Reading the classics

Published on Sunday, February 23, 2020

A child reading a book in front of autumn leaves

If you were asked to list five books you think a child should read (or have read to them) by the time they reach their teenage years, what would you include? I’m going to hazard a guess that many parents would reel off a list of classics: The Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Treasure Island, Anne of Green Gables. The list goes on.

These are amazing books, much loved by generations of readers young and old. We go back to them time and time again because of the quality of the writing. But how accessible are they really to today’s young readers? Why do we spend so much energy trying to get our kids to read the classics, when there is such a wealth of fantastic (and high quality) children’s publishing happening right now, books that are written specifically for this generation, that speak to them directly?

In the wake of an aborted attempt to read Just William with my son, and once I had recovered from my children’s refusal to engage with Swallows and Amazons (two books I have the fondest memories of reading with my dad), I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t actually necessary for them to read the classics, nor was it a good idea to try and persuade them. The language felt archaic to them and the risk of putting them off reading with me altogether was just too high. As their reading tastes mature, who’s to say they won’t discover these wonderful books for themselves?

But in the meantime, I still believe that sharing a book you love with your loved ones is a valuable exercise in and of itself. Maybe what we need is a gateway. It’s not just the language employed in our favourite classics that we value, it’s the depth of the stories and the storytelling themselves – and those are timeless.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently, not least because three adaptations of classic texts have recently landed on my desk. They all take a very different approach, but the goal is the same: making a much-loved classic story accessible to today’s young readers, in particular those who might be put off by the style of language or old-fashioned setting of the original. I’ve been impressed by all three and highly recommend them, both for keen and reluctant readers:

Becoming Jo by Sophie McKenzie

Becoming Jo

In this modern retelling of Little Women, set firmly in 21st Century Britain, Meg, Jo, Beth and Amy grapple with many of the same challenges and issues faced by our young people, yet author Sophie McKenzie manages to retain much of the original storyline in a way that feels both authentic and relatable.

Jane Eyre by Tanya Landman

Jane Eyre

Author Tanya Landman was inspired to retell Jane Eyre in 115 pages when she couldn't persuade her own sons to read the original. It's clever, powerful and a beautiful retelling of a much-loved story. It honestly feels as though you are reading authentic Brontë, which is a pretty high accolade in my book.

Comic Classics: Great Expectations

Great Expectations

The cover declares this to be ‘an old book by Charles Dickens with new doodles by Jack Noel’. Writer and illustrator Noel has taken yet another approach to adapting a classic book by retaining Dickens’ original text, but editing it down and adding his own distinctive illustrations and graphic novel elements. It’s brilliant, a very clever gateway to a classic text that I don’t think my 10-year-old would ever have looked at otherwise. More, please!


Are you keen to supercharge your child’s love of reading but feel like you could be doing more to support them? We know that discovering, purchasing and recommending books that maintain your child’s enthusiasm for reading, helping them to reach their full potential, is time consuming. Why not let us take that off your to-do list? With a Parrot Street Book Club subscription your child receives a carefully chosen new children’s book and accompanying activity pack through the post each month. They receive a stream of varied and exciting books, whilst the book club-style questions and activities are perfect for sharing. Find out more here.