Should Parents Push Children To Read Classic Books?

14/03/2013 16:00 | Updated 22 May 2015
Nostalglic picture of a mother reading a bedtime storyGetty

I recently booked tickets to take my children, aged seven and nine to see The Railway Children at the theatre, and thinking they may get more out of it if they already knew the story, ordered the book to read to them.

I'm slightly ashamed to say we only managed a few chapters – while everyone loves the film and the play was excellent, as far as a reading experience goes, for me at least, it was quite excruciating.

It wasn't that the language was difficult (although "Ripping!" as an expression of joy was certainly new to the kids) but more that the writer seemed to use 10 sentences when one would probably do.

But, as a book-lover, keen that my children read widely, it got me thinking. Is it important that they read the classics? Is it OK if they stick to the more accessible and fun classics, such as Roald Dahl which we all love in our family? Or does it matter if they're rather read Horrid Henry or Diary of a Wimpy Kid, as long as they enjoy it?

Other mums' opinions seem to vary. Pandora thinks children's classics are just for school. She said: "Unless it had high adventure, then it won't keep you or them gripped while reading together."

Clare (who loved reading Olga de Polga, Paddington Bear and Black Beauty with her children but gave up on The Secret Garden and Treasure Island) believes it is important that her children read the classics and plans to revisit them again when her children are older.

She added: "We have bought a few classics as unabridged audio books, and on a three hour car journey, with a more exciting voice, they go down a treat. The trouble with reading them yourself is that straight in from work, at the end of the day with a glass of wine, it's hard to keep going through old-fashioned text, having to explain every fifth word."

Camilla, whose children enjoyed Anne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Narnia and What Katie Did makes the very good point that books like The Railway Children were written in a different era with a different lifestyle in mind.

She said: "I think the issue is that books are written for people who have less time now, whereas the classics were people's entertainment so the writing had to be long and drawn out."

Classics which seem to be almost universally popular include Famous Five, Mallory Towers and The Faraway Tree all by Enid Blyton (especially the modernised version where Fanny has become Franny to avoid sniggering), just about everything by Roald Dahl, Lemony Snicket and the Narnia Books. But there are many more which some loved and some hated including Black Beauty, Alice in Wonderland and Wind in the Willows.

Leila Rasheed, author of the Bathsheba Clarice de Trop series who also teaches writing for children at Warwick University, believes there are several ways to make the classics more accessible to children.

She said: "It would be sad if today's children missed out on wonderful books like Treasure Island, The Phoenix and the Carpet, or Mary Poppins. These books have appealed to so many readers over the years because they contain the key ingredients of children's literature: emotional truth, great adventure, magic and humour. These never go out of fashion.

"But I can appreciate that the classics are less accessible to today's children. It may be unfamiliar vocabulary that puts them off. It may be that a relatively slow pace and gentle content fail to stir the imagination of modern, video-gaming kids. Or it may be out of date attitudes that make the books unappealing. For example, I recently tried to re-read H Rider Haggard and Jules Verne, and had to give up because of the awful racism – such a pity, because the plots are great."

"I recently heard a dramatisation of The Borrowers on Radio 4. I was gripped, and I'm sure any child would have been too. Radio dramatisations seem to me an excellent way for children to enjoy the classics. They bring the story to vivid life, and yet can stay true to the spirit of the book in a way which a commercial film may not.

"One problem is that though children's books may have become more action-packed and fast-paced over the past century, the actual prose they're written in has become less demanding. So children may feel that when they read a book from the past, they have to struggle through a lot of difficult writing only to find that not much happens. If that's the case they might enjoy the books more in simplified versions or by having them read to them as a bedtime story.

"Some people are a bit snobby about simplified versions, but I don't think there's anything wrong with reading a classic novel in a simplified version first, and then graduating later in life to the full version."

Sounds like excellent advice. Maybe we'll give The Railway Children another go after all.


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