I am delighted to introduce you to Anna, a 14 year old reader with some strong views on why children don’t read the classics anymore. Her opinions are music to the ears of writers and publishers who are trying to create a more varied and interesting diet for young readers. ENJOY!
“I’ve read countless rants from old people on facebook to old people in the guardian who oddly take some sort of pleasure out of voicing how this degenerate generation doesn’t take pleasure in reading from paper any more. Not bored of saying kids don’t read enough, it appears that they also read the wrong books. I read recently in the guardian that the number of kids reading classics like The Secret Garden and The Chronicles of Narnia have decreased as readers move over to David Walliams and the Hunger Games.
But why is this? Why have children lost interest in the classics, and what makes modern YA so popular? Here are some of my thoughts and to explain some of my points, I’m going to choose five classic books: The Secret Garden,The Chronicles of Narnia, Five Children and It, The Wind In The Willows and The Railway Children.
These are some of the most loved books by ‘older generations’ and now overlooked by kids. No doubt they deserve their status as classics as they are all fantastic in their own way. And in contrast five modern books that are popular books, The Hunger Games, Refugee boy, The Boy in the Dress, The Fault in our Stars and The Percy Jackson series. These books have overtaken as the favourites on modern day book shelves.
Between the classic and modern titles, there is far more diversity in the modern books. Yes, there were books like Amazing Grace, but without the help of google, I couldn’t think of any books containing ethnic minorities, disabilities or LGBT that fits in to the classic bracket. Yes, that is because of my limited knowledge of classic kids literature. But at the end of the day, a modern younger kid would not have any more knowledge of classics than I would, unless of course they actively searched. But when you have modern diverse books in your school library, a kid wouldn’t look any further than them (of course this is a sweeping statement, but bare with me.)
Going back to the classics I chose lets look at them a little more closely. There is The Secret Garden – we have an orphan (white) moves into a rich family’s house (white) and befriends a boy who lives on the grounds (white.) Granted, Colin is disabled and the mother is dead. But I’ll get on to that later. Next there is Five (white) children and it, a wartime story, The wind in the willows, (animals) The chronicles of rich white children in Narnia, a wartime story and lastly The (white) Railway Children another war time story.
The modern books I chose are different. You have The Hunger Games (okay they are mostly white) but we have single parents, secondary characters who are more diverse, and at the centre, a definite lack of rich family with the token tragedy trope.
Then we have Refugee Boy, a mature kids book about an Eritrean/Somalian refugee in Britain. There is The Boy in the Dress, with a poor single fathered family and a cross dressing eleven year old. The Fault in our Stars, which has two cancer patients, and lastly Percy Jackson, with a single mother, a black protagonist and a dyslexic main character just in the first book.
The raw truth is the classic books are full of either very rich/very poor, very white and very healthy characters. While in contemporary books, all the kids who aren’t white and 100% able bodied and Neurotypical have representation and heroes.
I have to admit that for bereaved children and poor children, classic books do deliver. But now we are finally breaking into an age where ethnic minorities, refugees, cross dressing, gay, bullied, and outcasts but most notably the kids with learning difficulties have heroes. I haven’t even mentioned the steep rise in heroic female characters. In the past all the girls seemed to watch from the sidelines and cry occasionally, then need a rescue from time to time, and if we are lucky they would scream. That was about as good as our female heroes got. Now a new age of Katnisses are here and ready to be a role model for all the little girls a bit left behind on the hero scene. But we definitely shouldn’t stop here, there is still a really tragic lack of diversity in contemporary teen and YA literature.
On the whole the situations in modern books are a lot more realistic than in the classics. Real people, real conditions, real issues. Readers can directly relate to more of the presented issues in modern novels such as using phones and social media, and the wider scientific knowledge we have today means characters with illnesses have their conditions named and explained. Take Colin’s miraculously cured and completely ambiguous illness in The Secret Garden and compare it to The Fault in our Stars, where the two kids have a definitely incurable and terminal cancer. It’s quite hard to empathise with Colin if you’re in a wheelchair. But on the whole he wouldn’t be a bad role model right up until he gets up and goes for a little stroll. It must have been a bit annoying for all the kids reading The Secret Garden.
Dystopia and war is a noticeable pattern in popular modern novels. But why do kids love things like Hunger Games, Divergent and The Maze Runner? These are the big daddies, the most popular. I believe that these books tick every box for today’s readers: diversity, tragedy, and a really messed up future. A theory I found on google is that ‘It represents how teenagers feel oppressed by old people and want to stop them ruining everything’ which I think makes sense. In the stories it always seems to be teenagers who seemingly can’t tie their shoelaces that manage to take down the unbreakable and corrupt governments. So does it ignite and exercise that inner thought everyone has what it takes to take down the government? These YA books contain ‘politics with stabilisers’. Very black and white and unrealistic dictatorships, a government where you have to blow it up and start again to change anything. I think kids read political YA to feel grown up, and feel like they have a good understanding of the real world after reading it.”
‘My name is Anna. I’m fourteen. I don’t read that much because I prefer movies, but when I do read, my favourite genre is horror and sci fi. My favourite books are: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. I don’t have a favourite author so far. I like to read to pass time, because it is like a movie that you can direct and make in your head, and there is more explanation than a movie. Book covers and titles are always the reason I get attracted to books. My pet peeves: forced romance, adventure, boring heroes and books that are the same but slightly altered variables. I buy books mainly because they are nicer when new and it is something to call your own. I look for a good motive, good characters, an interesting story and scary/ strange themes.’