Why nostalgia for classic children’s books is a problem

Last updated: 12-08-2020

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Why nostalgia for classic children’s books is a problem

Now and again my social media timeline throws up a heated exchange regarding books chosen by teachers at primary level. And I find that a teacher’s nostalgia for classic childhood books does not serve the children of today well.

The sentimental longing for a period in the past often blinds people to what such nostalgia means in terms of race and diversity. When challenged on their choices on this basis, particularly when challenged regarding racist representations, the teachers concerned often feel personally criticised and become defensive about their choices. As a result, the online exchange may limit rather than extend the opportunity for productive learning.

In one sense, it might seem positive that teachers want to share their enthusiasm for a story that sparked their interest at a young age. 

However, let’s considerThe Indian in the Cupboard: it’s a "classic", remaining both popular and in use in the classroom, but it carries deeply questionable representations around native American people. 

I have seen it argued that teachers can address misrepresentations in the text in classroom discussions, but this analytical approach is better suited to secondary level English. At primary level, nurturing every child in the classroom is our priority and the risk of psychological harm through exposure to legacy racist tropes is high.

Over the past three years, theReflecting Realitiesreports produced by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE) have researched and made explicit the need for today’s children in the UK to see themselves represented in books. I invite all teachers to stop and reflect on the following from our former children’s laureate, Malorie Blackman, quoted in a piece for Sky News:

“You want to escape into fiction as well and read about other people, other cultures, other lives, other planets and so on. But I think there is a very significant message that goes out when you cannot see yourself at all in the books you are reading. I think it is saying, 'Well you may be here, but do you really belong?”’ 

The reality is that not only are black, Asian and minority ethnic (to use the government’s preferred term) children decentred most of the time in the school curriculum, but worse still they may be exposed to the risk of erasure and misrepresentation. 

More than anything, it is the argument around misrepresentation that often strikes a nerve in those social media exchanges, such as one recently regarding the Lynne Reid Banks’ story mentioned above or older debates concerning certain Roald Dahl characters. 

For many teachers, their reading memories are a source of security and comfort – it may be uncomfortable for them to disrupt those unexamined certainties.

In his contribution to the anthologyThe Good Immigrant, Darren Chetty states:

“We learn so many things from reading stories, including the conventions of stories such as good versus evil, confronting our fears and that danger often lurks in the woods. The problem is that, when one of these conventions is that children in stories are white, English and middle-class, then you may come to learn that your own life doesn’t qualify as subject material.”  

If you are thinking "But our catchment doesn’t have many children from BAME backgrounds, so how does this affect me and my school?" then I invite you to rethink. 

All children are equally at risk from the erasures and misrepresentations of others whether they are physically present in the school setting or not.Allchildren in the UK need to seeallsections of society represented in the literature they read or "gain an exaggerated sense of their own self-worth" (Bishop 1990). 

Widening their experience of society through the books they read with us deepens their knowledge and prepares them for life in contemporary Britain and, potentially, a more accurate window into the world at large.

Over the years I have taught in many schools with very different demographics. During poetry assemblies, I have shown clips of poets such as Valerie Bloom, John Agard and Karl Nova and witnessed the positive reactions of children who were clearly not used to seeing black poets performing. 

I am also very particular about the texts I read aloud in my classes and often try to redress the balance. Classes have enjoyedPlanet Omarby Zanib Mian,Ghost by Jason Reynolds and Bali Rai’sNow or Neveras I choose to share texts with BAME protagonists or authors. 

Here again, the surprise and renewed interest from the children is palpable.

As the threeReflecting Realitiesreports have shown, the percentage of new children’s books with black, Asian and minority ethnic protagonists is slowly increasing, but the next big question is whether the majority of teachers are aware of these and are they putting these books into the hands of their young readers?

As educators, we have a responsibility to widen our knowledge of contemporary children’s literature rather than just promoting the "classics" and our positive personal memories.

Please consider readingReflecting Realities, use the CLPE website to widen your knowledge of carefully curated quality texts with diverse protagonists, consult with booksellers like Letterbox Library who locate books featuring people from traditionally under-represented groups and, above all, read the series of articles by Darren Chetty and Karen Sands-O’Connor,Beyond The Secret Garden, available for free in the online periodicalBooksforKeeps. 

We have a responsibility to build and broaden our own knowledge so we can help children to do the same and to share the best of the wide range of own voices books that are now available to primary aged children and if you do not place them in their hands, who will?

Laura Ovenden is an English Lead who teaches in two West Yorkshire primary schools. She is also an Evidence Lead in Education for Aspirer Research School


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