Children give up on the classics

CHILDREN ARE reading more than they were a generation ago but have abandoned 19th-century classics in favour of Roald Dahl and Sue Townsend.

In the Seventies, the favourite book for 10 to 14-year-olds was Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. In the Nineties, it is Dahl's The BFG. The only author to maintain a commanding position in both decades was Enid Blyton.

The findings, from a survey of nearly 8,000 children by researchers at Nottingham University, will be published on Thursday in a new book, Children's Reading Choices. Dr Christine Hall and Dr Martin Coles replicated a study done at Sheffield University in 1971.

On average, children of all ages surveyed in 1994-95 had read 2.52 books each in the month before the survey, compared with 2.39 in 1971. Only among 14-year-old boys has the amount of reading declined.

Dr Coles said yesterday: "There has been a big expansion in writing and marketing of books for children. They are getting more choice and they are choosing contemporary books. Children are buying books in supermarkets and at newsagents, and the cover of a Point Horror book looks more appealing than a Dickens.

"But a lot of classics are still being read: one in six among our top 200 is what most adults would consider a classic, often connected with a TV series.

"Children's taste in books is amazingly eclectic. One girl had read an Enid Blyton, Cinderella, a book on Having a Baby and a Beginners' Guide to Feminism in the previous month."

C S Lewis appears in the top 20 favourite authors for all ages in both surveys. Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie have slipped back in the Nineties but are still among the 30 most popular authors.

Bestsellers such as Harry Potter did not come out in time to be included. The authors argue: "A strong case can be made for the importance of ensuring that children are introduced to classic texts in schools since they do not feature prominently in their voluntary reading choices."

Among older pupils, the comics of the Seventies have given way to magazines and newspapers. More 12-year-olds (18 per cent) read The Sun than The Beano (12 per cent). By the age of 10, 12 per cent of children are reading The Sun.

Just 17 is the most popular magazine for teenage girls. In the Seventies, it was Jackie. Teenage girls' magazines today assume a "sexual knowingness" that adults may find uncomfortable but not more so than an evening's television viewing, says the book.

They are also "textually quite rich" and "potentially educative".

Boys are reading more magazines than they did 25 years ago: their favourites cover football and computers.

Dr Coles said: "Schools need to recognise what children read out of school. Boys who say they can't read are reading periodicals densely packed with information and statistics. Schools put too much emphasis on narrative." He suggested that the diet of narrative girls thrived on at school might not equip them for work.

Children's Reading Choice by Christine Hall and Martin Coles, Routledge, pounds 12.99.

Favourite Reading of the 1970s

Top ten books for 12-year-olds

in the Seventies

Little Women Louisa M. Alcott

Black Beauty Anna Sewell

Treasure Island R. L. Stevenson

Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe C. S. Lewis

Jane Eyre Charlotte Bronte

Heidi Johanna Spyri

Oliver Twist Charles Dickens

The Secret Seven Enid Blyton

The Silver Sword Ian Serraillier

Tom Sawyer Mark Twain

Top ten books for 12-year-old girls in the Nineties

Point Horror series Various

Sweet Valley series Francine Pascal

Babysitters Club Ann M. Martin

Matilda Roald Dahl

The Witches Roald Dahl

The BFG Roald Dahl

The Twits Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl

Adrian Mole Sue Townsend

What Katy Did series Susan Coolidge

Favourite Reading of the 1990s

Top ten books for 12-year-old boys in the Nineties

The BFG Roald Dahl

The Witches Roald Dahl

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory Roald Dahl

Point Horror series Various

Adrian Mole series Sue Townsend

Asterix series Rene Goscinny

Jurassic Park Michael Crichton

The Twits Roald Dahl

Matilda Roald Dahl

The Hobbit J. R. R. Tolkien