Give our kids the books they need

Helen Davitt

Helen Davitt is a former English teacher and inspector of schools.


BRAZILIAN educationalist Paulo Freire's statement of the obvious on literacy puts the recent argy-bargy over the best teaching method well and truly into perspective.

Literacy is not just a technical event, he said. It is to do with identity, participation, politics and desire. Freire's theory and practice for teaching reading has been responsible for massive achievements in the field of literacy across the world.

While "educationalists" in Western democracies produce class-blind national curriculum and assessment instruments, Freire put the relationship between class, illiteracy and educational failure at the very heart of his teaching methods and materials. Intermittent calls for relevance in children's books are routinely given a bad press.

A whole middle-class academic edifice backs up "diversion" theories. 

Myths and legends are considered better fare than reality for the development of the psyche - stories of ghosts, witches, wizards, princes, princesses, magical realisms and phantasmagorias more appealing to the imagination and animal characters in books for young children more engaging.

A child's imagination - particularly a working-class child's imagination - is somehow thought better "developed" by separating it from her or his life experience for 90 per cent plus of the time. It is common for middle-class teachers to state that "they" don't really want to read about their own realities.

After all, it would only depress them.

Some people might raise at this point the plethora of books about issues that affect children from working-class backgrounds - drug addiction, sexual abuse, single parenthood and broken families. It is a kind of "exotica of deprivation" for use inside the more "difficult" classrooms. But these single-issue books focus purely on the issues. They don't tackle the context.

The forces producing the contexts in which the characters are portrayed as focusing daily on are, largely, omitted. Of the 8,000 or so books published for children each year, some of the non-single issue type will use working-class characters, have a working-class setting and a variety of related plots and themes.

But, if a working-class character might partially resolves a book's dramatic conflict, it is likely to be by adherence to middle-class values, moralisms and behaviours. A realistic understanding of the class relations intrinsic to working-class experiences is seldom truly imagined. Readers disbelieving the state of our fictional offerings to working-class children - indeed, to all children - should do one small piece of research.

Go to the children's or teenage section of your local bookshop or library and look for books which meet several criteria. Books that specifically and obviously portray characters of the working-class majority, not in an "exotica-of-deprivation" manner.

Books that show characters, individually and as a group, dealing with several of the many obstacles, material and otherwise, small or large, that come the way of people daily. Books that show well-observed and absorbing characters and situations whereby such obstacles are well known not to be primarily bad or good luck, coincidence or "human nature."

Books that show characters' understanding that the world could be constructed differently and fairer for all. Books that show characters dealing with some of the above in a variety of ways, inclusive of daily heroisms, generosity of spirit, decency and humour.

People taking up this challenge will be lucky to find any book that meets even one of these basic criteria among the charmingly illustrated books on the shelves. Working-class pupils struggle for identity amid a cacophony of misleading noise and misdirection in a world which seeks to misrepresent and marginalise them and to distort and divert their intelligence about themselves.

Teachers need the freedom to apply the teaching methods that best suit the child, inclusive of the use of phonics when required. 

But, until teachers have access to good books reflecting the identities of their working-class pupils, they are hindered from acting in those pupils' best interests. Authentic literature of working-class experiences, in language related to age and stages of development, would rightly portray the depth and richness of the truly dramatic conflicts through which we attempt to secure our place in the world, build our relationships, construct our psychology and pursue our desires.

Such literature would show our attempts to oppose, divert, cope with, even find humour in the socio-economic contexts in which we live our lives. Had we such literature, how much credence would then accrue to the closed-off worlds of single-issue fiction, the melodrama of the outlandish adventure, the award-wining flights into magic and magical realism?

For those who still wish to read this kind of book, feel free. But let working-class people also feel the freedom of choice.

This means the production of an authentic and richly complex literature for the majority of the population, working-class people of whatever gender, race or ethnicity.

Authentic literature would guide children not towards imaginary figures, but towards the true "magic" of the uniqueness of each being, towards understanding the roots of both our fears and fascinations with each other, towards the ability to detect domination versus true human interdependence and towards a deeper comprehension of the range of our true human rights and responsibilities.

For working-class people, such literature would be more deeply recognisable, more satisfyingly understandable. For either children or adults, it hardly exists.


December 2005

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