Sunday 12 April 2015

Victorian Literature for Kids

Have you always loved nineteenth-century novels and want the same for your children? Or did you learn to like literature later in life and want your kids to embrace classic literature earlier? In this post I’ll be giving you my top tips for getting children interested in Victorian writing and also suggesting a few things to avoid.

'A Life Well Spent', Charles West Cope (1862)

Foster a love of reading generally:
Presenting a seven year old, who isn’t in the habit of reading regularly, with a copy of Bleak House, is a bit like giving a six month old a steak. It’s not going to end well, however bright they are. So incorporate reading into children’s lives from early on. Make bedtime stories part of your night-time routine, give your kids books as gifts, and encourage them to read for fun and tell you what they enjoy about what they’re reading. At this stage, the amount kids read and how much they enjoy it is so much more important than being prescriptive about what they read.

Give them modern books which deal with Victorianism:
Nineteenth-century novels can be challenging because of the style in which they are written, more so than their content. Starting with contemporary novels and history books can introduce kids to some of the themes of Victorian writing and help them build up knowledge about the period, without dealing with difficult prose.

There are historical novels specifically written for children, like Jacqueline Wilson’s The Lottie Project (1997) and Hetty Feather (2010) and Philip Pullman’s The Ruby in the Smoke (1985), and kids’ history books like Terry Deary’s Vile Victorians (1994) in the Horrible Histories series. Chat with them about differences they might have noticed between then and now. How was life different for boys and girls? What would life as a servant have been like? How did people travel and communicate with each other before cars and telephones? Appreciating lives very different from your own is a key reading skill and you’ll be encouraging critical engagement with texts as your children grow into more sophisticated readers.

'Teasing the Cat', William Henry Gore (c. 1900)
Read Victorian children’s literature:
Rather than diving straight in with Jane Eyre, when the time comes when you think your kids are ready to read nineteenth-century texts (or to have you read to them), turn to children’s literature. Books like Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), Hans Christian Anderson’s Fairy Tales (1835-1872), E. Nesbit’s The Treasure-Seekers (1899) and Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess (1905) have an enduring appeal for kids and, unlike many nineteenth-century texts, do not deal with themes (e.g. illegitimacy, murder, inheritance) which may be too adult for your children at this stage.

Nineteenth-century poetry written for kids, like Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885), can also be a low commitment way to get your kids reading some older writing and increasing their familiarity with poetry.

Watch TV and film adaptations of famous novels:
There’s absolutely no rule that people should read famous texts before watching adaptations of them and, for kids, already having familiarity with a story can be invaluable when it comes to tackling harder texts. Watching together also gives you the opportunity to talk about what’s going on and pause whenever something isn’t clear. I recommend BBC mini-series, like North and South (2004), Pride and Prejudice (1994) and Bleak House (2005), for quality and digestibility.

'Storytime', Charles Haigh-Wood (1893)

And what not to do:
Don’t tell your kids there are books they ‘should’ read. Similarly, I’d avoid the term ‘classics’. Reading should be fun – not a chore – and pushing too hard can have the opposite effect. It’s already sadly very likely that kids will come to dislike set texts they’re made to study at school (see my post on secondary school English literature teaching here), so don’t let the same happen at home!

Don’t make a big deal about length and number of pages. Lots of Victorian novels are quite long and, for a while, the ability to boast about having read a 300-page book may be motivating. But it won’t last and focussing on length will make reading seem a drag.

I’d also avoid abridged versions of nineteenth-century novels which are often marketed for children. Truncated and butchered versions of great texts aren’t that great at all. If you don’t think your kids are ready for the full-length version, I’d simply read something else and come back to this one in a couple of years!

Are you a parent? Do you agree and do you have any other advice or book recommendations? Let me know – here, on Facebook or by tweeting @SVictorianist!

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