What I look for in children’s literature

Yeah, yeah… I’ve written a book. It’s still available to buy on Kindle – please feel free to indulge. And then maybe review. I wanted to talk about something different today though; children’s literature.

It’s the time of year again when I shadow the Carnegie Award at school – me and twenty excited Year 7s who love reading almost as much as I do. I’ve been getting increasingly frustrated in recent years about a couple of things:
1. The same authors getting on ALL the time – are there really only a handful of authors who write decent children’s literature?
2. Incredibly loose definitions of what children’s literature is – Ruta Sepetys is on this year with her Fountains on Silence – why on earth is that considered children’s literature? Just because at one point in the story the characters are young themselves? That’s not enough – there has to be more to it than that!

Creating schemes of work for new literature is one of my absolute favourite things to do at school – I love the feeling of finding a book that I know the students will love, and that will extend their narrow little boundaries even just a tiny bit. So here’s my five things I look for in children’s literature when I’m deciding what I want to teach next.

1. Entertaining

Surely that’s not rocket science? If we’re reading something in class, it has to be entertaining. Whatever the genre or the theme, it’s got to be something that I and the students are going to find engaging for the next seven weeks. That’s eighteen hours of learning at my school – a book has to be appealing enough to work for that long.

2. Thematically relevant

A book has to have something that it’s teaching me and the students. Whether that’s about people, or history, or life, or whatever, it has to have something to it beyond just a good story. That doesn’t mean that themes are more important than a good story – see point one. I want a combination of the two – so students can learn without ever realising they’re doing it. But it also has to speak to the here and now. The issues that our children are facing right now. That’s not to say that there isn’t a place for classic literature – much of that can have relevant messages for us – but there’s so much more that our children face today than can be explored through Dickens and Shakespeare.

3. Beautiful use of language

Some of the recent popular picks have been written using the poetic form – sometimes highly successfully, sometimes not so much – and they can really show off the amazing-ness of the English Language (unlike my use of the same here!) If I’m going to share a novel with my students, I need to know that it’s well written. That the language has been crafted. That the work has been carefully put together to communicate so much more than on first glance. There has to be something there to explore and to pick over, to find the buried treasure of meaning that a top author has left there for us to find.

4. Links beyond English

One of the things I absolutely love about my subject is that it can draw in all kinds of other things as well. Reading Noughts and Crosses and I can look at some info about Stockholm Syndrome. Reading Around the World in Eighty Days and there’s an opportunity to work out if Fogg’s train really could have jumped the gap in the track. I love that kind of thing. Learning is about connections. Passion is about connections. And studying a good book will lead you down paths you never knew existed before.

5. Accessible

This is perhaps the most important thing – a good children’s novel has to be inclusive. A good book will have something for everyone, whatever their levels of learning or interest. A really chunky novel might be great for the really keen readers, but I won’t be able to get through it in the classroom, which means skimping on the experience. A really entry-level novel won’t challenge the more able successfully. A top children’s novel is like Alton Towers – whether you’re a thrill seeker or a garden-meanderer, there’s something for everyone.

Tomorrow, I’ll be posting my top five children’s books I can’t wait to teach when we’re back in the classroom properly.

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