Classic Literature for Children – A Divisive Issue

This morning I embarked on one of my favourite termly tasks: choosing the books for next term’s book groups.  I have been facilitating book groups for eleven years for children ages 8-16, and my lists lean almost exclusively to classic texts.  As well as praise from parents on the books I include, I regularly get questioned on my choice to eschew the plethora of modern texts available.  Why do classics get such bad press? 

Among the objections I have heard, my three favourite are:

  • Classics are so sexist, racist, classist (insert your -ist here). Yes, they often are when viewed with our modern eyes.  However, they are also true to the time period in which they were written.  A wonderful fact that opens such rich discussion in my groups.  By placing the texts in context, we can help children understand how attitudes have changed over time.
  • They have such old fashioned and difficult language.  I will have to get back up onto my well-worn soap box for this one. Vocabulary is the cornerstone to so much of educational development.  Classic texts help to not only expand a child’s vocabulary of known words, but also their ability to understand unknown words in context.  Classic literature contains more of the “Oxford 3000” (Oxford University’s list of the 3000 most important words to learn in English) than modern texts. Classic children’s literature provides our students with one of the strongest foundations available to learn vocabulary.
  • The subject matter is so irrelevant to modern children. Is it really?  During my book groups, students are encouraged to discuss the wider themes that each book explores.  The themes they identify are the same fundamental human desires and conflicts that students face today.  There is comfort in knowing that people through the ages have experienced the same dilemmas, the same emotions and the same struggles.  

Am I suggesting children are fed a diet of only classic literature?  Of course not!  Reading widely through multiple genres should always be the aim for our students.  However, students will pick up modern texts to read themselves and are unlikely to need much encouragement to do so.  To ensure they also explore classic literature, parents and educators will need to play a part.  To do so, it might first be necessary to challenge your own views of classic literature.  

If, on reading this, you want to challenge your views, you might be wondering where to start.  Here are my top picks for classic literature, as well as some lesser known texts you might not have thought about.  

For young children: The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)
For pre-teens: Little Women by  Louisa May Alcott (1868)
For older teens: Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier (1938)

Top pick for:
Romance: Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (1847)
Science Fiction: The Machine Stops by E.M. Forster (1928)
Mystery: The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868)
Gothic: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (1818)

Lesser known classics (in order of publishing date):
Evalina by Frances Burney (1778) 
The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Orczy (1905) 
Arsène Lupin: Gentleman Burglar by Maurice LeBlanc (Originally published in French 1907)
The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells (1897)
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1912)
The Maltese Falcon by Dashiell Hammett (1929)
The Chrysalids by John Wyndham (1955)
We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson (1962)

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