Day visitor
Good books were certainly at the heart of my own decision to switch from journalism to teaching. Soon after reading Michele Paver’s Wolf Brother, a vaguely pre-history, primitive take on an adventure story with wolf as a sidekick and, once again, something of a pilgrimage theme, I put in my application to do a PGCE. If current children’s literature was this good, it must be fun to teach.
And I tried teaching Wolf Brother a few times but it was too long and it was frequently unfinished. My teaching assistant, though, was invariably hooked. One convert at least.
Anyway, I am in slightly hot water because today, on World Book Day, Kevin Crossley-Holland is visiting a Girls’ Day Trust School. At none of my bidding, I assure you. Parents, please look elsewhere for blame and attribution.
What’s even worse (or better) is that I feature in his latest tome, a retelling of the Norse myths for children. My name pops up in the dedication. Or doesn’t really. It’s upside down and obscured on a Viking shield, but it is definitely there.
In any case, the school – Kensington Prep School – seemed to think his books might not be too hard and too long. But then it is a girls’ school. Can girls read for longer and appreciate more sophisticated books earlier? Possibly, in extremely general terms, given their acknowledged earlier maturation rates. The Dundee survey certainly suggests they regress in their reading tastes to a lesser extent than boys.
Rich and varied reading
Significantly, some identify the lack of exposure to literature as an element in the educational attainment gap between advantaged and disadvantaged children.
One of the ways to address this is for schools of all descriptions to give pupils as rich and varied a literary diet as possible. Which will, of course, include a full range of literary difficulty. Children, and adults for that matter, frequently have multiple books on the go, dotted in locations around house and school – to suit mood and whim, as well as taste.
So back to that original point about it being too hard and too long and somehow appropriate or not. Sometimes it just doesn’t matter. And you never know, Gatty or Pride and Prejudice might just be the start of a pilgrimage to Finnegan’s Wake. Then again, as one learned colleague pointed out, nothing is a preparation for Finnegan’s Wake. And you can always, like the kids, revert to David Walliams.
Will Wareing is the deputy director, Education at the Girls’ Day School Trust