Introducing modern classics to young readers

The Wind in the Willows, Treasure Island and Alice in Wonderland may be the titles that come to mind when 'children's classics' are being discussed - but there are more modern texts that can provide an easier gateway into 'the classics'.

The recent government emphasis on making classic stories available to children in schools has certainly attracted more debate about them and publishers have been busy developing their own classics lists for schools.

We asked teacher Sue Wilsher and school librarian Jodie Brooks to consider the Collins Modern Classics list which has recently re-published titles including The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks and A Stitch in Time by Penelope Lively, and whether books like these will have more appeal to today's young readers.

LRC manager Jodie Brooks is keen that children "open their eyes and hearts to books that are not written by the latest Vlogger or comedian who fancies trying their hand at writing". However, mention the word 'classic' and, she says, "The majority of my students begin to panic that they won't be able to understand or enjoy it and therefore will not even give it a fair crack."

"My school, although seemingly in an affluent city (Oxford), acclaimed for academia, sits in a pocket of severe deprivation and as a result a significant number of our students experience literacy problems that stop them accessing texts for their own age," she explains. "Their past experiences of being forced to reading or looking at classics at primary school, is sometimes enough for them to run a mile from any book, least of all a classic."

Teacher Sue Wilsher agrees that the 'classics' often remain on the shelf in school libraries. "I sometimes feel this is due to the fact that schools buy cheap packs of fairly unattractive copies due to finances." However, the language they will encounter in classic texts can also be off-putting - "too wordy and unfamiliar", says Wilsher. "That is a problem - particularly in schools like mine where vocabulary is an issue. Many of our parents would not be able to support a child reading classic texts."

Collins Modern Classics is hoping to address this reticence towards classics by choosing titles that were written closer to this millennium and where language and vocabulary are, therefore, often less problematic. Among the more recent titles within the Collins Modern Classics list are: The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, first published in 1980; Journey to Jo'burg by Beverley Naidoo, published in 1985; Robert Westall's Kingdom by the Sea, published in 1990; and Berlie Doherty's Street Child, originally published in 1993.

There are also older titles on the list including:

- Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh (1964)
- The Tree that Sat Down by Beverley Nichols (1945)
- Mary Poppins by PL Travers (series began in 1934)
- A Stitch In Time by Penelope Lively (1976)
- The Rescuers Margery Sharp, Garth Williams illus (1959)
- Jennie by Paul Gallico (1950)
- The Sword in the Stone by TH White (1938)
- The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster, Jules Feiffer illus (1961)

The publisher is also developing schools' resources to support schools in introducing its modern classics and so far there are resources for titles including Mary Poppins, Street Child and The Indian in the Cupboard. The suggested activities in these resources encourage careful readings of the text and provide a creative bridge to them, including exercises for letter-writing, diary entries and creative writing (see link, below).

Collins Modern Classics offers a varied selection of titles and, while short, Brooks feels it is "diverse and interesting". "As someone who manages the library and teaches KS3 lessons, I find it hard to engage children in some classics," she says. "However, these are interesting choices that most (unfortunately) will have not yet encountered other than in film form." Sue Wilsher is glad to see Journey to Jo'burg on the list and says that many of the others "are books that I loved and enjoyed as a child".

All by notable writers, these stories can still speak to modern readers; quests are undertaken, adventures had and self discoveries are made. Journey to Jo'burg, for example, which was banned in South Africa until 1991, will open children's eyes to the world of Apartheid; Street Child, which takes us to the Victorian slums and the beginnings of the Barnardo's charity, teaches resilience and hope; The Sword in the Stone (which comes with a special 'Why You'll Love This Book' introduction by bestselling-author, Garth Nix) introduces children to the myths of Merlin and the Knights of the Round Table.

But while introducing children to classics is important, Wilsher warns that even the modern classics "need to be handled carefully as it is a shame to put children off some of these excellent stories". This might include sharing some of the texts in class or through other media such as film, as the unfamiliar language or context of the stories can make them harder to access. "Mary Poppins, for example, is wordy and quite long winded which often means children lose the thread of what they are reading," Wilsher explains. "Carefully illustrated versions seem to help as children can gain clues about context and vocabulary from the pictures."

Wilsher adds, "I think there are classic stories (those that have stood the test of time) that are great for children to read. Well written myths and legends are also a way of introducing children to the idea of classics! I'm not a fan of abridged versions of classics personally, but for many children this is the only way they become accessible." Other formats such as graphic novels can also provide a way in.

For readers looking to touch on our wonderful heritage of children's books, the Collins Modern Classics and the classroom resources that accompany some of them are a good place to start with powerful storytelling that has certainly stood the test of time and eye-catching covers that will have a lot of appeal for today's readers.

Introducing modern classics to young readers
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