Robert McCrum examines what makes a book a classic for kids and asks when’s the best time for the literary set to indoctrinate them.
Around our neighbourhood at the moment there are a lot of kids sitting exams. Inevitably, the conversation at the kitchen table has been turning to what they’re reading. The recent award of the Newbery medal (a major prize) to Neil Gaiman for his children’s page-turner The Graveyard Book makes this subject extra topical.
A straw poll of two 11-year-olds throws up these names: Jacqueline Wilson, Louis Sachar, Judy Blume, Melvin Burgess, Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman, Anthony Horowitz, Stephanie Meyer – and a hot debate about JK Rowling. Then someone mentions Anne Frank (see the excellent recent BBC TV adaptation) and all at once we’re spinning off into a discussion of classics for kids.
In this arena, several urgent questions crop up. Firstly, how soon should children be introduced to Austen, and Dickens? Secondly, and related to that, when the moment comes to launch into a classic from the English literary tradition, where should they start?