Pause for thought… Value trad texts  

Who remembers Ian Seraillier’s children’s novel The Silver Sword, published 1956? It was new to me when I started teaching, although I had met Mr Seraillier while I was at college and assisted on a little musical he’d written for a local primary school… but that’s another story. I was deeply moved by his story of displaced Polish children trying to find their parents in the aftermath of World War Two, as was every young reader I introduced it to for decades afterwards.

Or what about Goal Keeper’s Revenge, a book of short stories published by Bill Naughton in 1961? Many’s the “difficult” class – usually when having to “cover” at five minutes’ notice – I’ve quelled with the very arresting, amusing “Seventeen Oranges”. And I used to read “Spit Nolan” aloud in assemblies. Once I looked up at the end to see tears streaming down the faces of three 12-year olds, cross legged in the front row. The power of a good story…

Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners (1975) about children in  the north west finding and “arresting” a baled-out German in WW2 is a marvellous read too. Anything by Robert Westall is attention grabbing, for that matter. The Scarecrows (1981) is unforgettable.

You can go back further than that for good ’uns too. Against all likelihood – rooted in colonialism and a world which now seems very strange – “Riki-Tiki-Tavi”  from Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 The Jungle Book (another book of short stories although most people have forgotten that and think it’s a novel about Mowgli), is a another sure fire read aloud winner. It describes a power struggle between a king cobra and a mongoose in an Indian garden under the Raj. Yes, I know, I know …. but, believe me, it has an extraordinary effect on young listeners. Once, when I read it aloud to a class I was asked to do it again for a different class later that week – the students had told each other how good it is. And while we’re on the subject of Kipling I once “performed” an abridged version of “The Elephant’s Child” for my own restive, hungry children in a restaurant in France when the meal was taking a while to come. When I’d finished, there was a strange silence and I realised that everyone in the room had been listening agog – fascinated, I suppose, by those Kipling rhythms even in a foreign language. 

We should not let fine stories and good literature go “out of fashion” or worse, bin it for ideological reasons. Once “Riki-Tiki-Tavi” is read and enjoyed, it’s time for a chat about its context – obviously. That’s much healthier and more enlightened than denying young people the power of a gripping tale.

A handful of former generation children’s novels seem to make the cut and continue to be trotted out on National Curriculum reading lists and to appear on classroom bookshelves. The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Goodnight Mister Tom all spring to mind. And, of course, they’re all excellent books, but there are thousands more where they came from and we need to encourage children and young people to read freely and eclectically. We shouldn’t limit our recommendations to a handful of “approved” titles.

Of course there are wonderful books for young readers written every year. Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses series are immensely powerful. So is Manjeet Mann’s Run Rebel which I reviewed for Ink Pellet last month. Anything by Sarah Crossan is good value and many young readers revel in fantasy (not my cup of tea but that’s neither here nor there) which includes, obviously, Harry Potter and all the Dark Materials books.

Young people who read for pleasure do better academically than those who don’t – as many studies have shown. They are more thoughtful and they know things. There’s nothing like fiction for the unconscious absorption of what used to be called “general knowledge.”

So we owe it to them to encourage them to read books from all eras and not just the ones which were published this year or last and have somehow acquired “fashionable” status. And that means – sorry folks – that teachers have to work hard at knowing what’s out there. Lead by example. I always have my current book in my bag and would routinely put it out on my desk in the classroom so that students could see it. Often they’d deliberately sidle past for a peak. I have been regularly reading fiction meant for children and young people ever since I started teaching in 1969 and discovered The Silver Sword. And the very best English lessons are those which start with “What are we all reading then?”