Laura Cummings: Are the children's classics in danger of becoming obsolete?

Are the classics of children's literature in danger of becoming obsolete as young readers shun Oliver Twist in favour of Harry Potter? Does it matter, asks Laura Cummings

HE IS the famous teacher of pickpockets, a villain who has delighted generations of book lovers and cinema-goers. Fagin may be one of the great Charles Dickens' most recognisable characters – but to a surprising number of children he is a teammate of Wayne Rooney.

• Are you concerned about the fact youngsters are not reading "classic" novels?

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One in six primary school pupils think Fagin – famously brought to cinematic life by Ron Moody in the 1968 musical Oliver! – was a footballer who played for Manchester United.

Moby Dick? Well, he was a pop star or explorer, according to eighty per cent of eight to ten-year-olds.

And one in ten think Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea is Simon Cowell's autobiography.

The results of a new survey commissioned by Asda suggest that the books which so many of our parents treasured are being almost completely ignored by today's youngsters.

The adventures of Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver – which first came to life in the imagination of a young Robert Louis Stevenson in his Heriot Row home – and Edinburgh-born Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows it would seem are destined to be largely forgotten. Their place in the literary pantheon is being taken by another city writer, JK Rowling, whose ubiquitous Harry Potter books have been read by one in three youngsters.

The research also suggests, slightly depressingly, that one in two children know David Beckham's memoirs are called My Side.

Similarly, online bookseller Amazon's current top ten best-selling children's book list is dominated by modern novels, including The Twilight Saga by US author Stephenie Meyer, the vampire-based fantasy romances which are proving a hit with both teenagers and adult readers.

Dewi Williams, spokesperson for Asda, says: "The children's bestseller list is dominated by modern literature. Books like Oliver Twist and The Wind in the Willows, which have been must-reads for generations, are getting dangerously close to extinction."

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Vanessa Robertson, who owns The Children's Bookshop and The Edinburgh Bookshop, both in Bruntsfield, recognises the trend towards more modern writers, although sales of classic books have remained "fairly steady".

"I don't think the classics are dying out but some are fading a little, like the lesser known ones – for example, The Railway Children by E Nesbit sells well but the more obscure The Enchanted Castle doesn't sell as well," she says.

"Classic novels are such a part of our cultural heritage it would be a shame to see them die out."

Sometimes, though, all that is needed to give them a new lease of life is a bit of fresh window dressing.

"Children are still reading classic novels, especially the ones that have a slightly fresher look. A new edition of Pippi Longstocking came out last Christmas, it's a traditional book but it had new illustrations and kids were loving it – it gave it a new lease of life", she says.

"HarperCollins did a new edition of Wuthering Heights. They put a Twilight-esque cover on it and it sells really well. It is getting teenagers reading Wuthering Heights which has got to be a good thing!"

Edinburgh's Unesco City of Literature Trust has experimented with great success in this area. It has offered classic books including Robert Louis Stevenson's Kidnapped and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World in a variety of formats, such as comic book-style, in order to make them more appealing to youngsters.

Ali Bowden, director of the trust, says: "We have done animated versions and audio versions of books to try to put them in as many formats as possible, and that's been successful.

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"Sometimes it can be a little daunting to be given a 600-page classic and told it is a classic if you are a young kid, so maybe it's about how you present books and talk about them."

To get hung up on whether children are reading "the classics", though, is to miss the point, says Ms Bowden.

"I think the most important thing is that kids read, rather than being overly prescriptive on what they read," she explains.

"I think the classic novels are still being taught in schools and I suspect most kids are being given contemporary books rather than classics at home. A lot of kids are reading a whole range of books, including classics.

"Nurturing a passion for reading is really important, rather than giving kids a really strict book list."

Father-of-two and avid reader Gavin Corbett is just happy to see his sons Ben, seven, and Charlie, five, enjoying books, regardless of when they were written.

"There are some really excellent new writers and I think the quality of writing for children is as high as it's ever been," he says.

"If kids were to only read books from yesteryear, it would suggest a real crisis in the quality of modern writing."

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With so many children still enjoying a good yarn, perhaps all Robert Louis Stevenson and his ilk need is a better marketing team.

Rod Grant, headmaster of Clifton Hall School in Newbridge, who is keen to promote reading – "whether that's Harry Potter or Treasure Island" – says that dusty and dull old book covers can be a real turn-off to youngsters.

"There are so many books available for kids now and they are marketed well with such colourful front covers that a classic book is hard pushed to go up against that."