What Should Kids Read?

Parents want their kids to read: But does it matter what they read?

The principal reason my parents encouraged us to read was that it was quiet, and provided them with respite from making jam sandwiches and intervening in bare-knuckle boxing matches. With four kids, they (understandably) lacked the energy to police exactly what we read. “Go to your room and read!” indicated that the ice was extremely thin. We gave in instantly. Footsteps padded up the carpet-covered stairs. Silence.

Gathering information from text is a calming and meditative act: The injustices, vendettas and bloodlust subsided quickly, as we each withdrew into imagined worlds. My older brother would disappear to Middle Earth. My older sister joined the Famous Five. My younger brother would eavesdrop on conversations between exotic animal species. I went to Griffin and Edgeley Park, London and Brisbane Road. Wembley.

Between the ages of seven and about 12, I barely read a single word that was not printed in the match day programme from a game involving Stockport County FC. I would memorise the entire contents from cover to cover – including the adverts. I knew the height, age and previous club of every player from each team. I knew the kit manufacturer, the name of the cash-and-carry that sponsored the match ball, the physio’s name, the manager’s thoughts on promotion chances, the captain’s thoughts on the Christmas party venue. The programmes would crease and wrinkle, and fall apart. I would mourn them bitterly.

Kevin Francis: Icon of children’s literature — and better at holding the ball up than any of the Famous Five.

The tribal mind-set of supporting a football club began to melt away. The Brentford FC goalkeeper was overweight – Stockport’s was much shorter than most others in the division. The Leyton Orient ball boys were the same age as I was. The Peterborough United kit man seemed likeable: He wrote an amusing column about the best practical jokes from the training ground that week. I began to place my own ideas and beliefs into a broader context. Different people felt differently about different things – with the same passion and conviction.

I know my teachers were critical of this during several parents’ evening conversations. My mum and dad would return home and encourage me to explore proper literature, engage with proper narratives and hold a proper book in my hands. However, they also recognised that studying double-glazing adverts from different parts of the country and reading what Mr Posh the Peterborough United mascot had to say about the club’s new scoreboard was giving me skills – unlikely as that seems, even to me as I proof-read this piece of writing. Reading fuelled my intellectual curiosity and developed my understanding of other people’s thoughts and feelings.

My own experience has convinced me that one of the central benefits of reading – besides the fact that it is quiet and predominantly non-violent – is that it familiarises kids with the process of hunting for the next piece of information, and the next and the next. Alongside this, it teaches them to empathise by allowing them to view the world through the eyes, ears and mind of other people. These skills set kids who read apart from kids who don’t – and they can be learned from War and Peace and the Non-League Football Paper equally.

I went on to study literature and to write creatively (see the rest of my site!). For me, reading those programmes was a voyage into new worlds and perspectives – to the exact same extent as proper children’s literature was for my siblings. I hope it also gave my parents a brief window of peace and relaxation. Perhaps they even found time to read something…

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