The View From Here
Six months later, I can see what she meant. Term one's English lessons were spent on Ted Hughes's The Iron Man: endless homeworks designing further epithets to capture the scale of the metal-eating monster, or putting into your own words Hogarth's feelings as he confronts him. In term two we moved on to Rosemary Sutcliffe's Dragon Slayer, and homeworks involved composing Beowulf's official report of his battle with the sea hag, and the finer points of hacking and hewing. I'm sure both books were chosen with the idea that 11-year-old boys would find them gripping, but they couldn't really compete with Mission Impossible at the cinema, or Arsenal vs West Ham on television.
Evidently my school librarian was not alone in noting the drift away from reading. This week sees the launch of Focus on Fiction, for 11-to- 14-year-olds - a national curriculum-based resource pack designed to make reading fun. Focus on Fiction has been conceived by the founders of the Orange prize for fiction in partnership with the Book Trust, and is supported by Orange and the Association for Business Sponsorship of the Arts.
The idea is to provide attractive, reading-directed teaching material free to schools: "The greatest incentive in life is enjoyment. Reading is no exception. The more children enjoy their reading activities, the keener they will be to read on and read more." To this end, Focus on Fiction has put together a reading list of "good and enjoyable" reading, which the worksheets packed with ingenious reading exercises activities take as their starting-point. It's an imaginative list of strongly narrative books with plots that young people can relate to. A lot of them aren't really "children's fiction" at all, but the kind of quality adult writing that young readers can tap into.
What unites all the books, on a list that includes JG Ballard's Empire of the Sun and Russell Hoban's The Trokeville Way (even a sneaking reference to the Point Horror stories), is their gripping engagement with real issues that absorb young people - war and conflict, family tensions, dawning sexual awareness, secret fears, social conscience, concern for the environment.
As it happens, prize-giving at my son's school fell this week. As the boys went up on the platform to collect their rewards for achievement I got a chance to do an instant survey of their reading preferences, since each was presented by our guest speaker, Ben Pimlott, with the book of his choice. Of course, there were lots of "useful" dictionaries and reference works, but when boys picked their own reading it was Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels, Golding's Lord of the Flies, Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, Ben Elton's Popcorn. All cracking good reads, and most of them on Focus on Fiction's list.
One of the things the creators of the Focus on Fiction pack boast is that its glossy format, lively graphics and well-designed and clearly printed activity sheets are in themselves an encouragement. They make a welcome change for pupils and teachers accustomed to murky, much-photocopied worksheets and tattered textbooks, which under-resourcing has made commonplace in classrooms. Here, too, their views agree with those of the ever-observant school librarians. When I donated 100 recently published novels to my daughter's old secondary school (the spoils of my having spent the past six months judging literary prizes), the librarian there told me with delight that this was bound to encourage reading for pleasure. Adolescent girls want to read brand-new books still in their dust-jackets, rather than the much-read, down-at-heel, out-of-date volumes she had on offer.
In a consumer-oriented world which sets such a high status value on "state of the art", it is hard to blame the teenagers. That is much how we feel in the university sector, too, after 18 years of being starved of resources. We, too, yearn for new books and gleaming modern technology. Twice in the past week I have endeavoured to deliver lectures with visual aids at different locations in the University of London. On the first occasion, the slide projector collapsed. On the second, the overhead projector was an interesting relic of the immediate post-war era, and there was no suitable screen on which to project the images. On neither occasion did anyone consider it worthwhile to apologise for what is by now the customary state of our classroom equipment.
The daily reality of classroom conditions reminiscent of those in Serbia or Siberia has chronically undermined our self-esteem as public-sector teachers. No one in the private sector would put up with them. Thank goodness the young have higher expectations. If they respond positively to attractive presentation and good design, if when asked to read at school they prefer books with glossy jackets which haven't been handed down through three or four generations of pupils, all power to their elbow
The writer is professor of English at Queen Mary and Westfield College, University of London.
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