Children's column: The enduring vitality of classics

Nicolette Jones
Opinion - Children 29 May 2009

Last Friday (22 May), the latest Write Away conference - Something Old, Something New, at the Institute of Education in Bloomsbury and organised by Nikki Gamble - considered children's classics, and suggested, that, far from being dowdy and dusty, they were alive and thriving and reaching new audiences in all sorts of forms. No one argued that classics should be read to the exclusion of other kinds of books, but there was a great deal of celebration of the riches they offer. Publisher David Fickling quoted Italo Calvino's essay Why Read the Classics? , a light-hearted approach making the point that you should read them only out of love, except at school, where you learn how to read them in order to discover that you love them later. Jonathan Douglas, director of the National Literacy Trust, reminded us that we needed to consider the nature of the authority that gave books classic status, and be aware of the set of values they espoused, while pointing out that reading classics offered people a way to redefine themselves. Gabrielle Cliff-Hodges of Cambridge University argued that the classics were both democratic and relevant, and cited instances in the classroom and at home where children as young as four found pleasure in them.

Martin Jenkins, in a presentation with Chris Riddell about their versions of Don Quixote and Gulliver's Travels, quoted an article by Jenny Diski expressing outrage at the notion of any tampering or abridgement of classics; it amounted, she felt, to an attack on literature itself. But Jenkins explication of his process of adaptation, and Chris Riddell's thoughts on making the images (projected throughout their talk), blew out of the water the idea that classics should never be altered. There was a sense only that the book had been reanimated for new audiences, with exceptional, creative, thoughtful skill.
Also bringing old stories to new life were illustrators Anthony Browne, Emma Chichester Clark and Jane Ray, discussing the various ways they had treated Hansel and Gretel - the basic story allowing different, illuminating and beautiful takes on mothers and stepmothers, fear and reassurance, witches and woods, sibling relationships, families and reconciliation, symbolism and design, and whether it is daunting to depict the gingerbread house.
And John Agard, explaining the resonances he found for contemporary teenagers in Dante's Inferno, as well as outlining the reasoning behind ingredients of his Young Inferno, from the replacement of Virgil with Aesop to his use of numerology, conveyed the drama and rhythm of his own text in a powerful performance of extracts.
A wealth of workshops and remarks, from such distinguished speakers as Cambridge University's Morag Styles and Margaret Meek, gave the audience plenty to take back into classroom and libraries. Every anxiety you may have had about elitism or cultural supremacy or the dead hand of the curriculum was silenced, in favour of a rapturous delight in the wealth of stories that have deserved to last.

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