What Should Children Be Reading?

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I don’t remember learning to read. I consider it a huge privilege that I only have memories of being a reader. I think it’s because I was quite nosy and once I’d mastered talking (which those that know me won’t be surprised to find out was at a very young age) I didn’t want to be locked out from this world the adults could access for a second longer than necessary. Walking came late, reading came early and that is reflected in how my spend my leisure time as an adult. I was surrounded by books growing up; they lined the walls of every room in our house. Whole worlds, carefully hidden between battered, worn covers just waiting to be explored. Reading introduced me to new ideas, people and places, some real and some fictitious, it enriched my life and fuelled my imagination. So it’s with interest that I read Katie Ashford’s article about what children should be reading. This is something I have spent a lot of time thinking about. And, as part of that thought process, I have decided to reflect on my own “reading journey” and the teachers who guided me through it.

By the time I got to school, I would proudly announce that I could read “by myself” to anyone who would listen (I was probably quite annoying as a child.) My Reception teacher, Mrs Woodhams, gave me books from her own collection to take home once I’d worked my way through the class library. At home we’d read the Ahlbergs, Shirley Hughes, Jill Murphy,  oh and a book called “Bad Mood Bear” before bed. I read whatever I could get my hands on but there are a few books that stand out in my memories of my school years.

I think I’m right in saying that the “Puddle Lane” books were the 80s equivalent of “The Magic Key” series. I have a distinct memory of bringing them home and reading them to my brother. Lucky him. I remember being thrilled to be given the chance to read, “The Owl Who Was Afraid of the Dark” aloud to the class in Year 1. In Year 3 I became obsessed with the “Flossy Teacake” books – I must look those up again – they were brilliant. Bel Mooney’s “Kitty” books were another favourite, oh and not forgetting Jill Murphy’s “Worst Witch.” There was a series of books by Nigel Hinton that I loved called, “Beaver Towers” it was about a boy called Philip and his adventures with a family of beavers. Whenever I ran out of books – I’d scour my Mum’s bookshelves for anything I thought looked interesting – which is why by the time I’d left Primary School I’d read more Libby Purves than most 11-year-olds. Nothing was off limits. There were no “good books” or “bad books” there weren’t even “hard” or “easy” books there were just books to be enjoyed every day.

In Year 5 I read my first classic. As a class we read the “The Hobbit.” There was no film to rely on in 1995 and, even if there had been, we only had one twenty minute session in the TV room a week, it would have taken nearly a term to get through it. Instead we were skillfully guided through Tolkien’s Middle-Earth by Miss Fry. She would read it to us every day and photocopy chapters for us to read at home. We drew maps of Middle-Earth and even created a “life size” Smaug out of chicken wire and paper mâché. (Which I’ve since found out was rolled out to greet Ofsted when they turned up. It is my belief that all schools should have an Ofsted dragon.) This sculpture was so enormous that we had to move it out into the playground so we could all work on it. As well as grappling with Tolkien we were also treated to a poems by Michael Rosen and Spike Milligan. Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Tennyson were introduced to me in Year 6 and I loved them but after school I’d have my nose in the latest Babysitter’s Club or “Animal Ark” book.

Secondary school was where I was introduced to the big guns: Orwell, Hardy, Dickens, Austen and Keats. Some I loved and some I found insufferably dull. For GCSE I read, “The Handmaid’s Tale” the book that started my love affair with Margaret Atwood. 6 years later I wrote a dissertation about it.  Conversely, for  A-Level I had to read Thomas Hardy’s, “The Return of the Native” and I could not get to grips with it. My form tutor at the time, who was an English teacher herself, listened to me moaning about how complicated the plot was and how difficult I found it to keep up with what was going on. Her response was perfect and has always stayed with me: “Oh Zoe, come on now, the plot is no more complicated than the plot of ‘The OC.'” (‘The OC’ was a programme full of teen drama that I watched avidly at the age of 17.)

From then on she would ask me every day how much more I’d read until I finally got to the end. I am forever grateful to her for doing this. It got me the grades I needed to study English Literature at university and proved to me that I was capable of sticking with a book (a skill I had to draw on often when studying Anglo-Saxon literature in later years.) However, it was also the first time I’d ever had to really force myself to finish a book I wasn’t enjoying and it put me off reading Hardy for years (“Tess of the d’Urbervilles” changed my mind.)

I think we need a two-pronged approach when it comes to introducing children to books. The first thing we need to do is completely surround them with books without preference or prejudice. Picture books, graphic novels, classics, nonsense poems, everything from Jeff Kinney to C.S Lewis.  I disagree that “hooking” children in to reading with books based on their interests won’t lead to a life long love of literature. My brother grew up on a literary diet of football magazines, Liverpool FC annuals and the occasional “Goosebumps” book until the age of 14 and now reads widely and regularly. Let children read whatever they want at home, show that you’re interested in what they’re reading and encourage them to bring in their favourite books and share them with the class. Recommend other texts they might enjoy and please never tell a child, “you’re a bit too old to be reading that.”

This is not to say that children should leave school without any experience of the classics – they absolutely should. But it can be a two-pronged approach. Whilst the works of Shakespeare, Tolkien and Dickens should not be the preserve of the most able pupils, neither should they replace “Diary of a Wimpy Kid.” It is our responsibility to guide pupils through these more challenging texts and make them accessible. I’ve taught “The Tempest” to 6-year-olds. It was the year of the 2012 Olympics and the class had seen Kenneth Brannagh read Caliban’s speech in the opening ceremony. Given that they were already interested in the speech, I decided to run with it and introduce them to the play. I taught from both an abridged children’s version and the original. As Shakespeare plays go, “The Tempest” is a good one to start with as it’s full of magic, a wizard, a storm and a monster. I know people will pipe up with, “But if you feel that you have to “sell” Shakespeare to children you are suggesting it isn’t interesting or worthwhile.” I’m not. I’m suggesting that if you want six-year-olds to read Early Modern English don’t expect them to be immediately interested. That’s not a new, radical idea – the first children’s Bible was published in 1759 in an attempt to make it more accessible to children.

By the end of that term, the entire class knew Caliban’s speech by heart and we took turns performing it from the top of the playground equipment. Gimmicky? Perhaps. Sugar coating? Possibly. But there are 30 children who are no longer intimidated when they read Shakespeare. That particular class also know Michael Rosen’s “Chocolate Cake”  by heart because we read it so many times and they in turn introduced me to the delights of “Mr Gum.”

I hate this notion that some books are too “easy.” Learning to read isn’t easy and it isn’t always interesting and I don’t believe that it’s selling children the assumption reading is dull by finding them books they’re interested in. The books you first read for yourself and actually enjoy are so special they stay with you for the rest of your life. A book that sparks interest and inspires a child to pick up another is like a magic key (not that one) that unlocks the world of reading.

All that said, I am the teacher that hid the “Where’s Wally?” books from my Year 5 class…

 

 

That’s What She Read 2016

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Last year I did an end of year review of everything I’d read in 2015. I read one book a month in 2015 and set myself the challenge of two a month for 2016. Now it’s worth remembering that I spent three months of this year travelling around the world on trains with ample time to read which certainly made it easier but this year I’ve read 30 books. Well 30 and a half as I’m only half way through Eowyn Ivey’s “The Snow Child” which is a beautifully written novel based in Alaska in the 1920s.

The total might have only been 29 and a half had I not accidentally read, “Girl on a Train” thinking it was “The Girl on the Train” which I read once I realised my mistake. I haven’t done a review of each book like last year because there are too many of them so instead I’ve taken a leaf out of the Chief Whip’s book and underlined the ones I highly recommend. For 2017 I will be taking on the “50 Book Challenge” – you can get involved on Twitter by following the hashtag #50BookChallenge.

Oryx & Crake – Margaret Atwood

The Circle – Dave Eggers

The End of the World Running Club – Adrian J. Walker

Mortal Engines – Philip Reeve

The Girl With The Lower Back Tattoo – Amy Schumer

A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens

Room – Emma Donoghue

Not That Kind Of Girl – Amy Poehler

The Miniaturist – Jessie Burton

Thinking About It Only Makes It Worse – David Mitchell

Brave New World – Aldous Huxley

The Art of Travel – Alain De Botton

Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – JK Rowling

The Lady In The Van – Alan Bennett

Committed – Elizabeth Gilbert

Sweet Bitter – Stephanie Danler

How To Build A Girl – Caitlin Moran

Girl On A Train – AJ Waines

The Girl On The Train – Paula Hawkins

Nod – Adrian Barnes

High Challenge Low Threat: How the best leaders find the balance – Mary Myatt

A Perfectly Good Family – Lionel Shriver

To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

I Love Dick – Chris Kraus

The Signature of All Things – Elizabeth Gilbert

High Rise – JG Ballard

Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves – Karen Joy Fowler

The Shock of the Fall – Nathan Filer

A Boy Called Christmas – Matt Haig

The Snow Child – Eowyn Ivey

That’s What She Read

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One of my New Year’s Resolutions for 2015 was to read every night. That hasn’t happened. So around Easter I decided I would settle for a book a  month which was far more achievable. On reflection 2015 was the year of comfort reading. I re-read some old favourites and the first time reads were books written by authors I knew well.

January – Stone Mattresses – Margaret Atwood

This was a gift from my lovely sister. If I had to choose a favourite author (and I don’t believe anyone should ever have to) it would be a girl-on-girl battle between Atwood and Elizabeth Gilbert. This book is slightly different to Atwood’s usual style in that it is 9 short stories rather than a novel. Disembodied hands, freeze-dried corpses and husband stealing cancer patients all make an appearance in this dark, pick-n-mix collection. Atwood is stepping away from realism, her default mode, and playing with fantasy, and Gothic themes instead. Does it work? Absolutely. After all if Margaret Atwood can’t mix it up occasionally who can?

February – The Elephant In The Classroom – Jo Boaler

Shamefully this is the only non-fiction book I’ve read this year (unless you include the administrators guide to Rising Stars assessment, which I don’t.) When it comes to Educational research, I think one needs to be wary of reading a book and believing it is gospel. Some people have a tendency to cut and paste findings from research into their School Improvement Plans without ever reflecting if it is right for there school.

That aside, one of the main reasons  I like “The Elephant In The Classroom” because it is accessible to the general reader. As a teacher, I like the fact that rather than just pointing out the many problems (yes, I’m looking at you Sir Ken Robinson) Boaler actually suggests solutions and also goes as far as providing example activities as part of an approach schools can adopt. I think this quote sums up her work nicely:

“Bringing mathematics back to life for school children involves giving them a sense of living mathematics. When school students are given opportunities to ask their own questions and to extend problems into new directions, they know mathematics is still alive, not something that has already been decided and just needs to be memorized. Posing and extending problems of interest to students mean they enjoy mathematics more, they feel more ownership of their work and they ultimately learn more.”

March – Once – Morris Gleitzman

Is it cheating to include children’s literature? Definitely not. I re-read this whilst toying with the idea of teaching it to my Year 3 class as part of our work on WWII. Like all excellent stories you’re hooked in from the opening line.

“Once I was living in an orphanage in the mountains and I shouldn’t have been and I almost caused a riot. It was because of the carrot.”

“Once” tells the story of Felix searching for his Mother and Father in the midst of the war. From the outset, Felix creates explanations and stories for the horrors that he sees but as the story progresses Felix begins to piece tougher what is really happening. The war seen through the eyes of children is well trodden ground because that juxtaposition of innocence and violence is incredibly powerful.

“Once” is also about the power of storytelling. Felix uses stories to protect himself from the reality of what’s happening and when he meets Zelda he tells her stories to distract her from having to confront her parents’ death. The message is stories can move, comfort and inspire; Glietzman successfully does all three.

April – Us – David Nicholls

Remember that book “One Day” that everybody read in 2009? It had a sort of orange cover with the silhouette of two profiles on it? With me? They made it in to a film that I’ve never seen because I refuse to believe it can do justice to the book. David Nicholls is the sort of writer I want to be when I grow up. His stories hinge almost entirely on the depth of his characters and “Us” is no exception. The novel follows Connie and Doug travelling around Europe with their 18 year-old son whilst at the same time deciding whether to stay in their marriage. True to Nicholl’s style the narrative shifts seamlessly between past and present as the reader pieces together the story of how this unlikely couple came to be. Following a best seller come film like “One Day” but this is an excellent novel in its own right and definitely worth a read.

May – A Spot Of Bother – Mark Haddon

Speaking of hard to follow books… “A Spot Of Bother” is the first book Haddon has published since “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night time.” This is novel about aging, mental health, affairs and ultimately – family. The protagonist George becomes obsessed with a lesion on his leg to the point of pathological hypochondria. He is tipped over the edge by finding his wife Jean in bed with David, one of his former colleagues. Being a middle class, middle aged man George is far too polite to let his mental instability burden others and so unfolds the politest nervous breakdown in literary history. Meanwhile George and Jean’s adult children have their own battles: his daughter is preparing to marry Ray; a fact none of the family are overly thrilled with and their son Jamie has a big decision to make regarding his boyfriend Tony. The characters are interesting and well written but I feel as though “A Spot of Bother” could have been slightly grittier given the nature of the issues it is dealing with. It’s all a little bit too nice and polite. A bit like George himself I suppose.

June – On Chesil Beach – Ian McEwan

If I’m honest I made this my June read because it was nearing the end of the school year and, at only 166 pages, “On Chesil Beach” looked quite manageable.  Short yes, but incredibly intense. Set in 1962, a few years short of the Sexual Revolution Edward and Florence arrive on Chesil Beach for their honeymoon. The opening line tells you the entire story:

“They were young, educated, and both virgins on this, their wedding night, and they lived in a time when conversation about sexual difficulties was plainly impossible.”

The entire book is an in-depth study of the two characters and their anxieties about their impending wedding night. It takes an incredibly skilled writer to keep you with the same two characters and just their memories and thoughts for entire book. I found it gripping and read the book in one sitting.

July – To Kill A Mockingbird – Harper Lee

This was a “re-read” before the release of “Go Set A Watchman”. Do I really need to explain this one? I have nothing to say other that hasn’t already been said. I will instead leave you with the words of the unlikely literary critic, George W. Bush (yes, really.)

“One reason To Kill a Mockingbird succeeded is the wise and kind heart of the author, which comes through on every page … To Kill a Mockingbird has influenced the character of our country for the better. It’s been a gift to the entire world. As a model of good writing and humane sensibility, this book will be read and studied forever.”

August – Eat Pray Love – Elizabeth Gilbert

I make no apology for this one. “Eat Pray Love” is permanently on my bed side table. I dip into it on difficult days for advice such as, “You’ve gotta stop wearing your wishbone where your backbone ought to be.” As well as using it for general reference I read it cover to cover every Summer. On Thursdays, when I have the flat to myself, I sometimes drift off to sleep to the audiobook. I love everything from Gilbert’s honest, open style to the detailed picture she paints of her travels.

September – Go Set A Watchman

I’m reluctant to say too much about this as I know plenty of people that still haven’t had a chance to read it so I’ll just make the one comment. The main criticism is the apparent change in Atticus Finch, the hero of “To Kill A Mockingbird”. I would argue that instead of the idolised version of Finch as seen through the eyes of his young daughter, we begin to see Finch, as his adult daughter now does, as a flawed character. This is perhaps a more honest and realistic version of the

It is generally accepted that “Go Set A Watchmen” is an earlier draft of Mockingbird and, if that is the case, I want to know what made Lee change her novel so drastically? Pressure from her editor? Or did she just want her novel to have a hero. Whilst I enjoyed “Go Set A Watchmen” you can’t help shake the feeling that you are reading a draft. It’s slightly clumsier, less polished and just a bit… incomplete.

October – The Heart Goes Last – Margaret Atwood

Once again, Atwood paints us her dystopian vision of the future. This time we follow Charmaine and Stan. Stan has lost his job and they are living out of their car – things are pretty bleak. Consilence, the self-sufficient utopia that offers stable income, warm homes and all of the comforts that brings, seems like the perfect solution to their problems. The only snag is that every other month they have to swap their lovely home for prison cell. Throw in sex with chickens, Elvis escorts and women falling in love with inanimate objects and you’ve got a darkly comic tale that’ll keep you guessing until the very last page. I’ve read a lot of Atwood and I might go as far to say this is my favourite of her novels – I could not recommend it highly enough.

November – Big Magic – Elizabeth Gilbert

I first read “Eat Pray Love”  in 2012 then the following year did a solo trip around Italy. Now, as I take my first steps towards writing my own book and sharing my writing through my blog – Gilbert publishes “Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.” A whole book dedicated to making time for creativity into your day-to-day life. As we’ve come to expect from Gilbet the book is painfully honest, witty and insightful. Gilbert has such a strong voice that the book feels as if she were sat next to you offering advice. So whether its figure skating, gardening or painting stars onto bicycles I’d recommend this book for inspiration, encouragement and a much needed kick up the bum to get going.

December –  The Mayor Of Casterbrige  – Thomas Hardy

This can only just claim a place in this post as I am only 62 pages in. Something about December sends me to Victorian literature. Perhaps its the vivid descriptions of snowy rooftops, plum puddings, miracles and gestures of goodwill that make it the perfect Christmas genre (as long as long as you don’t let the poverty, inequality and Gothic tone bring you down.) I’m hoping to finish this before the Christmas holidays because then it will be time for my pre-Christmas read of “A Christmas Carol.”

Resolution for next year? New authors. It’s time to branch out. I need to read more widely – any recommendations?

Eat. Read. London.

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For a literature geek like myself London is a treasure trove of literary history. Walk through this marvellous city and you can find yourself in a pub with Keats, Byron and Shelley, strolling alongside Sherlock Holmes on your way to work or walking Kensington Gardens with Elinor Dashwood. London is full of nods to some of the most renowned authors and poets of all time. If you’re only partially/in no way interested in literature you’ll be relieved to know that many of these historically significant sites are also pubs. So, walk with me through my favourite parts of the city and I’ll share with you what you should eat, drink and read.

Fitzrovia

What Is It?

Famously the centre for artists and writers, Fitzrovia has been the stomping ground for Dylan Thomas, George Orwell and Virginia Woolf. It is well documented that Woolf walked the streets of London to clear her head of dark thoughts and get inspiration: “I’m so ugly. So old. Well, don’t think about it, and walk all over London; and see people and imagine their lives.”

Start by taking in Woolf’s home on Gordon Square which became the meeting place of the “Bloomsbury Group” – a group of writers and artists Woolf’s brother knew from Cambridge. Woolf would walk along Piccadilly, Whitehall and through the St James’ Park which I would recommend if you fancy stretching your legs. Make like Mrs Dalloway and buy yourself some flowers from the Flower Shop on Goodge Street on the way.

I’m Hungry!

Although she wasn’t a big drinker, Woolf was known to occasionally frequent the Fitzroy Tavern. Today it’s a Sam Smith’s pub which makes it one of the most reasonably priced places for a pint in London. All beers are vegan and additive free and there is also a very reasonable food menu.

If it’s too early for a drink then get yourself to Workshop Coffee for one of the best flat whites in the city served by the friendliest staff.

What Should I Read?

    

Baker Street

“It is my belief Watson, founded up my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.”

What Is It?

In case you’ve been living inside a tree for the whole of your life Baker Street station is beautifully clear about its literary fame. This is the only entry dedicated to the dwelling of a fictional character rather than the writer. You can go and visit the home of Arthur Conan Doyle (it’s in Norwood) but why would you when you can go to 221b Baker Street and have your photograph taken wearing a long coat and a deer stalker? The museum itself is well worth a look although be prepared to queue.

I’m Hungry!

The Volunteer

Nestled conveniently at the top of Baker Street is The Volunteer a cosy pub with log fires and comfy seats. Take a good friend and share a bottle of wine with one of their delicious roast dinners – there is no finer way to spend a Sunday afternoon. If you have the energy you can even have a game of Scrabble afterwards…

If you don’t have the luxury of an afternoon free to hole-up in a pub on Baker Street then never fear – take a quick walk to Marylebone Station to my new found favourite place in London: International Cheese. I could write a whole blog post about this place but I’d rather you went and experienced it for yourself. In fact, forget all the literary stuff and just go here. Now. Go, order the gorgonzola and apple croissant and a coffee and thank me later.

Cheese 1 Cheese 2

What Should I Read?

Hampstead

What Is It?

There are many reasons to visit Hampstead: the heath, the Everyman cinema, the pubs but next time you’re there take a walk to the home of John Keats. It is widely believed that Keats wrote “Ode To A Nightingale” whilst sitting under a plum tree in the garden of his Hampstead home. Look next door to see the home of Fanny Brawne (Keats and Brawne were a 19th Century Ross and Rachel.) Or at least they would have bene had Ross travelled to Italy and died of TB, alone and in terrible pain.

I’m Hungry!

Work up your appetite with a stroll through Hampstead Heath to Spaniards Inn – Keats’ preferred watering hole. An atmospheric pub with beams and dark wood panelling and an excellent menu. Order the steak sandwich and wash it down with one of their local brews.

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What Should I Read?

Highgate

What Is It?

Highgate Cemetery is the resting place of many a literary giant: Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Douglas Adams to name but a few. It’s certainly worth a respectful stroll and it backs on to Waterlow Park which is hands-down my favourite park in London.

Why are we here? Samuel Taylor Coleridge. For his final, drug-addled years Coleridge lived in Highgate with his friend (and doctor) James Gillman on The Grove. His house is not open to the public (although there was an opportunity to buy it a few years ago for those with a spare £7m lying around.)

I’m Hungry

In the evenings, Coleridge would wander over the road to one of my favourite pubs in London. I’ve dragged many a weary, hungover friend up the hill from Highgate station with the promise of the food here. It’s The Flask – a historic pub that claims to be the site of the first human autopsy and boasts Dick Turpin as a patron. Now I don’t know if either of those facts are a) true or b) related. What I do know is the Flask is the perfect place for risotto, crumble and a Mongozo banana beer or three. In fact, maybe just get a window seat and view Coleridge’s place from the warmth of the pub.

What Should I Read?

Clerkenwell

What Is It?

Love him or loathe him (and I LOVE him) you can’t write an article about London’s literature without mentioning Dickens. London is the opening word to Bleak House, one of his most famous novels. It’s difficult to pin down an area you should visit as Dickens wrote about vast areas of the city. Like Woolf, he would stroll the city for hours taking in his surroundings that he would later turn into vivid descriptive writing. I suppose, as always, his house is good place to start. It’s now been turned into a brilliant museum so jump off the Piccadilly Line at Russell Square and get yourself to 48 Doughty Street.

I’m Hungry!

“A man in a velveteen coat sits in the parlour of a low public house with a small glass strongly impregnated with the smell of liquor.”

The man in this case is Bill Sykes. The “low public house” is the fictional The Three Cripples. Surprisingly there is no pub that goes by that name but it is generally accepted that Dickens was writing with The One Tun in mind. Dickens was a patron of the pub between 1833 and 1838 and published the first instalment of “Oliver Twist” in 1837. Saffron Hill is a 10 minute walk from Dickens’ front door. There you’ll find The One Tun – order a small glass strongly impregnated with the smell of liquor and imagine you’re a Victorian pimp. 1833 the pub probably didn’t serve Thai food but we’re in 2015 so forget the authentic Victorian experience just this once and order the sambal prawns. Dickens would have done the same if he’d had the chance.

What Should I Read?