Tuesday 22 March 2011

'Leading Authors' to propose list of 50 books children should read.

Having read this article in the Daily Telegraph, which reports Michael Gove as about to begin an initiative to get children reading 50 books a year, with the help of a list of suggested titles to be compiled by 'leading authors', we, the undersigned, have written to the Telegraph as follows:

Dear Sir,

Everybody must approve of children reading more, so Michael Gove’s wish to raise the number of books we expect our children to read is no bad one in principle. However, the idea of a list of 50 titles ‘that every child should read’ sounds prescriptive and inflexible - likely to concentrate on classics or high-profile books which teaching professionals will already know.

There are plenty of guides to good reading for children: for example the School Library Associations's 'Riveting Reads', or ‘The Ultimate Book Guide’, published by AC Black, which lists more than 700 titles, chosen by a broad field of over 170 children's authors, with short descriptions and links leading from one book to another on the ‘what to read next’ principle. 

But in any case there are skilled, professional people who know more about this than we do: librarians.  What is needed is a flexible approach which can offer children the books most suitable to their ability and preferences. Librarians can do this.  It’s no good suggesting to a child that she ‘should’ read ‘The Wind in the Willows’, if she doesn’t actually like it. Instead of a golden standard, the list of fifty books could become just another bugbear. 

It seems perverse to begin this initiative against a background of the proposed closure of a high percentage of English public libraries and the sacking of many school librarians. Fifty books a year would cost well over £300 per child: much better to share them!  Perhaps Mr Gove should consider protecting school library provision by law. 


Katherine Langrish
Keren David
Ellen Renner
Charles Butler
Nick Green
Jackie Morris
Marie-Louise Jensen
Tamsyn Murray
Adele Geras
Debi Gliori
Maria Nikolajeva
Susie Day
Bryony Pearce
Frances Thomas
Annie Dalton
Fiona Dunbar
Liz Kessler
Gillian Philip
Mary Hoffman
Celia Rees
John Dougherty
Michelle Lovric
Dennis Hamley
Malorie Blackman
Joanna Kenrick
Catherine Johnson
Savita Kalhan
Dee Shulman
Jo Nadin
Philippa Francis
Malcolm Rose
Julie Sykes
Elizabeth Baguley


  1. A good school library under the direction of a professional librarian is an essential educational resource. The fact that they are being closed due to funding pressures is scandalous. Also agree with your point about the proscriptive nature of a canon of 50 must read books. I would like to sign.

  2. How I hated The Wind in the Willows with its screwed social commentary and its lack of female characters when I was young! I could read a novel until I was about 11, and didn't read books like the Narnia books until I was in my twenties.
    I would say that the very best ways to encourage children to read is to know the child and to recommend books for that particular child. And the best person to do this? A school librarian.
    I would sing in praise of this rare breed of creature who knows the books and the children, can put one with the other and make the book live in a child's mind.
    Let authors write, readers read and librarians get the respect they deserve.
    It is time to put your our money where you mouth is Mr Gove and stop the vandalism that is being done to libraries both of the school and of the public variety.

  3. It's great, thank you. I know you've mentioned sacking of school librarians, maybe you could also point out that many school libraries are being closed and some new academies are being built with NO LIBRARY AT ALL. So children's access to books and professional expertise is being restricted rather than widened.

  4. Bravo. I hate the idea of 'should' read anything. Reading is a joy, or at least it is for many... it's not daily vitamins. 'Should read' lists are mostly about making a small number of people feel smug about the fact that they've read them all... like spotting all the trains on a particular line.

  5. I think it's probably long enough, Leslie - there's so much else one could say!

  6. Please add my signature to this - a love of reading is not instilled by telling children that they must enjoy the same books. The beauty of books is that their interpretation is subjective and different for everyone. You might as well say every child must like Brussel Sprouts.

  7. Tam, forgive me, but who are you? ;)) Full name?

  8. Got you - Tamsyn Murray, right?

    Please everyone leave your full name and if I don't happen to know you, and you are a writer, please tell me! Bear with me - hoping to get this off by some time this afternoon.

  9. Katherine, please add me: Maria Nikolajeva

  10. Count me in too, please (am a children's writer).

  11. I'd like to sign please - Bryony Pearce (author of Angel's Fury).

    I support the idea of the list, but, as you say, not so much the idea that leading authors should put it together. What if Martin Amis, who has nothing but contempt for children's authors, is chosen to put his picks forward, for example?
    The only thing I would say is that a list of 50 (which we call proscriptive) could also be described, for families who don't read, as a managable number.
    Those who might feel daunted helping their child choose from a list of 700 (and who may therefore not go for any books at all), may make an attempt at a proscriptive list of 50.

  12. And this from the people who tried to scrap Bookstart.
    Yes, of course children should read loads of books. But not Should Read. Kiss of death.
    Please add my name to the list

  13. Bryony, I do appreciate your point, but that's why I'm pointing out children need school librarians. (I don't imagine many children or parents read the Ultinate Book Guide.) Thanks for agreeing to sign, and you too Frances.

  14. I'm going to send the letter to the Telegraph at 1.30 pm today, btw.

  15. OH NO I missed it! If it's not too late I'd like to add my name too!

  16. OK, letter sent! If you are reading this and would like to add something, the link to the Daily Telegraph letters page is http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/

  17. Phew! It's a great letter, reasoned and persuasive but non-confrontational. I agree about prescribed books COMPLETELY.

  18. Great letter on a very important subject, Kath. I remember a similar scheme aimed towards boys who were only reading graphic novels. Some academics may hate graphic novels but if they keep boys reading for those precious years between 13 and 21 when so many simply stop, then I think they are a good thing. If the books are there, kids, with encouragement, will find the ones that appeal specifically to them. Browsing after all is one of the great joys of going to the library.

  19. Very impressed with your detective skills, Katherine! Sorry for not leaving my full name - wasn't thinking!

  20. Please can I sign your excellent letter?
    Pippa Goodhart

  21. Pippa, so sorry, the letter's gone, but you could still contact the Daily Telegraph and ask to be added to the list of signatures, perhaps - or add you own comment? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/

  22. Elizabeth Bentley22 March 2011 at 09:50

    Great to see this initiative to respond to Gove. Just one niggle, do you mean proscriptive or prescriptive?

  23. Ah - the latter. Thanks. Oh well, done now, never mind...

  24. Will purrowl on over and have a look at the article right now!

  25. Quite right, Katharine, and I speak as a children's author who hated both Wind in the Willows and Peter Rabbit. But my local librarian was a gem and found many, many wonderful books for me over the years. Librarians (especially school librarians) are under threat in Australia as well, and it is incredibly annoying to hear politicians talk about 'commitment to literacy' when they are cutting the librarians into pieces. In NSW we have the 'Premier's Reading Challenge' which encourages kids to read a wide variety of books in order to get a certificate - but there are hundreds of books on the list, which is compiled by a committee of educators, librarians, authors and parents, so there are suitable books for every child.

  26. Sounds a much better idea, Pamela!

  27. I agree with you entirely, Katherine. Perhaps Michael Gove should be sent a copy of Daniel Pennac's The Rights of the Reader.

  28. Well, entering this conversation too late means I don't have to spend too much time wondering whether I'm eligible to sign! Tremendous initiative, Katherine. Thanks for doing this.

  29. An update: the Telegraph got in touch. they were going to print the letter in tomorrow's paper, but then decided to go with a letter from a librarian instead, which apparently makes much the same points. As most of the point of the letter I wrote was exactly ABOUT letting librarians make the decisions, I am perfectly happy with that. But thankyou all again for your comments and support!

  30. It is always a delight for librarians to see authors objecting to a tyranny of reading. The very joy of discovering reading is in choice. Thank you (and the other authors above) for taking the time to express this to the Telegraph. It all counts!

  31. Thanks for your comment yalibraryuk - we are all in this together!