I will start by saying: the BBC’s #LoveToRead campaign looks fantastic and I love that it ‘celebrates reading for pleasure’, and aims to start ‘a unique national conversation about books’. Nevertheless, among all the dramatizations, documentaries and live events planned, one aspect of the campaign is oddly unadventurous – its list of the top 10 recommended books for children.
The list is not bad. It’s just not new. Created by the public, it features 10 books children should read, and includes the usual suspects: The Lord of the Rings, To Kill a Mockingbird and the Bible, with Harry Potter in the lead. Yes, it is true that we recognize that they are all important contributions to the history of literature; yeah, it’s also understandable that we want the next generation to experience the books we loved.
But haven’t we seen lists like this too many times before? I remembered the list of “25 books that will stick with you and blow your mind” that the Independent published in February. With the exception of Frankenstein, the list consisted entirely of books by white men, most of whose names are already ingrained in the public consciousness. The list in question hailed the books for standing the test of time – but what about books written in our time? Why do we place so little trust in books written today?
When do books start to be considered important – important enough that we want kids to read them?
We continue to cover old ground when it comes to the notion of a “must read” book. There’s nothing new, no sense of exploration or departure from what’s come before – and in the case of children’s lists, they don’t always reflect what young people actually read for fun. By recommending the same stories over and over again, we are not creating fertile ground for the idea of a modern masterpiece. We also deny how the publishing industry has changed over the years and the huge role young readers have played in bringing about these changes. Most of the books on the BBC list were written before the explosion of the Young Adult and Middle Grade genres, for example, which opened up a whole new world of literature for young people and sparked imaginations around the world.
It makes me wonder when a book is allowed to become “a classic”. Is it its age, or how it sells, or both, or neither? By denying that permission to so many stories, we are missing out on golden opportunities to ignite a passion for reading in the next generation.
Diana Gerald, chief executive of reading charity Booktrust, summed it up well: “Too often children are given ‘timeless classics’ to read, when there are so many other newer books that are just as brilliant but who can also speak to them about the world they know, in a language that resonates with them.
Gerald makes an excellent point about language resonating with children. After all, we are looking for a world that we recognize when we read; we search ourselves, the points where the stories connect to our own lives.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that all young readers will or should stick to books written in the last few years. Some will enjoy the challenge and intrigue of older novels – and if they are interested in them, they should of course read the traditional classics. They should read whatever they want. Not only is the past full of wonderful stories, but these books provide a window into history, allowing us to see how ideas, attitudes and language have developed over decades and centuries.
But in addition to wanting to pass on the wisdom and excitement of our favorite childhood reads to our own children, let’s also open our minds more often to modern must-reads and listen to the wealth of fresh and diverse voices that pour between the pages. Maybe it’s time to start asking the next generation what they can recommend to us.
The BBC Top 10
Based on the question: “If you had to choose, which book do you think every child should read?” »
- Harry Potter by JK Rowling
- Roald Dahl’s BFG
- Killing a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
- Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
- The Famous Five by Enid Blyton
- Eric Carle’s Very Hungry Caterpillar
- The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
- Julia Donaldson’s Gruffalo
- The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
- The Bible