Tuesday, 5 April 2016

What do children want to read?

Children and stories and reading go together. I like seeing a pile of books next to the kid's bed, or finding her asleep, her hand still resting on a current favourite, or tripping over them on the carpet, or seeing them piled on the coffee table.

But sadly this seems to be the exception. Children don't read anymore or, at best, don't read enough. We hear this repeated throughout the various loops of educational circles. The remedy it seems, is more regimented reading programmes and carefully manufactured books. However, Jack Zipes, expert on the fairy tale and critic of Disney, argues that our response to this decline in reading among children and young people is based on "misreading" the situation. This misreading has resulted in the state, its education departments and the publishing industry ushering in an array of reading programmes and an unhealthy quantity of books without substance.

His is an interesting argument that challenges the response to the reading crisis and one that cautions us about the direction these interventions have taken. In particular he takes to task national reading surveys (for example the National Endowment for the Arts in the USA which looks at the decline in reading for pleasure) for not discussing the quality of books that are being manufactured for young people. He points out that we are simply looking at a skeleton of numbers.

I'm particularly interested in the questions Zipes asks, those questions that the skeleton remains mute on: "What is a book for children? How are children exposed to reading materials and taught to use them? What are the diverse socio-cultural contexts in which children read? Do other media complement the reading of books? Hasn't the screen replaced the book to produce multimodal reading? Why read what we read, and do we have a choice? What role does social class, race, and gender play in learning how to read?" (2009:31).

So what should children be reading? I've written about my disappointment with what is on offer in most toy stores in South Africa before, with the narrowing of literature to easy-to-sell products. When it comes to access to books the range is incredibly limited, which doesn't do much for answering the question of what children should be reading.

Zipes takes Disney to task for making the book a product that is pushed onto children. The Disney approach moves seamlessly from movie to book to toy to CD. Disney artifacts are everywhere and the stories are lost somewhere among them. Tinkerbell is appropriated and repackaged and lost to J.M. Barrie. Cinderella and Belle and Snow White are transformed into two dimensional shadows of their former selves and children loose touch with the roots of those old stories.

Zipes states, "One might argue that the example of Disney is not typical of the book publishing industry for children. But that is not true. The impetus to produce books that will replicate themselves, books to produce films that replicate the books, films to produce books to replicate the films, books that will sell books of the same category - this impetus can be found throughout the industry. As far as the publishers are concerned, books are to be manufactured to sell other books, and in the process, the tastes and values of children are to be molded to suit the tastes and values of the culture industry en large, for a book is no longer a single commodity but closely connected if not intertwined with other similar products. If children are to read, they are basically encouraged to consume more and more of the same."

I'm a bit torn on this one. Part of me says read... just read... anything that takes your fancy... it's okay to just wander. Another part wants to direct, to map, to plan out the journey of the reader. More of the same might be comfortingly familiar, particularly to the developing reader, but in order to grow we have to try new things... pick up that unfamiliar story not associated to a familiar TV character or the well-worn spin-off from a movie.

That is where the problem lies and Zipes' argument is that the book as commodity can't solve our reading crisis, that in fact, if anything, it deepens it. 

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