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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

The Ice Garden by Guy Jones

ice gardenHasn’t everyone at some point imagined that they could escape into another world? Whether it be into Narnia through the wardrobe, or cutting a hole in the air with a Subtle Knife, or even discovering a new place within our own world that holds such a different atmosphere, such an exciting contrasting place with our own reality (perhaps through a doorway into a Secret Garden), that new possibilities arise.

Guy Jones provides this opportunity for his protagonist, Jess. A girl who needs new possibilities more than most. Jess is allergic to the sun. She lives a confined life, in the rooms of her own house, or behind the tinted windows of her car, and also within the sterile walls of the local hospital. So when she moves through the trees at night and discovers an ice garden beyond the local playground, in which her skin never burns, she feels as if a whole new world of adventures is opening for her.

But someone else has left footprints in the snow, and a garden made of ice has its own fragilities.

This is a slight novel in terms of pages, but a novel brimming with a richness in words, plot and character. Enticingly written, in that the words are both lyrical and yet gripping, the reader is swept along with Jess, feeling for her in her contemporary world in which going outside means donning ‘Full Hat’ to avoid exposure, and yet also breathless with excitement for her when she enters the Ice Garden, and just as enchanted with all it contains.

Jones has a magical way of describing the real world. Jess’s relationship with her mother feels authentic and heart-breaking, as her mother and Jess are consistently torn between wanting freedom for Jess and a lack of constriction, and yet a protectiveness – Jess of her own skin, and her mother of her own child.

Yet Jones also manages to conjure a quite incredible fantasy landscape too – letting loose his imagination with new creatures, but also playing with features of this garden to make them into a playground for Jess (something she has so wanted). There’s a maze, a groove that acts as a slide, and endless ice features, as well as elements of fear and danger. He also gives a nod to other ‘portal’ adventures, expressing Jess’s disappointment that time in the real world doesn’t stand still while she’s in this ‘otherworld’ but continues as normal. What the ice garden does do though, is make her see her ‘normal’ world as quite remarkable.

This is mainly due to the friend she makes within the ice garden – another asset the garden gives Jess which she had most desired. And it’s the friendship that opens up her eyes to the meaning of loneliness and solitude, which allows her to fully explore the meaning of her illness, the saving capabilities of storytelling, and the tenderness that can exist between people.

The other theme that runs through the book is that of nomenclature. When Jess encounters new things within the ice garden, she gives them names, hence attaching her own emotional significance to them, giving the unknown an indication of the characteristic she sees it possesses – and therefore how she should interact with it.

“But in the ice garden nothing had a name until she gave it one. ‘Elephant Mouse,’ she said. ‘I hereby name your species the Elephant Mouse.’ The animal gave a little squeak, as if agreeing, and Jess giggled with excitement.”

Jess’s naming of the species gives her delight and when she encounters it again later, she refers to it as her own elephant mouse. This ownership and tendency towards colonialism fades as Jess realises that there is another within the garden, and also makes her think – to whom does the garden belong – for gardens are made, they are not freeform landscapes.

When, in the end, Jess’s two worlds collide, she comes to discover that she can make friends in her own world – in fact she already has – and that she can live without her illness defining her.

Jones writes with a sophisticated tenderness, and a confidence in his story that satisfies the reader and leads to deeper thought. An accomplished book that should live long after the ice melts. You can buy it here.