Which books do children read? The answer to this question varies according to which source of information you consult. A more pertinent question might be, which books do children choose to read? The announcement this week of the shortlisted books for the Children’s Book Award, the only national award where the titles are chosen entirely by the children themselves, is a very good indicator of which books children enjoy reading. I always find it fascinating to compare the lists for this award with the lists for other awards selected by adults. In the younger readers category in particular, books are often ones with plentiful humour or illustrations or sometimes a combination of the two. This year’s titles, FUNNY KID – STAND UP By Matt Stanton, MR PENGUIN – THE FORTRESS OF SECRETS Written and illustrated by Alex T Smith and THE DOG WHO LOST HIS BARK Written by Eoin Colfer, illustrated by P.J. Lynch are an excellent example of this trend. This is a wonderful selection and particularly so because the children consulted across the country to create this shortlist clearly value these books highly.
Coincidentally, this week an article appeared in TES referring to a recently published report that once again confirmed that children reading for pleasure has a direct bearing on their attainment. Everyone who is involved in any way with children’s books has known of this link between reading for pleasure and attainment for some time. However what do we mean by ‘reading for pleasure’? When I read for pleasure it means that I am reading something that I want to read, that I have chosen to read myself. Children may choose to read a book for a variety of reasons but we know that motivation to read increases their engagement with reading. Therefore their choices are an important part of reading for pleasure. It may not always be a book that an adult considers a challenge or would have selected for the child themselves but children need to feel that their choice is a valid one or they may be deterred from choosing again. Learning how to be a reader involves a child in experimenting with different authors and genres to discover where their own tastes lie. Often primary aged children may choose a picture book, or a highly illustrated young fiction title or maybe a graphic novel. They may also select a book that is linked to a personal interest or hobby. These are all “proper books”.
As a school librarian I felt sympathy for a child who brought a carefully selected book back to the library the following day saying “Mum says this is too easy for me.” or “ I’ve been told I need a more challenging book.” It is of course possible that the child in question is easily capable of a more challenging book but surely it is preferable to respect their original choice and then nudge them gently towards something considered more appropriate next time. Seventeen years as a primary school librarian have shown me that illustrated books of all types are very popular with children all the way through primary school and beyond. Any concentration on books being ‘too easy’ or ‘too young’ may be linked to the following of reading schemes and levels but once a child is able to read independently they often want to revisit old favourites and read them themselves or simply read for fun. If we persist in describing reading as something that children should do or as something that is good for them in the same way as eating vegetables then we should not be surprised if they do not then see it as fun. If they are allowed to become involved in their reading progress by choosing books they like they are much more likely to feel that they are participating in an active and enjoyable way. The Rights of The Reader poster by Daniel Pennac and illustrated by Sir Quentin Blake summarises excellently the varies ways in which reading can be encouraged.
The books studied in the classroom or read aloud by a class teacher provide an opportunity for the child to experience a book in which the vocabulary or some of the themes may be too tricky for them to handle independently. It is then that their reading experiences can be stretched and guided further by the teacher and librarian working in tandem. Books borrowed from the school or public library or bought by parents provide an opportunity for children to choose for themselves, gain confidence in their ability to select books and develop their own identity as a reader. Perhaps choice could follow a discussion and books could be of varying types and levels of difficulty to widen the range available but nonetheless it is important to remember that children’s own reading choices are a vital part of both encouraging reading for pleasure and creating true readers and therefore need to be valued.