Everyone who deals with youngsters and the written word should read Young People's Reading at the Turn of the Century. The report, recently released by the children's literature research centre at Roehampton Institute in London, is the first in a series of fascinating snapshots of unsupervised reading habits. It covers not only respectable fiction and non-fiction, but comics, pop and football magazines and newspapers - everything bar cornflake packets.
Centre director Kim Reynolds believes this picture of what young people are reading and the role reading plays "in helping them make sense of the world" is the largest and most wide-ranging study of its kind in the world.
She says there had been no long-term, sustained research done into children's literature since a study commissioned by the Schools Council appeared in 1977. "By 1990 it seemed ridiculously out of date."
The study, funded by the British National Bibliography Research Fund and the Institute, provides a baseline for monitoring of reading trends and social attitudes. It is intended to replace anecdotal evidence with the views of 8,834 four- to 16-year-olds.
The questionnaire completed anonymously by young people contains their responses to issues including their changing bodies, Aids, law and order, drug abuse, and how what they have read affects their attitudes. In the next century, the Roehampton team hopes to publish a report every five years, with monographs on related topics in-between.
The range of material in this report, which teachers and academics will be able to explore on the research centre's database or, eventually, on CD-Rom, will interest publishers' marketing departments as well as educationists and social scientists, even if they think they have heard some of the findings before.
Many assumptions about children's books were on the whole confirmed. "We didn't have many surprises," admits Kim Reynolds. Hence the survey shows that Roald Dahl and Enid Blyton get most mentions as favourite authors. Children, like many adults, choose their books first by the cover, later by the blurb (Kim Reynolds reports "a real resistance to reading a book even by an author that they like, if the cover looks out of date"). Girls read more than boys, who are more interested in sport and computers. And so on.
The material she does find surprising - and exciting - deals with the relationship between the reader and fiction: what they are looking for in a story and how they like to explore it. The Roehampton team was "utterly confounded" by the revelation that most children between seven and 16 do not prefer novels that have characters who share their gender, ethnic origin, age, religion or interests. This, Kim Reynolds points out, is the opposite of the message inherent in the consciousness-raising among writers and editors from the late-Sixties onwards. "Then the idea was very much that children wanted to find images of themselves in the books that they were reading . . . that there must be evidence of the multicultural society."
Now it seems that a cast of white, male, upper-class characters would present no problems as long as their fictional predicaments have contemporary relevance. "The respondents were not consciously aware of wanting to find images of themselves in the books, comics or magazines they read. But they did want the setting to be in their time - to feel contemporary, even if it's fantasy. This came out across the age range.
"We were expecting more differences between regions and perhaps also between rural and metropolitan areas in favourite books, authors and in attitudes - for example, towards drugs and the law - but, in fact, there seems to be a trans-national culture of childhood and adolescence which cuts across other differences. Young people of all backgrounds are saying the same things at the same time."
The 332 participating schools were selected by the National Foundation for Educational Research to include the demographically correct ratio or types of school - state and independent, single-sex and mixed. Few five to seven-year-olds took part because their questionnaires had to be completed by a teacher. "The schools were wonderful - supportive, patient and committed. The infant teachers in particular had to do a lot of time-consuming work, while being careful not to influence the children," Kim Reynolds says.
The Roehampton team plans to follow smaller groups of children through their school careers. Also, to compensate for the absence of material on ethnic origin in the general report (not enough respondents supplied this information), there will be a report next year on a control group from a school with many ethnic minority children. Readers with learning difficulties will also be considered in a separate document. First, in November, comes a report on magazines marketed at teenage girls which impress Kim Reynolds as unofficial sources of information on health, sexuality and family difficulties.
The researchers were "reassured" by findings on the electronic media, which suggest that rumours of the death of the book have been exaggerated. "It is pleasing to see that across the age range, young people recognise that there is something print can do that electronic text can't." Also, children who spend a lot of time in front of computers, playing sport or watching television emerge as also reading a lot - keen readers are doers.
More depressing, perhaps, are the sections revealing an almost universal lack of interest in reading poetry and unadventurous choice of favourite fiction titles - many of those mentioned were TV and film tie-ins. This may not be a bad thing, says Kim Reynolds, as screen versions may encourage discussion of the books with friends.
For the same reason, she sees little cause for alarm in the mass appeal of horror fiction (considered in an essay in the report). "Shared, pass-it-on reading is the key. Books become exciting, part of the social ambience. There are rules to recreational kinds of reading like horror and romance, and discussion of how the stories work can be instructive."
In general, the survey confirms that this solitary pursuit may win converts if it can be made less isolating. Girls in particular are revealed as strongly motivated to read the books their friends enjoy.
"Reluctant" readers - the subject of another essay - will receive more attention from the Roehampton team. "Everyone seems to start off liking stories, whatever their reading ability. Reluctant readers have been turned off at some point, possibly when they were first left to read on their own. In small studies of enthusiastic readers, it often emerges that their parents occasionally read to them long after they are reading independently - up to 14, 15 or 16.
"The impression from the survey is that reluctant readers stay reluctant. You have to start very early on getting it right. Questions we will ask next time are, 'Did you once like reading?' and 'Did your attitude to reading change?'" Kim Reynolds bel-ieves it is significant that many of those who define themselves as "enthusiastic readers" are helped by their parents to choose books. "It does not stop at choosing - they discuss the books and the parents read the same ones. Terry Pratchett is a popular shared text. It pays off for adults to discover the many good young adult writers. It gives you insight into the young reader's world."
And how many adults tell children not to read certain books? That, Kim Reynolds says, is "another good question for the next survey".
For details of how to obtain a copy of Young People's Reading at the End of the Century, write to: Children's Literature Research Centre, Downshire House, Roehampton Institute, London SW15 4HT.
Desperately seeking sensation
Q What makes you read something in a newspaper?
A If it's a horrible picture (girl, 10) A If someone's been killed or football results (boy, 9) Q What have you read about your body that has been particularly useful?
A Adrian Mole (girl, 13) A My Mum's magazine (boy, 13).