Britain’s television and wireless listings magazine, Radio Times, often has nuggets of surprising information.

In the 11-17 2015 issue (p. 160), a viewer wrote in to discuss a contestant’s answer about children’s classics on the quiz show Pointless. From his letter I discovered that the following are no longer on the UK’s Book Trust list: Alice in Wonderland, The Wind and the Willows and Treasure Island, to name but a few. Book Trust considers only the past 100 years of children’s books. That means that the century will be shifting every year, depriving many youngsters of real literary classics.

To many of us, the word ‘classic’ implies a work has withstood the test of time. Furthermore, unless it is exceptionally good, it is probably an old story.

This is the list that Book Trust recommends for young people between the ages of 12 and 14. There is a lot in the fantasy genre. I haven’t heard of most of the titles, not surprisingly. And there are a few that jumped out at me for being quite possibly inappropriate. One is Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging [‘kissing’] by Louise Rennison, which Book Trust describes as:

Welcome to the world of Georgia Nicolson – an angst-ridden teenage girl who keeps a diary to record the rollercoaster of emotions and experiences she faces every day.

Really? When I was that age, nationally recommended book lists included works by Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Sir Walter Scott.

I started feeling old until I saw a thread on Mumsnet about children’s reading material. Mumsnet member Theas18 wrote (punctuation edited, emphases mine below):

Fence sitting here.

Me and mine certainly had read the classics at primaryAnne of Green Gables, The Secret Garden, Little House on the Prairie, etc. Not to mention all the Narnia books. They give you so much in terms of vocabulary and language use that modern classics like Harry Potter and Hunger Games don’t do. We also had many on audiobook for the car- including Frankenstein ! … Gave DD2 a real head start at secondary.

Certainly I’d rather these (yes, even Frankenstein, at 11 she realised it wasn’t a horror story really) than the seriously scary (to me) Jaqueline Wilson dealing with broken families, abuse and real heartbreak happening to kids like them… but maybe that[‘s] my form of cotton wool?

I fully agree.

A true children’s classic will teach a child or adolescent moral lessons about good and evil. The subject matter or genre might be adventure (Treasure Island), suspense (Saki’s short stories), courtship (Pride and Prejudice) or family relationships (Little Women). It’s also fascinating to enter another century and discover how people lived then and what conflicts they resolved.

Fortunately, some young British readers are turning towards true classics. A young person writing for the Guardian under the pseud of TheFanaticalReader recently wrote:

When many people think of classics, they think of leather-bound books the size of bricks covered in a thick layer of dust from the attic where your great-great grandma’s book collection is stored. This is not true. Now, it may be a clichéd subject, but when I told a few people in my class that I’m reading Mansfield Park they gawped at me like I was a rare and exotic fish from the deepest depths of the South American jungle rivers (when in fact it was they who looked like fish – gawping is not a good look!). I feel, therefore, that we need to revisit the fact that not enough teens/tweens are reading classics – may I be so bold to suggest that this applies to boys even more so?

TheFanaticalReader includes advice for boys who, not surprisingly, shy away from the Victorian novel. His article is well written and amusing. Here’s a taster (emphasis in the original):

3. “But it’s just a load of soppy romance!”

Have you heard of Louise Rennison anybody? Maybe, I don’t know, John Green? Or The Hunger Games? Twilight? Even Harry Potter? Divergent? Most, if not all, YA fiction includes romance, so a bit of Jane Austen classic romance shouldn’t hurt, should it?

Mansfield Park is too old to appear on the Book Trust list. And, every year, that list will include more and more modern novels which might not be that good or suitable for ‘recommended reading’.

Who are Book Trust to say, anyway? In 2012, Stephen Pollard, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, wrote a scathing article for the Daily Mail about the organisation which bills itself as a charity yet receives £6 million from the government — taxpayers’ money!

Book Trust relies mainly on government funding — and less on public donations.

Stephen Pollard’s article for the Mail explains how this developed (emphases mine):

Formed as a charity in 1992 with the laudable aim of encouraging children to read, Booktrust’s funding was taken over by the Department for Education in 2004 and it effectively became a subsidiary of Whitehall.

It was first embroiled in a funding spat two years ago, when the Department for Education wrote to the charity to inform it that it was to lose its grant for England.

The reaction to the announcement typified the hyperbole that is now par for the course when a public spending cut is announced. You would have thought that the Government had said it was banning children from reading, rather than simply stopping a contribution to a charity.

Newspaper columns denounced the decision as a philistine outrage. Authors – whose interest in Booktrust’s continued tax funding is about as vested as it is possible to be – invented new heights of exaggeration. Philip Pullman, for instance, described the cut as ‘sheer stupid vandalism’. Sir Andrew Motion, the former Poet Laureate, also joined the fight.

Booktrust is a typical chattering class charity …

Booktrust has ended up subsidising those very people who ought to be, instead, its main donors. My daughter was very grateful for her copy of Happy Dog Sad Dog. But what possible justification could there be for the rest of you to spend £3.99 buying it for her – or, rather, for me.

Charities aside, the vandalism of children’s and adolescents’ book lists is going on in the United States, too.

The New York Public Library’s 2014 Summer Reading Challenge included one of my favourites, Aesop’s Fables, but little else of import. Missing were Peter Pan, Charlotte’s Web and Treasure Island, among others.

Naomi Schaeffer Riley took the library to task in the New York Post:

did we need the NYPL to recommend “Nerd Girls: The Rise of Dorkasaurus,” whose description reads “Down with middle-school mean girls!”? Or “Perfect Chemistry,” a story of how “sparks fly when a cheerleading It girl is paired with a gangbanger bad boy in a chemistry lab”?

Not much of what L.M. Montgomery, author of “Anne of Green Gables,” calls “scope for the imagination” here.

I spent some time trying to find true classic reading lists. The following were the best I could find in the hour spent. Not all of these are what I would define as classics and not all are suitable for every age group, but parents will find some timeless gems:

‘The Best Books Of The 21st Century?’ includes Watership Down and The Jungle Book;

‘Classic Books for Kids’ recommends Black Beauty, Anne of Green Gables, Little Women, Pollyanna, Mary Poppins and more;

Goodreads has an excellent list for secondary school students which includes Pride and Prejudice, Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, The Picture of Dorian Gray, A Tale of Two Cities and many more;

Don’stuff has a page of recommended classics, among them The Call of the Wild, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Diary of a Young Girl and Frankenstein;

Wikipedia has a good list of children’s classics for various age groups, including Tales of Mother Goose, Arabian Nights, The Swiss Family Robinson, Ivanhoe, Oliver Twist, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Three Musketeers and dozens of others.

Some parents have found that mixing genres from book to book helps to maintain a child’s interest. Boys will be more interested in adventures or suspense than romance. Whilst that’s pointing out the obvious, some mothers are puzzled as to why their sons do not respond well to certain recommendations.

Where reading is an issue because of learning problems, parents say that audiobooks often do the trick in imparting a classic to a child.

It is amazing that the UK has a charity receiving millions of pounds to draw up booklists for children. It is also sad that the New York Public Library shies away from tried and true classics.

It’s fine for children to read recent novels, generally speaking, but adults would be remiss if they did not recommend older books that have been famous the world over for centuries.

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