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Dumbing Down?

This morning research was published that bemoaned the state of our teenagers’ reading. Apparently secondary school pupils are opting to read ‘easier’ texts. The research comes from Renaissance Learning, who run the Accelerated Learning database in school. This rates books according to their difficulty level and then quizzes children on completion of the books.

Firstly, let’s make a point of stating that if you know you’re going to be quizzed on a book you’ve read, clearly you’d opt for the easier book. I know I’d find it faster and easier to answer a series of questions on the Danielle Steel I’ve just read rather than the Dickens.

Secondly, I’ve just made an assumption here, that the Danielle Steel is an easier read than the Dickens. We have to ask why and how I’ve done this?

Accelerated Reader uses various measures to rate a book’s difficulty – something I’ve written on before, and which the company, quite rightly, then questioned me on. But essentially, they do ‘level’ books according to one criteria at least, which is simplicity of the sentence (vocabulary and syntax). For example, Patrick Ness and David Almond write some ‘easy’ books according to AL, because of their easy-to-read sentence structure. However, any who has read them will know that these are not easy texts. They contain huge themes, promote intertextuality, have complex characters, intense emotions, promote empathy. They are not, to my mind, easy texts.

As the literary agent, Jonny Geller, points out: “It takes a huge amount of experience and self-confidence to write simply.”

But ignoring all that, let’s assume kids are opting to read ‘easy’ texts. After all, David Walliams now commands a huge percentage of the children’s book trade market. He contributed £16m value in 2017 and I would call his books easy texts. The data from Renaissance Learning does show that the popular books for Years 7-9 are by David Walliams and Jeff Kinney. Why are young teens opting for these when there are so many great texts out there with fewer stereotypical characters and more complex plots and themes?

One of the reasons is access. I could point again to the closure of public libraries, which contain a wide range of FREE books, or to the reduction in schools library services at local councils, or the lack of funding to school libraries themselves. Librarians are dying out – more and more redundancies year on year. If we don’t provide access to different books for children, they can’t choose them to read. When Ofsted don’t even count the library as one of the points of inspection, you have to wonder what importance the government put on libraries at all.

Moreover, I could point again to the closure of independent book stores. No wonder children choose to read David Walliams, when the only access to books to buy is the local WHSmith or supermarket, where the book choice is tiny and those bestselling books are heavily discounted. Likewise the algorithms of Amazon, which indicate that if you like reading David Walliams books, then you’ll also like reading more David Walliams books…

Another survey out yesterday from Egmont showed that 48% of parents asked said that they were bamboozled by the choice of children’s books.

Is that because we live in a fast world and want answers immediately? Faced with the bright covers in WHSmith, is it easier to choose the one next to the till, the display of Walliams that are face out, the author you’ve heard of (ie. celebrity)? How do parents find other books?

Yes, there is a golden era in children’s publishing and the choice of books is immense – you only have to look back at my blog for the past couple of years to see the plethora of new amazing books published every month. And yet, parents do find it hard to know what to buy – there is a lack of coverage of children’s books in review sections across all media, there are fewer librarians to ask (see above), fewer teachers having time to read children’s books, fewer good booksellers who know their stuff. (The exceptions to the rule who do exist are awesome, by the way.)

We’re not providing parents with the easy solution of what to choose to buy. According to Egmont, 64 per cent of parents of 14-17 year olds agree that looking at the physical books is better than buying online, but parents find bookshops hard to access, and have little knowledge of where to begin. This leads to purchases of the familiar. Publishers, bloggers, journalists need to make parents more aware of what is out there for their children. It’s what I’m trying to do every day.

But let’s get to the crux of the matter. Some parents will argue with this whole strand of argument. AT LEAST THEY’RE READING A BOOK, they tell me. So what if it’s an easier choice? And I’d tend to agree – for the most part, my aim is to get children reading – to make it a life habit. If a person wants to read Mills and Boon, crime books (apparently we do, just look at the adult bestseller lists), or comics or graphic novels over literary fiction and classics – who are we to judge?

And yet, I would support the nudging of children onto ‘better’, more challenging books, onto those by David Almond, Katherine Rundell, Sarah Crossan – I could go on and on. There are great books out there, and some have simple language despite their huge themes! This should be our aim – in the same way that footballers take time to perfect taking a penalty, not only just kicking it straight at the middle of the goal, but trying different skills and angles, so we should aim to improve our reading too – reading a wide variety of texts and discerning between what we like and dislike, what is hard and what is easy.

What’s stopping children and particularly teenagers reading? Why are only half of all preschool kids read to? The elephant in the room, and the topic that comes up at the end of every article, just like mine, is the evil screen. Our children are opting to watch YouTube rather than read a book.

Are screens vastly more entertaining? They are a more passive form of entertainment for sure, even though you can pick up a narrative and learn new information from watching a decent programme. But I’d argue that we adults are at fault here. Why do we give the screen as an option in our children’s spare time? The second piece of research published(Egmont) explained that parents say that their children prefer to watch the screen – but the question I’d ask is why are we giving them that choice? Why do we let them take their phones into their bedrooms at night instead of a book? Why do we let them fester on the sofa with them? For an easy life?

We don’t ‘let’ them get away with other things. We don’t let them eat chocolate instead of broccoli as a side serving to their protein. We don’t let them go partying until 4am; we insist they come home at a certain time. So why don’t we remove their phones? Why don’t we make reading the go-to option? It won’t make a parent popular, but then parents aren’t supposed to be their child’s best friend, they’re supposed to be their parent and guide. And the best way to do this – lead by example. Put your own phones away, pick up a book, and watch your child do the same. Who knows, you might even discover there’s more to life than Youtube.

Book of the Week

Meet the…Ancient Romans by James Davies

meet the ancient romansThere is one key feature of nonfiction for children for which I am always on the lookout, and that’s the author’s ability to put over information in an accessible and concise way, no matter the scope or depth of that information. Then, of course that information has to be interesting, and explain the point well enough so that children understand and are hooked, but not provide so much detail that they get lost in reams of text.

Those looking to emulate those skills, should seek out Meet the Ancient Romans by James Davies. A vast subject to tackle, the Ancient Roman Empire spans all elements of life and hundreds of years of history – and yet Davies has managed to compact it all into a golden nugget of information for young readers.

Each book – for there is one on Ancient Egyptians too – is 64 pages, and manages to cram a huge amount into a small book, and much of that information is conveyed through explanatory and amusing illustrations.

Meet the…Ancient Romans tackles everything from Roman numerals and emperors to way of life and the army, but also addresses questions a child might have if they have already heard something of the subject matter. For example, it references that the child may have heard of Caesar, and be questioning why he isn’t mentioned on the emperors’ hall of fame page – Davies then gives the answer to this – Caesar wasn’t actually an emperor.

Above all, the book is highly visual. This is determined by the colour tone, which gives the reader their first impression – for Rome the book is red in tone, which implies tomatoes (for me anyway, which I associate with that part of the world, but also of course for the red pigment used in their villas, as well as the red material and paint which is associated with their god of war, Mars.) The Egyptian book is yellow – presumably for sand.

But more than just the large limited colour palate, Davies’ book is highly visual because each page is dominated by cartoon-like images and vignettes of people, doing the tasks described. There is immense attention to detail in these drawings – from the mighty legions in the Rome book to the depiction of mummification in the Egypt book. This is hugely impressive, but Davies has also inserted his sense of humour into the illustrations – one Roman soldier seems to have lost his uniform for example; this is a book that entertains as well as informs.

There are also comedic speech bubbles, somewhat reminiscent of Horrible Histories, although Davies’ book is for a younger audience, and is brighter, bolder and shorter!

As Davies progresses the narrative through the book, he adds more and more comments to his explanations. From Roman numerals to the army, clothing and schooling, the author uses one liners or small phrases to indicate his opinion, and it feels as if his personality is growing with the book. A sense of intimacy and shared comedy is felt with the author – a lovely touch for an information book for a young audience.

Each book ends with a very short and sweet timeline; in Ancient Romans, it depicts the beginning of Rome with Romulus and Remus to the end of the Roman Empire in AD 476 when Germany invaded. You can buy a copy here.

The companion title, Meet the Ancient Egyptians is equally buzzing with personality and information.  A fair amount of this title is spent on death and the afterlife, an obsession both of the people of the time, but also children today who are often captivated by the process of mummification, and the tombs in which the pharaohs were buried.

The series feels as if it were made to last, and should be an excellent addition to all school libraries, but also a great gift for those looking to pique children’s interest in Ancient History. I’ll be looking out for further titles…hoping for Greece and Mayans….You can buy the Ancient Egyptians book here.