Give our kids the books they need

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

HELEN DAVITT believes that there is a shameful lack of working-class literature available for school children.

BRAZILIAN educationalist Paulo Freire's statement of the obvious on literacy puts the recent argy-bargy over the best method of teaching reading into perspective. Freire pointed out that literacy is not just a technical event; it is to do with identity, participation, politics and desire.

Whilst ‘educationists’ in Western democracies produce class-blind national curricula and teaching methods, Freire put the relationship between class and true literacy, i.e. the economic, personal, cultural and political development of individuals and groups, at the very heart of his teaching methods. Freire's theory and practice has been responsible for massive achievements in the field of literacy across the third world.

In the first world, intermittent calls for books truly relevant to the lives of our young people, not least those who go through eleven years of state schooling and come out it semi-literate with next to no qualifications, are routinely given a bad press. Myths and legends are considered better fare for the development of the psyche; stories of ghosts, witches, wizards, princes, princesses, magical realisms and phantasmagorias more appealing to the imagination; animal characters in books for young children more engaging. In fact, there exists a whole middle-class academic edifice to back up such diversion theories.

Youngster's imaginations - particularly the imaginations of working-class children - are somehow thought better ‘developed’ by separating imagination from observation and experience. It is common for middle-class teachers to state that ‘they’ don't really want to read about their own realities - it would only depress them.

There is, of course, a plethora of books, a whole exotica of deprivation, about the issues that are supposed to routinely affect working-class people in particular: drug addiction, sexual abuse, single parenthood, broken families, etc. Such books are produced in industrial proportions, and are largely used voyeuristically by middle-class readers, helping to create their fear of and superiority towards their working-class contemporaries. The teen-lit single issue versions, e.g. on sex, the dangers of getting pregnant, being gay etc, are also often used inside the more ‘difficult’ classrooms by teachers who believe such fiction an appropriate instrument for the moral and personal development of their working-class pupils.

Such books, in foregrounding a single issue, deftly cut out the 'issue' from the socio-economic forces and politico-cultural contexts that produce it. Real people seldom have the luxury of dealing with a single issue; real people in the real world deal with a multiplicity of issues every day.

Of the 8,000 or so books published for youngsters each year, some of the non-single issue type will indeed 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. Actual class conflict is itself rarely a primary focus, a realistic understanding of the class relations intrinsic to working-class experiences seldom truly imagined.

If you disbelieve the state of our fictional offerings to working-class youngsters - indeed to all young people - do one small piece of research. Go to the children's or teenage section of your local bookshop or library. Select books that meet the basic criteria listed below.

Amongst all the charmingly illustrated books on the shelves, if you can find one book to meet all of the above criteria, be well pleased - shout it's title from the roof tops.

The sad fact is that you will be lucky to find any book that meets even one of the above criteria.
Working-class youngsters struggle for identity amidst a cacophony of misleading noise and misdirection, struggle to find their true selves in a world that seeks to misrepresent and marginalise them - and to distort and divert their intelligence about themselves.

In the teaching of reading, teachers need the freedom to apply the teaching methods that best suit the child, inclusive of the use of phonics when required, but not, as some would have it, using phonics for every child all the time. Few children will tune in to reading for long by such a one-note invitation. But whatever the methods that even the most successful of our teachers use, until teachers have access to good reading material reflecting the identities of the working-class children and those children’s aspirations for themselves, for family, friends, their longed for sense of belonging in the world, our teachers are hindered from acting in the best interests of their working-class pupils in the first instance, and ultimately in the best interests of all children.

An authentic literature of working-class lived experiences and aspirations 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, pursue our desires.

Such a literature would show our attempts to oppose, divert, cope with, and even find humour in the socio-economic and politico-cultural 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 wish to read these kinds of books, their choice. But let working-class people also have a choice.

What is required for that choice to operate is nothing less than the production of a richly complex authentic literature for the majority of the population, i.e. working-class adults and working-class children of whatever gender, race, ethnicity, sexuality.

Such a literature would guide our youngsters not towards outlandish worlds and characters, but to the true ‘magic’ of the uniqueness of each being; to understanding the roots of both our fears and fascinations with each other; to the ability to detect true human interdependence versus obvious and not so obvious dominations and suppressions; to an understanding of our true rights and responsibilities towards each other.

For working-class people, such a literature would be more deeply recognisable, more satisfyingly understandable.

For working-class people, indeed for all people, it is surely culturally criminal that such a literature hardly exists.

Publishers sometimes claim that such books/media wouldn't be commercially viable, wouldn’t sell. Yet people of all classes are hungrier than ever for reality. In our millions we tune into the many crippled and distorted versions of 'reality' that now make up a very high percentage of TV viewing.
Could it not be, rather, that people are nowadays so hungry for an authentic literature that it would be likely to outsell all the niche markets in publishing combined?

One of the first hurdles to such a literature seeing the light of day is getting past the constrained imaginations of the gatekeepers of capitalist media production, often young white, middle-class women, their minds trained to dismiss anything approaching an authentic working-class literature as described above. If some young ‘Jessicas’ did manage to overcome their training, send likely manuscripts up to the powers that be, their big media player bosses will then give serious thought to their own more consciously held knowledge that one of their key functions is that of socio-cultural control, a primary operation, lest we forget, of the media conglomerates. In the current state of multi-media micro-niche marketing/cum blockbuster hype, it is by no means coincidental that such cultural control is a hugely profitable function, also one that must consume ‘new’ content by the truck load.
Another profit/control question is: if a publisher were to bring into existence an authentic literature relating to the majority of the population, to what extent would that publisher’s niche market authorial lists remain profitable? Of course, publishing is a cut-throat business like any other, and it may well be that an occasional publisher will weigh up his risks and make a decision, for profit’s sake, in favour of authenticity.

Does it give too much weight to what some would term the ephemera of the media to ask what would happen if literature, or other media, reflected the lived realities of the majority? Not, I think, if you judge the media a vital organ of the modern capitalist project. In whose interests is it to let reality out of truth smothering media bag? In whose interests is it to continue to attempt to drown our lived experiences in the welter of current media mass distractions from it?

The occasional publisher notwithstanding, when the majority of the population becomes as turned off by fake media content as they are by fake politics, then authenticity is what the majority will come to require.

Meantime as authentic teachers of reading we would do well to invite real children not to be forever answering such culturally controlling questions as, “And what did you like about the book?” Children should be free to express their own unbrainwashed opinions. Narrative is a very powerful socio-cultural tool, and children should be helped to be in possession of their own narratives based on their own complex realities, aspirations observations and responses - and when to a child a book is a boring old load of unreal cobblers, that child should be able to say so, without fear or favour.



March 2006

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