Should children read the classics?

I was recently involved in a discussion about which classic books children might love. I felt a little uncomfortable answering and I’ll explain why. As you probably know, until recently I was a primary school teacher and in many of our classrooms in Key Stage 2 we had a selection of the classics and they were hardly ever chosen by the children. Why is that? Times have changed.

Firstly, the language in the classics is very old-fashioned and in some cases I would describe it as archaic. Language is a living thing, constantly changing, and these classics use words and phrases that children nowadays no longer use nor understand. If you ever find yourself reading an old book to a child, count how many times you have to stop and explain what something means. Stopping to explain is important so that the meaning is not lost but if you stop too often it will interrupt the flow of the story and the children may lose track of the plot.

Children like books to be pacy and/or be humorous. They are surrounded by fast-paced media and like their books to be the same. The old classics  tend to be wordier and slower in pace; they had a lot of leisure time to fill in those days with little else by way of entertainment. These days there are many other things that many children would rather be doing. If we want children to love reading we have to give them books that fit their world.

Speaking of worlds, think LTWTWabout how much the world has changed in the last fifty years or so. Children then led quite different lives to now. Yes, we might feel a little sad at the passing of that world and it’s lovely to reminisce but we can’t pull back the past. Many of the classics portray a world they just can’t identify with. I’m going to partially exclude fantasy books from this, though. I learnt a valuable lesson last year. I read The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe to my class last year and, quite frankly, I was very concerned before I started reading it that they would find the book too old-fashioned. However, it’s a book I love and it fitted perfectly with the work we were doing with the children, so I was willing to give it a go. Yes, I had to stop and explain now the language now and again, but the beautiful fantasy world of Narnia that CS Lewis created is still as magical to today’s readers as it was to children who read it when it was first published. Fantasy seems to stand the test of time.

So do the classics have no value at all for today’s younger generation? I’m not saying that at all. There are still ways they can enjoy those stories, if not in their original form. Look out for simplified versions of the books which children might find easier to digest. It may go against the grain for us to read them ourselves but at least they will have access to some of that wide and wonderful array of classic literature, and just maybe, they will be enticed to read the originals when they are more mature.

Another way forward is to look at more modern classics. Children still adore the likes of Roald Dahl, for example, and my personal favourite is Matilda. There are many others too. Look for authors like Michael Morpurgo (Kensuke’s Kingdom) and Michelle Magorian (Goodnight, Mr Tom). But it’s good to also look out for lesser known authors; those without the marketing budgets of the big publishing houses behind them. I know that you wouldn’t be reading this blog if you weren’t interested in the Agnil’s Worlds books, giving me, a relatively unknown author, a crack at giving children stories I hope they enjoy, and I am very grateful for that. Will the Agnil’s Worlds books stand the test of time and become classics? Who knows, they are fantasy books, after all. Thank you for sticking with me and enjoy the ride for now. Some exciting times are looming!