Why do we have the urge to rush children away from being…er…children.
As I stand in the queue to watch Guardians of The Galaxy Vol2( I have two teenage boys) I’m struck by the number of tiny children here. A quarter of the audience must be under the age of eight. The film is a 12A that means it’s judged suitable for people 12 years and older. If the parents in the queue have deemed this day-glo superhero sci-fi fest as being suitable then who am I to disagree, I don’t know their children. The guidance is however there for a purpose to support us in the choices we make for our children.
The same goes for computer games. I’m pretty sure most of us have seen parents picking up a copy of Grand Theft Auto or Call of Duty regardless of the rating so that little Johnny can play it because all of his friends have it. Many parents often don’t even question it and it’s certified 18 rating.
Actually I feel the same about books and maybe even more so. The best books are way more affecting than games or TV or Films. I have laughed, cried, been horrified and felt despair more with books than any other medium. The best books are windows to human emotion, glimpses into the human experience. Books are dangerous, powerful and beautiful. They should also be used with caution.
I’m pretty sure anybody who has ever reread a book from their youth will have found the experience to be very different. I was read Animal Farm at the age of 9 by my Year 5 teacher at that point to me it was some fantastical fairy-tale about talking animals. On reading it now it is a truly different beast that holds universal messages of the dangers of power, corruption and greed. I loved it at the age of 9. I truly adore it at the age of 46.
Last week I was involved in a really interesting discussion on twitter. The crux of it was about suitability of texts for various year groups. I have to say I think I came out on the prudish end of the scale. It started with discussion about The Lie Tree, but also pulled in A Monster Calls and The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas as well as others. Personally these are books I wouldn’t use in Key Stage 2. For 11 year-olds I think personally that some of the subject matter or the themes are unsuitable. The books require a level of emotional understanding beyond some of the children.
My big concern really is twofold. Firstly that we are pushing books at children that whilst they are able to read them they cannot really access their true beauty and depth because they are not really emotionally ready for them. Much of Shakespeare fits that for me. Romeo and Juliet is wonderful, but why not read around 13/14 and they have some idea of that flush of emotion. My second concern linked to that is that why are we doing it and who are we doing it for. Is it really for the children or for ourselves. I previously worked with a Year 6 teacher who when ‘Twilight’ was all the rage, pushed this onto her Year 6 girls. I won’t get into the relative merits of Twilight but I will say that the book was and in my opinion still is wholly inappropriate for 10 year olds. Is it a badge of honour for us? The use of the book was an attempt to look cool with the kids and was a bit of an ego-trip for her.
I understand that there is however huge challenge for primary teachers currently. The need driven by our assessment calls for children to be accessing challenging texts to stretch them. I’m completely on-board with this, my worry is that this potentially makes us use things which may not really be suitable.
Of course every class is different. I have read books to one class that I wouldn’t contemplate reading to another. I would also say even with classes I knew really well I still didn’t have enough insight into their lives to understand the potential impact of some of the things we might choose to read. As a teacher we have to make a judgement call. To be able to do this you need to know and understand the book really well.
In my head I tend to rate books as you would rate a film. I know it isn’t the same but there should always be a question of thresholds. It is vital that staff know the book and understand the themes of the book. My measure is always my own children. I am the Dad whose kids watch a fifteen rated film when they are…fifteen. My kids don’t play 18 rated computer games however much their mates are. I know this may not be the best measure but it’s the one I know the best. I judge my book choice on whether I as a parent would have been happy for my child to be exposed to that book, whether my child was emotionally ready for the content and the themes of a book. I know it’s not particularly scientific but it makes me approach books with caution and a healthy respect.
Remember the best books open doors to understanding. They are dangerous and wonderful. Please read with caution.