Welcome to the Jungle

“It’s a fantastic time to be writing children’s and YA fiction,” Frances Hardinge told the world last week.  The Lie Tree had just become the second children’s book in history to win the overall Costa Book Of The Year.  “For those who think children’s and YA fiction is not their thing: please do come and explore.  There’s a beautiful jungle out there.”

 

And so begins the rather spectacular blog-post currently doing the rounds on social media. It was written (I believe) by the lovely (and somewhat heroic) people at MiddleGradeStrikesBack, and is well worth your time.

If you haven’t read it yet, click on this link and give it a go. Seriously, just do it. Like right now. Please. Just click the link. I’m not going to quit until you do. It’s quite enlightening:

http://middlegradestrikesback.blogspot.co.uk/2016/02/coverkidsbooks-facts.html

So, because you have all just gone away and read the article, and then promptly returned having remembered that you were in fact reading something else entirely beforehand, you will know what I’m talking about. It’s quite a damning article, highlighting the gross lack of coverage in our media in regards to children’s literature.

“Grab the metaphorical pitch forks!” you yell . . . but wait! I believe there is more to this than a simple lack of coverage. Will putting more reviews in newspapers help promote children’s fiction? Of course it will, and it would be a great place to start, but we’d be wrong to think that that alone will elevate children’s fiction to the godly status it deserves. What we have here is not a media issue . . . it is a cultural one.

“A cultural issue!” you’re probably scoffing. But yes, ultimately, I believe it is the case. Now let me tell you why.

I have been an avid reader for as long as I can remember, and as soon as I graduated from university I knew that I wanted to share that love of reading with others – to pass the reading bug gallantly on to the next generation. “I’ll become an English teacher!” I naively proclaimed, but then I thought back to my own English lessons: The unending criticisms of Nobel winning novels; the out-of-context, haemorrhage-inducing essays on Shakespeare; the line by line break downs of poems (that in no way resembled the dream-like scenes from The Dead Poets Society), and I quickly changed my mind.

So now, at the age of 27, I am a primary school teacher. And I love it. Seriously, it rocks . . . but my dream of being the next Robin Williams was quickly shattered. Teaching children to read is hard. No, wait, teaching children to read is easy . . . teaching children to love reading? Now that’s hard.

I have, admittedly, only been teaching for a few years, but in that short time, the cultural hole has already revealed itself. I am about to lay down some of the things that I believe are wrong with our culture. Now, you may very well disagree with what I have to say, and that’s fine. I know some people will read this a say “Hey, wait a minute! I do that already!” In which case, BRAVO! You are a hero! Go and spread the word!

Have I thought long and hard about these things? No. Am I shooting the words from my metaphorical hip? Maybe. Am I quickly typing this out so I can read a couple more chapters of “The Five People You Meet In Heaven?” before marking roughly forty books? You bet. But never-the-less.

Here are my observations since beginning my teaching journey.

 

Cultural Issue #1 – Teachers That Don’t Read

How is a person expected to instil a love of reading when they themselves do not read for pleasure? Children are not stupid. If you tell a class to sit and read, and then quickly begin marking or checking emails or doing something other than reading, they will notice . . . and they will switch off. If you want the children to read, READ WITH THEM! For twenty minutes every afternoon my kids and I kick off our shoes, put our feet on the desks, and read. That’s okay. I read my books. They read their books. Sometimes we don’t read at all and just talk about our books. I share my favourites with the kids. They share their favourites with me, and that’s okay too. The result? Kids enjoy reading. Not all of them, granted, but most. To me, a teacher who doesn’t read is like a chef who doesn’t use salt. Yes he/she can still do their job, but there will forever be something missing.

 

Cultural Issue #2 – Punishment

Both parents and teachers are guilty of this. When a child is naughty, they are told to stay in and read. All this does is create a bridge in their minds between reading and punishment, which does more harm than good. Believe me. There are other things children can be doing (their time’s tables for example – everyone hates those), but whatever you do, don’t give reading as a punishment. Make it a reward! “If you finish your work to the required standard, you can lay on the bean-bags in the reading corner and chill with a book!” It’s not that difficult.

 

Cultural Issue #3 – Reading Schemes

Schools are obsessed with levelling children and putting them on the correct “bands”. Some people are so hooked on this system that they force children to stick to their bands until they have proven – somehow – that they are ready for the next one. Don’t. I told my children to ignore the scheme and pick books they wanted to read. And guess what? They did. Did the weaker readers pick whopping great novels like War and Peace to begin with so they looked awesome? Of course, but after a period of time they corrected themselves and found a book they liked. I also read thin books so they realise big books don’t equal good books (from my experience, the opposite seems to be true!)

I have met people obsessed with forcing children to finish books too. DON’T! If a book is boring, tell them to put it down and pick another. I don’t finish books that are dull so why should they?  

 

Cultural Issue #4 – Parents

Dear parent. Do not tell me you struggle to get your child to read when you yourself don’t do it. Your children idolise you. They want to be you. If you come home and lounge in front of the TV, they will do the same. If you sit at home with a book. They will do the same.

Also, I once had a parent come to me and complain that I’d asked his child to read at home. He said, and I quote, “When my son gets home, he relaxes. He doesn’t do school work, and I don’t want him to do school work. It is your job to teach him to read, not mine.”

Parents need to take responsibility as much as teachers. This, I know, can be hard. That parent clearly didn’t read himself, and judging by his tone had probably had a bad experience in the past – perhaps he had been forced to read in class by a non-reading teacher. The solution to this? I don’t know. Seriously. I’m not a parent. Perhaps it is a generational thing that will heal with time. If we get the children of today into books, perhaps this won’t happen. Perhaps it will. Anyway, onwards we go!

 

Cultural Issue #5 – Television

No, I’m not about to say TV is bad for kids. We all love a bit of tele (Have you seen Game of Thrones!). What I mean by TV is the coverage and promotion it gives to children fiction. Mainly – where is it? How difficult would it be, just once a week, during prime-time kids TV slots, to have a short program in which presenters discuss books and interview authors and play book-based games and have children on actually reviewing books themselves, or SOMETHING! Just once a week would do! That’s 52 episodes a year! I’m sure there’d be 52 newly published MG authors who’d love to go and promote their books and play games and have fun. Teachers would see it and be more open to having the authors in schools, children would be psyched to have them come, and parents could engage and watch it too! Seriously, the fact that this program doesn’t exist baffles me!

 

But as I said, these are just ramblings. All I know is that there is so much potential being wasted. Children’s fiction is, to me, the greatest of all fiction, and right now, as many keep saying, we are in a golden age the likes of which the world has never seen before. Through children’s books I have visited a million different worlds, seen through the eyes of a million different people, been on great adventures, saved kingdoms, ruined kingdoms, travelled the solar system and passed through the gates of heaven; through them, I have grown. Every book that I have ever read has changed me in one way or another, and for each and every one, I am grateful.

Frances Hardinge is right, there is a beautiful jungle out there, and it is our job to welcome the next generation inside. Let’s get the message out!

(P.S. If you are a parent or teacher who wishes to find ways of promoting books at home or in school, read “The Rights of the Reader” by Daniel Pennac and “The Book Whisperer” by Donalyn Miller. They’re awesome!)

(P.P.S – Use the hashtag #CoverKidsBooks and spread the word)

Peace and Love,

I.M.

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