All just a fiction?

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Does the list of top 100 primary school reads represent a teacher-driven fiction or a reality about modern childhood?

Several media outlets picked up on the 100 Fiction Books list published by the Times Educational Supplement as the Summer vacation rolled over the horizon.

The top ten showed a mix of highly traditional and contemporary reads:

  1. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
  2. Goodnight Mister Tom
  3. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland
  4. Matilda
  5. The Gruffalo
  6. The Chronicles of Narnia
  7. The Very Hungry Caterpillar
  8. We’re Going on a Bear Hunt
  9. Dogger
  10. Where the Wild Things Are

Given that the list was voted for by teachers, rather than the children, there are some legitimate questions about the list. Does this represent a nostalgic record of the childhood of middle class professionals? With several of the books being over thirty years old that is certainly the first impression but dismissing the list on that basis would be to miss some of the deeper issues.

All of the books in the top ten reflect what might be understood as a ‘proper childhood’. That is, not one wrapped in a golden glow of comfort, swaddled from painful experiences, but a full and rich childhood with personal tragedy, triumph, humour, fantasy and fully formed relationships. Perhaps, even more tellingly, every story in the top ten is devoid of a reliance or even a reference to information technology – these are narratives where friends are real people, there in the room with you.

Does that mean that the list is just a fiction? Is it in any way representative of the reading that primary aged children engage in? Some unscientific straw poll research indicated that it very much is representative. The list drew fond smiles, garbled recitations of the plot, and references to films based on the books. To those who propose that childhood is dead, or at least diminishing, the evidence of responses to the TES top 100 fiction reads would seem to be that childhood is alive, well and rather traditional in its tastes; and this doesn’t apply solely to fiction.

In the Spring of 2015 the De La Warr Pavilion (Bexhill on Sea) held an exhibition about the Ladybird book series. The number of visitors was astonishing. Not surprising that middle aged and older visitors sent a lot of their time pointing at the covers of books as ones that they owned, read or shared with their children. More surprising was the seating area in the foyer where low benches, beanbags and tables were set out with dozens of copies of Ladybird books. Every space was filled, mostly with primary school aged children utterly engrossed in their reading.

Fact or fiction, the secret to securing the habit of reading in young people seems to be to meet them in their world, to avoid condescension at all costs, to focus on quality of writing and high production values.

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