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TheRejectAmidHair

Children's books: then and now

I tend not to post on this part of the board because I am not very well read in children’s literature. But as our own children were growing up, I couldn’t help feeling that the children’s books I and others of my age were reading at the ages of, say, 11, 12, 13, were considerably more demanding than the books our own children were reading at the same age, - more complex in terms of breadth of vocabulary, complexity of sentence structure, and, often, richness of imagery. When I asked my daughter, then aged 12, to read Smith be Leon Garfield, she found it too difficult: which surprised me, since, back in 1972, when I was 12, our entire class had read it.

I strongly suspected that books aimed at children were deliberately simplified. But since I had only anecdotal evidence, I didn’t say too much about it. So it is interesting to find respected children’s author Geraldine McCaughrean voicing quite explicitly what I have long suspected:

http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/keep-it-rich.html

The article is excellent. I found myself cheering when I read this:


Quote:
Surely, part of the joy of older reading is the language itself? The language of books is deliberately different from—more extraordinary than—everyday, utilitarian speech. The more monosyllabic and Neanderthal conversation becomes, the more exotic and strange the written word grows in comparison. Is that an argument for making books comfortingly simplistic, or a powerful reason not to?

In any case, rich vocabulary isn’t an ornamental extra. Without sufficient vocabulary, we cannot formulate thought. We are easily manipulated by politicians, press, lawyers and charlatans; easily belittled. To be stuck with insufficient words is to be trapped in a bell jar —shouting and agitated, but still unable to make ourselves understood. So we owe it to children to gift them as large a vocabulary as possible, and books are much the easiest way of doing it.

Any thoughts from anyone who knows children’s literature a bit better than I do?
TheRejectAmidHair

More from geraldine McCaugrean's article:

Quote:
The arguments runs that a child reading at any level, however rudimentary, may catch the reading bug later on, when there isn’t so much schoolwork to get through. They won’t.


This should be shouted from the rooftops!
Caro

I was hoping the article would give some examples, Himadri, but it didn't really.  I suppose how rich books are depends to some extent on where they fit in the literary slope.  The books I read as a child, and I am older than you, were much simpler than the YAF books for kids today.  Our book club read Memory by Margaret Mahy the other day, and I mentioned how much deeper such a book was than the Anne books I read and loved as a child.  One of the members said they were just plastic or false or some other derogatory word (I felt a little offended for my beloved Anne books, though re-reading some of them, I have felt I have well outgrown some of the later ones).  As for the Hardy Boys books I couldn't believe how someone had got away with such bad writing - and that was in the 1950s.  In comparison the books for young adults nowadays which are expected to be read by ordinary kids, not the avid readers or the brightest, seem head and shoulders above these, with topics of importance, adults given proper due, ideas of interest, etc.  

I'm probably not a good example as my reading was quite low-brow as a child (and I did expand to other works later quite easily), but I didn't manage Lorna Doone as a child, and as an adult one of Leon Garfield's books I found very difficult.  

I would have thought authors like Michael Morpurgo, Anne Fine, Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Penelope Lively and Louis Sachar, and fantasy writers like Ursula LeGuin and Susan Cooper and Diana Wynne Jones and doubtless more recent ones that I don't know use language fully and deeply.

Certainly picture books for young children are simply wonderful these days.  There was nothing like them when I was young.  Fantastic books full of interesting language and fantastical events and warmth and even of serious events like war.  

We all started reading with simple books of the Janet and John variety (though the starting books for kids nowadays are of much better quality than those and they are not as bad as people make out either) and many of us did go on to higher literature from there.  Eventually.
TheRejectAmidHair

It is perhaps not surprising that Geraldine McCaughrean doesn't provide specific examples. It's one thing to make general comments; but to single out by name fellow practitioners would constitute personal attacks.

As I said, I am not at all well read in chidren's literature: this is why I asked what others, better read than myself in this area, think of this matter. My understanding of this issue is based entirely on anecdotal evidence, and that is obviously an inadequate basis on which to form general judgements. But going by that anecdotal evidence, for what little it may be worth, I was certainly dismayed, and not a little angry, that the highly rated (as far as OFSTED were concerned) schools that our daughter had attended had not prepared her to take in a book at the age of 12 that, some 35 years earlier, our entire class, at that same age, had read, and had been expected to read. In the years that followed at our daughter's school, there was, yet again, absolutely no encouragement as far as reading was concerned: all encouragement had to come from home. Yes, it's all anecdotal evidence, I know, but given that it's also personal experience, I don't find myself too inclined towards the view that everything on this front is OK, or even better than it had been.

The few contemporary children's books I have seen may be described as variable. Some are indeed very fine; there are also others, e.g. those by the very highly rated children's writer Jacqueline Wilson, where the language used is as undemanding as it is possible to be. Even the better ones that I have seen do not make the sort of demand on children that books by the likes of Rosemary Sutcliff or Leon Garfield had done in previous generations. But yes, I do certainly accept there were undemanding children's books back then also.

I do strongly agree with various points Geraldine McCaughrean makes. Firstly, there is the very important point that to restrict linguistic ability is to restrict thought itself. And that, secondly, the only way to develop greater linguistic ability is to encourage reading of demanding books. And in this, as far as my admittedly anecdotal (though personally experienced) evidence indicates, we are failing.

I also like Geraldine McCaughrean's distinction between spoken language and written language, and her insistence that the latter has to be more sophisticated. It is a distinction that is being increasingly eroded, and not merely in children's literature; but the effect of this trend seems to me particularly deleterious when it comes to children's literature, as it reinforces the impression that this increasingly inarticulate mode of communication is the only mode there is.

I also agree with her broadside against the often expressed sentiment that as long as children are reading something, anything,then that's OK. It isn't. Once one becomes habituated to material that is undemanding, then the leap to material that makes greater demands becomes very difficult indeed. And when there is no assurance that the effort to surmount these difficulties will be rewarded, then it is hard to see why anyone should be motivated to tackle these difficulties in the first place. I feel this is an important point, and one not often made.

But yes, I do admit to not knowing much about contemporary children's literature beyond my own admittedly little but discouraging experience with it. Of course, I accept there are still very fine writers for children - Michael Morpugno, Anne Fine, and all the others you mention. (And, indeed, Geraldine McCaughrean herself.) But how widely such writers are read by children (many of these writers you name are not specifically chidren's authors) is, of course, another matter. And yes, of course I hope I am wrong in thinking that general standards of children's literacy is declining. But when so prominent a practitioner as Geraldine McCaughrean makes such strong statements publicly, they do, I think,demand to be taken seriously.
chris-l

It does occur to me that one of the differences between my childhood and that of children today is the relatively small importance that seems to be given to having stories read aloud. The much less prescriptive regime in schools when I was a kid meant that teachers could set aside half an hour or so to read us a story, more or less on a whim. This often happened on a Friday afternoon, or other times when we needed to 'wind down'. The books were simply things that the teacher loved, not part of any curriculum, but that meant that some of that enthusiasm was communicated to the listeners.

It was in this way that I first discovered the 'William' books, and the 'Worzel Gummidge' stories, or 'The Family from One End Street', as well as classics such as 'Heidi' and 'Children of the New Forest'. I even remember one teacher reading us extracts from 'Don Quixote', although I am pretty sure that that must have been a children's version. This was particularly helpful with some of the classics, where the language was often quite complex: having been introduced to stories in this way, it did not seem such a great leap to move on to reading them ourselves.

I think I am talking about a slightly younger age group than is referred to in Himadri's original post, but if teenagers are not reading at the level they once did, it may be that the root of the problem lies in their earlier experience of books and stories.
Castorboy

Maybe the training colleges do not impress on the trainee teachers the importance of reading other books outside the required textbooks that are used for the basic process of instructing children how to read. Is it a fact that trainees arrive at a college without any knowledge of the value of 'difficult' novels because they in turn were not taught literary appreciation at school? Like chris, I had the benefit of a teacher who read to us one of his favourite novelists during a Friday afternoon period. That in turn led me to the library after school (and home to parents who were regular readers).
chris-l

I think it is much more that teachers, at least here in the UK are now very much required to stick to a curriculum that is set out in a fair degree of detail from on high. There seems to be little room for those creative diversions from which many of us of an older generation benefitted so much. I am sure it has all been done with the best possible intentions, but it does seem to strike at the very heart of what we mean by education.

On the positive side, I do read to my grandchildren (as I also did to their parents) and have been pleasantly surprised at the enjoyment they have shown in some of the more traditional stories. What impact this will have on their future reading, it is too early to say, but at least they have been exposed to a range of stories.
chris-l

I think it is much more that teachers, at least here in the UK are now very much required to stick to a curriculum that is set out in a fair degree of detail from on high. There seems to be little room for those creative diversions from which many of us of an older generation benefitted so much. I am sure it has all been done with the best possible intentions, but it does seem to strike at the very heart of what we mean by education.

On the positive side, I do read to my grandchildren (as I also did to their parents) and have been pleasantly surprised at the enjoyment they have shown in some of the more traditional stories. What impact this will have on their future reading, it is too early to say, but at least they have been exposed to a range of stories.
Green Jay

Caro wrote:

Certainly picture books for young children are simply wonderful these days.  There was nothing like them when I was young.  Fantastic books full of interesting language and fantastical events and warmth and even of serious events like war.  

 


I don't recall any picture books from my very young childhood, only the Noddy books and Beatrix Potter, which are little books anyway, not big picture spreads. But then most of our books were secondhand and babies' and toddlers' books tend to get so well-loved they fall apart, so perhaps they were not good enough to pass on. Many of the picture books my children had and the ones available now - some are the same 20 years on - are wonderful, witty even when quite simple, and lots of styles to choose from.
Green Jay

I've read the article and the links  to the research now, and thoroughly support the ideas in the article - although it is quite brief. You should always raise your  game - however are you going to learn anything otherwise, whether it is new information, new vocabulary or new ideas? I have read only a couple of Geraldine McCaughrean's books but was struck by the way that she takes no prisoners. Good for her publishers too for letting her do so. (Though trying to spell her name is quite a challenge to me!  Wink )

It sounds as if it is not necessarily books that are getting simpler, but that school students are not pushed/drawn towards more challenging stuff out there and many fall back of their own accord on the simple stuff that is available. I have to make a sweeping statement here and say that I think this may have to do with the feeling that has been around for several decades now that it is fine to be childish, and to be seen to be behaving so, even when you are no longer a child. My own offspring still shoot monsters for fun, they are sophisticated (er hm) adults with good jobs and grown-up responsibilities. So there is no embarrassment, apparently, for teenagers about reading books meant for much younger kids. When I was a teenager we were always tryign to seem more grown-up than we were (I know this still counts with clothes, going out etc), but grown-up in a specific way. It was fashionable to be clever and sophisticated. Not swatty-school- clever, but  well-informed and mature, with superior taste to our lowbrow suburban environment. I'd claim to have read a book or seen a film or knew what a play was about, that I hadn't or didn't, because I felt mortified that I was actually ignorant about it and did not want to appear so. (Didn't always work, but then you'd rush away and read that book!) I would have felt equally mortified to be seen reading my childhood books on the commuter train to work at 17 years of age. But then I wouldn't have been seen dead reading sloppy romantic fiction in public, either. No, I was reading Virginia Woolf and D H Lawrence on the train and in the park at lunchtime!!

I am not arguing that this attitude was better, in a concrete way, but it did prompt us or push us to taking on more complex films, plays, books than we would otherwise have done. I've just realised the word for all this was 'disdain': it was true of other cultural areas - we were disdainful of certain sorts of music, ways of dressing etc. Maybe we were just dreadful little snobs!! I am much more relaxed now, and less judgemental (well, a bit  Wink ) but I just think a bit of social embarrassment maybe has a good effect. Now that it's just funny and/or ironic even for quite educated people to 'love ' TOWIE and be addicted to soaps and Strictly, there is not so much room or time for pursuing more highbrow interests and no informal pressure to do so.

So now do I have to get my coat...?
chris-l

Get your coat? Certainly not! One of the key phrases in what you wrote was, for me at least 'on the commuter train to work at 17 years of age'. How many of the current generation of youngsters are working, other than a Saturday job, at 17? Childhood has been extended well into the twenties, however precocious kids are in some ways. I am not arguing that the extension of access to higher education is a bad thing, far from it, but infantilisation has been rather legitimised in the process. Perhaps some sort of law of unintended consequences is in force here.

I do agree that the standard of books for very young children has improved, certainly since my early childhood (I was born in 1947), but I am not sure that that improvement has been followed through in what is available to older children.
Mikeharvey

I've been providing books for a young man of 26 who comes from a difficult family where no books were read or given in his childhood. And he has spent long periods in hospital for bi-polar disorder. So he missed out on lots of children's classics which his school seems not to have provided. He was eager to catch up. I started him off with Phillipa Pearce's TOM'S MIDNIGHT GARDEN which he adored.  Since then he's read TREASURE ISLAND, THE BFG, MATILDA, THE WITCHES, LITTLE WOMEN, THE DIARY NO A NOBODY (not a children's book but he laughed a lot). He's currently reading E Nesbit's FIVE CHILDREN AND IT.  My only failure was Alan Garner's THE WEIRDSTONE OF BRISINGAMEN which he found hard work.  His response is gratifying and he talks about reading with great enthusiasm.
TheRejectAmidHair

Green Jay wrote:
(Though trying to spell her name is quite a challenge to me!  Wink )


That's where the cut & paste facility comes in handy! (Says he with the unpronounceable name...)

I think there has most certainly been if not an infantilisation, at least a juvenilisation in our tastes. One can see this quite clearly in other areas as well: in the early to mid 70s, sophisticated adult dramas such as Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Godfather part 2, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, etc., were mainstream fare.

(By "adult", I mean grown-up dramas that makes demands of an audience assumed to be intelligent and perceptive: I don't mean pornography, which, sadly, the word "adult" used as an adjective has now come to mean. And that the word "adult" has come to mean pornography speaks volumes.)

Now, in contrast, when I look at the vast majority of films that come to my local multiplex, they are essentially big-budget kiddies' movies. And I am expected to see them and enjoy them. The rot started in the late 70s with the Star Wars films and the emergence of Spielberg: George Lucas & Stephen Spielberg were smart enough to have realised that there was a huge audience out there of adults with essentially juvenile tastes, and they tapped into it with a vengeance. Cinema hasn't recovered since: films exhibiting intelligence, films that make demands of its audience, are unlikely to make the local multiplex - they are sidelined away from the mainstream. Which, in turn, takes away the motivation for film-makers to make intelligent adult dramas. And that, in turn, reduces the demand for intelligent films, and lowers expectations. And so on.

So one shouldn't be surprised if we observe similar trends in the publishing industry. Like Green Jay, I too would have been mortified to have been seen reading a childhood book on the train: being a nosy commuter traveller who likes to see what others are reading, I think I can safely say that is certainly not the case now. The motivation, the "push", to tackle more complex, intellectually demanding material simply isn't there any more. If anything, it's quite the opposite.

Geraldine McCaughrean reports:

Quote:
Dundee academics found that the failure to promote reading in secondary schools is causing pupils to regress between ages 11 and 16.


(My emphasis.)

I haven't seen a detailed account of this study, but this is clearly more than merely my own jaundiced opinion. We all worry, quite rightly, of what sort of world we will leave to future generations, in terms of teh economy, and in terms of the environment. I worry also about what sort of cultural world we'll leave behind. I think anyone who values literary culture should be very deeply concerned.
TheRejectAmidHair

Green Jay wrote:
(Though trying to spell her name is quite a challenge to me!  Wink )


That's where the cut & paste facility comes in handy! (Says he with the unpronounceable name...)

I think there has most certainly been if not an infantilisation, at least a juvenilisation in our tastes. One can see this quite clearly in other areas as well: in the early to mid 70s, sophisticated adult dramas such as Sunday Bloody Sunday, The Godfather part 2, Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, etc., were mainstream fare.

(By "adult", I mean grown-up dramas that makes demands of an audience assumed to be intelligent and perceptive: I don't mean pornography, which, sadly, the word "adult" used as an adjective has now come to mean. And that the word "adult" has come to mean merely pornography speaks volumes.)

Now, in contrast, when I look at the vast majority of films that come to my local multiplex, they are essentially big-budget kiddies' movies. And I am expected to see them and enjoy them. The rot started in the late 70s with the Star Wars films and the emergence of Spielberg: George Lucas & Stephen Spielberg were smart enough to have realised that there was a huge audience out there of adults with essentially juvenile tastes, and they tapped into it with a vengeance. Cinema hasn't recovered since: films exhibiting intelligence, films that make demands of its audience, are unlikely to make the local multiplex - they are sidelined away from the mainstream. Which, in turn, takes away the motivation for film-makers to make intelligent adult dramas. And that, in turn, reduces the demand for intelligent films, and lowers expectations. And so on.

So one shouldn't be surprised if we observe similar trends in the publishing industry. Like Green Jay, I too would have been mortified to have been seen reading a childhood book on the train: being a nosy commuter traveller who likes to see what others are reading, I think I can safely say that is certainly not the case now. The motivation, the "push", to tackle more complex, intellectually demanding material simply isn't there any more. If anything, it's quite the opposite.

Geraldine McCaughrean reports:

Quote:
Dundee academics found that the failure to promote reading in secondary schools is causing pupils to regress between ages 11 and 16.


(My emphasis.)

I haven't seen a detailed account of this study, but this is clearly more than merely my own jaundiced opinion. We all worry, quite rightly, of what sort of world we will leave to future generations, in terms of teh economy, and in terms of the environment. I worry also about what sort of cultural world we'll leave behind. I think anyone who values literary culture should be very deeply concerned.
Castorboy

There is an informative article by an Australian education lecturer on the way storytelling is being maginalised by a crowded and assessment-driven curriculum here. One sentence stood out for me. As a creative form, stories value the power of the imagination to enhance life.

As an aside, the headline in the newspaper was School children missing out on the magic of storytelling. The online version misses out the magic of when the point of the article is the wonder of literature to inspire young minds!
Green Jay

Thank you for the link, Castorboy. Interesting. Storytelling is different to the teacher reading aloud, but that is important too and I don't think primary school children get much of that these days, not for pure pleasure. I used to be a real favourite when I was at at school. Of course, you could switch off and daydream and not listen but I don't think many children did. One of the comments beneath the article implies NZ junior school children typically get 4 stories a day read to them - can this be true?! Though it sounds as if your crowded and test-driven curriculum is going the same way as ours. Nursery and pre-schools (children 4 and under) put a lot of emphasis on stories told and read aloud to a group and children love it, but I think this has got a bit lost at older age groups.  

As I type I've got the radio afternoon play on in the background. Listening to stories, whether told, read aloud at bedtime, on the radio or a DVD is a great way of getting the imagination going, yet with support - "the best pictures are on radio".  It also means that children of different levels of reading and writing can all be in the same group experience (which teachers are always struggling with, how to meet the varying needs in a class), as long as they can pay attention. Given the millenia of storytelling humans have experienced, our brains must be evolved to connect very deeply with oral tradition, yet it is not at all highly valued now. Like not using one of your limbs.
Sandraseahorse

This may seen unrelated but what I loved about history at school was the way that my teachers managed to bring the events alive and I enjoyed the narratives.  I remember a lesson on the Thirty Wars War and when the teacher said that Gustavus Adolphus (The Lion of the North) died in battle, several of the class went "Oooh" and were really saddened.

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