“High quality” children’s literature recommendations from 1977

For my final PhD thesis chapter, I have been reading a range of research on children’s reading preferences. The research from the 60s and 70s discusses social class as a factor, particularly that carried out when the school-leaving age was 15 and when there was a separation of children at 11, with working-class children largely being educated away from middle-class. Within the work of Aidan Chambers, there is a sense of lived experience; writing from the experience of having been a teacher in The Reluctant Reader (1969) and drawing on his experience both as a young adult author and critic in his other work.

The 1977 Whitehead Review Children and their Books is drawn from both qualitative study carried out in 1972, questionnaires sent out to schools and featuring responses from children aged 10, 12 and 14 (there is that reminder of some young people leaving education aged 15 again) and the researchers determined the social class of families by asking children what their fathers did. The authors (Frank Whitehead, A.C. Capey, Wendy Maddren and Alan Wellings) reflect on this approach, stating that children may exaggerate their father’s status, or may not know. I have found that the current measure of social class in education (Free School Meal entitlement) is problematic, because it is based around family income rather than class. A family may have owned a business but lost it and be in receipt of benefits, but that does not necessarily mean that they are now working-class.

Since the mid-1990s and the New Labour government, there has been a greater interest in children’s literature in the domain of education, with children’s literature itself being seen as having the responsibility to inspire reading rather than schools, families and libraries working in partnership to teach children reading behaviour. This may be linked to both the role and importance of libraries in communities, but also the rise of neoliberal capitalism in publishing as media and tech companies become involved in publishing- buying the correct book is more important than enabling children to investigate books through school and community libraries. During lockdown, with children being unable to access books at school, parents (and particularly mothers) took to social media in greater numbers to ask for recommendations. In the science fiction and fantasy world, we often encounter self-described precocious readers who read well beyond their chronological years. I was struck by the list of quality books in Children and their Books, recommending texts and authors that many would now consider far too young for the children being recommended them, which does seem to disprove the received wisdom that everyone was reading much more challenging texts in The Olden Days.

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