With the summer holidays in full swing, parents will be wanting to keep their children’s minds active, so as to stop the dreaded ‘summer slide’ in academic ability. However, they may encounter problems. It can be hard to know where to start when choosing a book; some children are reluctant readers; and others do read, but stay away from ‘the classics’. With a little bit of effort from parents and tutors, however, these difficulties can be overcome.
Parents may feel a little daunted by the prospect of navigating the sheer volume of literature available for young readers. Even tutors may wonder where to begin! However, we can use the school’s efforts as a starting point. English departments usually provide reading recommendations at the start or end of the academic year, but many children overlook these lists; do try to retrieve them if possible. If no such list is available, look online; for example, Westminster Cathedral Choir School publishes age-banded suggestions. Discuss the books listed, and research together any with which you are less familiar. You do not have to be wedded to the school’s advice, but it can provide a helpful starting point, giving something concrete to communicate to the librarian or bookseller, who can advise further. Let the child contribute to the conversation. This should increase their feeling of control over the process, and therefore their enjoyment.
Even if children are given recommendations, however, some may still be reluctant to read. They may be attempting books that are a little too tough. Ask them whether or not they are happy with the amount of text and the print size. Try the ‘five finger rule’ too: they should read a full page, chosen at random, and hold up a finger each time they encounter an unfamiliar word. If there are five or more, then they should try another book, unless they want you to read it to them instead.
Alternatively, they may complain that ‘books are boring’, in which case, try to draw links between books and their favourite pop culture phenomena. There are some obvious connections: for example, ‘Frozen’ fans can be guided to ‘The Snow Queen’, perhaps an edition with the delightful original illustrations by Vilhelm Pedersen. Think laterally, though: young Iron Man fans might enjoy the Ted Hughes story of the same name! Do consider graphic novels themselves, too. From the excellent ‘I Can Read’ superhero phonics sets by Lucy Rosen, to the witty and challenging Tintin and Asterix books, the right comic books are far from ‘a waste of time’. Older readers might love Frank Miller’s Batman books, or the work of Alan Moore, whose ‘Watchmen’ appeared on Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels list. (As ever, check that you are happy with any ‘mature themes’…)
Lastly, you might find that some children are enthusiastic consumers of modern novels written for young readers, but avoid classic literature. A lack of balance between the two is likely to harm their intellectual development. However, try not to force any specific works on them; instead, gently make connections between what they do read and the roots of the genre. For example, a child ploughing through the Alex Rider adventure series might feel pleasantly grown-up if you ‘allow’ them to look at some Ian Fleming too! Many children also love Agatha Christie, and it is a short step from there to the Sherlock Holmes books or, for more mature subject matter, to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. Offer particular praise if they tackle any nineteenth-century literature: ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ would be a great start.
Children will also benefit from brief discussion of a modern book’s deeper significance, which may again serve to pique interest in older works. The criticism of organised religion in ‘His Dark Materials’ could be contrasted with the Christian allegory of ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’; the political undertones of ‘The Hunger Games’ could be teased out, perhaps sparking a desire to read ‘1984’.
With the ‘light touch’ supervision described above, children should gain much more from their reading of both classic and modern literature. Hopefully, by the end of the summer, they will be coming to see reading as a pleasure, not a chore!