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Closing the Book on Classic Children's Literary Heroes

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Classic children’s literary heroes are dying out and being replaced with a new breed of well-loved characters, according to new a survey.

The study, conducted by the University of Worcester to mark the opening of The Hive – Europe’s first joint university and public library, examined the reading habits of 500 seven to 14 year olds across the UK. 

Jemima Puddle Duck, Robinson Crusoe and Pipi Longstocking are among the characters being confined to history, with awareness of Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland only alive and well for just under half (45%) of young readers.

The findings suggest that popular TV and films may be to blame for causing confusion among children when it comes to famous literary characters. More than a third (38%) of the children questioned thought that Sarah Jane from CBBC’s Sarah Jane Mysteries discovered the key to The Secret Garden rather than Mary Lennox and one in ten (10%) said it was CITV’s Ben 10. Meanwhile, more than a quarter (26%) of children thought Babe was the pig in Charlotte’s Webb, while 17% believe that Charlotte’s favourite friend was Miss Piggy.

One in six (18%) believe Roald Dahl’s Matilda lives in the Alps rather than classic heroine Heidi and one in five (21%) were convinced that Long John Silver was a star in Pirates of the Caribbean. Although a fifth (21%) of children have read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, nearly one fifth said Aslan was a giraffe (18%) and the same percentage thought he was a bear.

Although film adaptations have sometimes been blamed for causing the decline of literary classics, it seems that some stories such as The Railway Children and Gulliver’s Travels are being lost for good, as the majority of children have not read the book or seen the film. Even Disney classics did not feature high on the list, with only one third having seen Alice in Wonderland or Peter Pan (38%). What’s more, whilst more than half of those asked have seen the Harry Potter films (52%), only a quarter (27%) say they have read the books, suggesting that the majority would rather sit in front of the big screen than read Potter’s adventures for themselves.

Professor Jean Webb, Director of the International Forum for Research in Children's Literature, Institute of Humanities & Creative Arts at the University of Worcester commented: “Thankfully to counteract this possible downturn in children experiencing the classics, there is still a very strong interest in our rich literary heritage. This is clearly demonstrated by the popularity of the courses in children’s literature currently run across the UK and also internationally. There are many students studying children’s literature at undergraduate, Masters and doctoral levels at the University of Worcester. Those students are parents, teachers and would-be teachers who will bring their knowledge and enjoyment to generations of children, engaging them in journeys into worlds of the imagination where they will bring to life past characters and present heroes such as those in Michelle Paver’s series Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials and Michael Morpurgo’s War Horse.”

The survey also highlighted the new literary heroes for today’s generation, with nearly a quarter (24%) favouring Harry Potter. Classic heroes such as Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend, Christopher Robin and Mark Twain’s creation, Tom Sawyer, lagged well behind, with less than 3% drawn to these characters.

The fading popularity of some of these classic characters from children’s literature is perhaps not surprising, given the insight into children’s reading habits. Less than one in ten of those questioned had read Huckleberry Finn (4%), Anne of Green Gables (6%) or Swallows and Amazons (9%). That said, Roald Dahl was children’s most popular author, pipping J K Rowling to the post with 33% of the vote. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the most read book, closely followed by The Wind in the Willows.

Anne Hannaford, Director of Information and Learning Services at the University of Worcester, who has been leading on The Hive development for the University, added: “It’s interesting to see the changing trends in children’s reading and understand some of the ‘new classics’ of this generation. It is so important to help children develop a passion for reading and stories which will stay with them through life.

“To help bring stories to life, one of the exciting things we will do at The Hive in Worcester is to invite writers and illustrators of children’s books to come and work with children in the library, alongside students training to be teachers. It’s an inspiring space and a place where we believe children will discover the pleasure of books and reading.”

The Hive boasts one of the largest children’s libraries in Britain with areas for storytelling, playtime and quiet reading.