On Relevance

Miss Ellem stopped midway through her explanation of chromatography to glare at me. “What is that you are looking at Heather?” she asked. Everyone in the GCSE chemistry class turned their attention in my direction and I, with a slightly shaking hand, held up the offending volume that I’d been secretly reading under the lab bench.

You might wonder what book a fifteen year old girl had found so engaging that she had risked trouble to continue with it during double chemistry. I gather from some discussion on twitter today that young people are engaged by books that are relevant to them, depending on their class, gender and race. Young people want to read ‘voices near their own experience’.

So what book would suit my profile? I was a fifteen year old white girl, born in a council house whose parents had separated after my birth. Mother, lower middle class and with severe mental health issues, had died the year previously. Father, very working class, already elderly and suffering from dementia. My first memories were of life in a children’s home and since I was 13 I had been, not entirely happily, resident with working class foster parents who read the Daily Express, attended an American faith church and drove a minibus with bible texts printed all over it.

Such a girl needs ‘voices near her own experience’. There must be a book match out there somewhere!

Of course, as anyone with half a brain would know, such a girl was not looking for a book that would remind her of her own rather miserable life.

On that day I was reading Trollope. Anthony Trollope.

This dead white Victorian male chronicler of upper class life introduced me to a seductively orderly world of polite society, full of rich characters and written in a style that intrigued and whetted my appetite for nineteenth century prose. I do know lots of people that prefer literature that has more focus on the ‘gritty reality’ of life but that can often be because they haven’t experienced that particular reality for themselves. Often it is because such books are not the reality the reader is familiar with, that they are so intriguing. Curiosity is a basic instinct and descriptions of worlds very different from our own have always entertained. Conversely we also know that great authors say something general about the human condition. This is why their writing endures and why they are loved by readers of all social backgrounds.

It is odd that educationalists and teachers who are so keen to point out that they view children as individuals can so wilfully lump them into groups based on gender, class or race and bizarrely claim that literary tastes will depend on these factors. It is true that children need to read books to which they have access, that they can, on at least some level, comprehend. It is not because James Joyce is an Irish male, born in the 19thC that I would hesitate to recommend Finnegans Wake to a multi-ethnic A level class. The Dubliners might go down quite well. I’d suggest class and race are quite poor predictors of students’ interests and gender though better is still not at all reliable. Of course, someone’s politics are a slightly more reliable predictor of the books they may reject but we wouldn’t reject some books for our schools because of our political leanings, would we?

There should always be debate about what constitutes great literature but this identity based categorisation of our children, dictating what will engage them and what they will identify with, is patronising and stifling.

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13 thoughts on “On Relevance

  1. Couldn’t agree more. Many kids labour under enough limits, internal and external, without us adding more. I do wonder whether people need to be able to discover some authors and books for themselves – so that these become their own book, their author? Perhaps reading Trollope can be an act of rebellion? My daughters often reject books I recommend. I’m forced to leave Douglas Adams or E Nesbit lying around the house so that they pick them up.

    1. I wasn’t a rebellious young person, there wasn’t much point, so in this particular case it wasn’t that. However, I do know exactly what you mean from my own children. They will deliberately avoid books I suggest. Heart breaking!

  2. Wonderful post! My all time favourite book is Mayor of Casterbridge. I hsve forgotten how many times I’ve read it. The first time I had read it was when I was at school. I was an upper middle class, Pakistani girl in Sri Lanka.Though England was my birthplace my parents had left UK when I was two. So, this book and the people and culture depicted were totally alien to me. And I loved it! This reminds me I need to go and buy it. My book was borrowed by someone and never returned. Writing about it today has made me want to read it again.

  3. Couldn’t agree more

    I have long noticed that nearly all the best children’s books start with a plot device to remove the children from parental control, and often from their home as well. Many of them also take children into fantasy worlds. This strongly suggests that ‘relevance’ to children’s own lives is not a high priority for them.

    My technique with my own children (who were fast readers) was to have a rule that they had to read the first 50 pages of any book I recommended to them – if it hadn’t gripped them by then they could leave it. But 19 times out of 20 they were hooked and finished the book.

    1. That sounds like a great idea. I have nearly given up on my eldest ever loving ‘classics’ like I did. If that is just because she has different taste then it is sad for me but not a problem. I do wonder though if it is partly the difficult language. There are so many books that are really engaging that don’t require that extra effort. I shall try your tactic and see what happens!

  4. Point well made. We should have laid the relevance myth to rest a long time ago. This is why I rail against any idea that education is ‘for’ anything. It’s for lots of things, but I’m not going to limit it by declaring what they are.

  5. I cheated. In the first instance, my son was raised without television or video games (he had to buy his own mobile phone, too). Secondly, his infant school was feeding him contemporary fiction about modern kids in dysfunctional families, so I homeschooled him from the age of 8. Lastly, I went to boot sales every Sunday to get enough decent books for him to read. He started off with Churchill’s “My Early Life” and–save for Just William–never read a single children’s book after this. Not unless you count Tin Tin, which I still read every ten years or so. He’s now much better read than most of his contemporaries who went to school and even on to university.

  6. I’m aware of the idea that relevance should be considered in book recommendations to students in respect mainly to those who are struggling or reluctant to read. My own kids’ reading choices don’t reflect their experience or identity particularly, but I have seen enough instances, or references to them, of struggling readers liking a book because the protagonist or situation was familiar, that I think there is something to it. Making diverse books available for a diverse audience is not condescending, but crudely linking a reader to a character or situation by race, economic situation, etc., is.

  7. In 1976 a friend took me to a children’s project in London where the organisers suggested to the children (all primary age; ethnically mixed) that they might want to put on a play. At first they were really excited. When they were asked what they wanted to do, it was all fantasy and fairy tales. This wasn’t what the organisers had in mind–they thought they should do something more ‘relevant’–like protesting a proposed bypass in their neighbourhood. I was deeply gratified to see how quickly the kids lost interest and started messing around..

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