Authors divided on best books for children: Writers asked to nominate literary classics cannot agree. Sarah Strickland and Judith Judd report (CORRECTED)

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The Independent Online

THE IMPOSSIBILITY of persuading everyone to agree on the best set list of literary classics for school pupils was underlined yesterday by a selection of eminent contemporary authors. Apart from Shakespeare and Jane Austen, all chose different writers and titles, or rejected the very idea.

David Pascall, chairman of the National Curriculum Council, accepted that it might prove too difficult to compile a set canon of works and authors.

However, he pointed out yesterday that the present statutory curriculum only mentions the Bible, Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, William Wordsworth, the Bronte sisters and Shakespeare. Of those, only Shakespeare is obligatory.

One alternative, he suggested, would be to provide teachers with examples of the kind of books which ministers thought pupils should read, in the same way that they have given guidance on artists and musicians.

In that case, the Curriculum Council might want to consider the following:

Anita Brookner: 'All the easier classics such as Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights, all of Charles Dickens because children love him, Thomas Hardy at about 14, Jane Austen at 15. They can come to modern writers in their parents' homes or at the library.'

Ian McEwan: 'I would never prescribe what children should read. If there is an imperative it is that they should enjoy reading. My daughters got a lot of pleasure out of the Brontes, particularly Jane Eyre, and Jane Austen, but I should never say all children should read them. Some are ready for the classics in their early teens. Others thrive on teenage books.'

Julie Burchill: 'I had to read things like Jane Austen and D H Lawrence at school which I absolutely hated and which put me off for a very long time. There ought to be a happy medium between Shakespeare and Neighbours. Graham Greene has got lots of sex and violence and is a great writer with a moral vision of the world.'

Patrick Hamilton. 'Demi-mondish books with sex and violence to get them hooked.'

William Boyd: 'I wouldn't make a canon of reading. I don't think you can say children should read Arthur Ransome rather than Enid Blyton, or that Roald Dahl is better than Lorna Doone. Children shouldn't be force fed the classics.'

Jenny Diski: 'Lolita by Nabokov; both the Alice books; Genesis to Exodus from the Old Testament; Metamorphosis; If This is a Man by Primo Levi; Grimms fairy tales; A Thousand and One Nights translated by Burton; Lord of the Flies; Crime and Punishment; Pride and Prejudice; The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. It's a nightmare making a choice - I think lists of books are extremely helpful provided they are not compulsory in any way.'

Martin Amis: 'Lots of poetry: Chaucer, Milton, Keats, Coleridge, Tennyson, Shelley. Dickens, the Brontes, Jane Austen. It's wrong to think children aren't fascinated by the Knight's Tale or Macbeth. They don't need to do contemporary authors at school. They can read them in their own time.'

Penelope Lively: 'I do not approve of statutory lists, that's an appalling idea and would introduce a kind of blanket reading system. But I see no harm in a very long and very eclectic list of recommended books, on which I would include Nicholas Nickleby, Treasure Island, Lord of the Flies and Alice in Wonderland.'

D M Thomas: 'Just William, Alice in Wonderland, King Solomon's Mines, Tom Sawyer, Black Beauty, Jane Eyre, part of the Authorised version of the Bible, Cider with Rosie, Figgie Hobbin by Charles Causley and Meet my Folks by Ted Hughes.'

J G Ballard, whose Empire of the Sun is an exam text, mentioned Gulliver's Travels, Robinson Crusoe, Alice in Wonderland, the Romantic poets, Lord of the Flies by William Golding, Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, 1984 by George Orwell. 'We are seeing the last vestiges of a literary culture. It is impossible to impose any kind of old-fashioned literary sensitivity. If you teach the classics at school you are likely to put people off for ever. Generations of people have been put off Shakespeare by being forced to read his plays at school.'


A quotation in a page 2 report yesterday, 'Authors divided on best books for children', was incorrectly attributed to Patrick Hamilton. The remark was made by Julie Burchill.