• Steph Matuku

The Reckoning: Kids and the Classics – A Lost Cause?

Should children be persuaded to read critically-acclaimed and classic books? Today Steph Matuku, an award-winning writer and mother from Taranaki, puts up her case for convincing kids to broaden their literary horizons, and shares how she's tackling the challenge of putting classics both on her children's bookshelves and in their hands.

Steph Matuku, Photo credits: Huia NZ


We are a family of readers. We read at the dinner table, in the bath, and while watching telly. Books, graphic novels, magazines and comics spill from groaning bookcases, slither into the laundry basket, and are trampled on the car floor. Our cataloguing system could best be described as stacked, piled, scattered and misplaced. If all the books in our house magically disappeared, we’d probably turn into machine pinballs, colliding with each other and bouncing mindlessly up against the walls, eyes wide, wordless with terror.


In the case of my children, it’s the aggressively marketed, international bestsellers about farts and bogeys that make regular appearances at the dinner table, in the bath, and while watching telly. I make story suggestions, but I don’t dictate what they should read; I love that they’re reading at all. And yet, if I never see another Captain Underpants or David Walliams book ever again, I would not care a jot. For all that they’re so popular, they’re just… dumb. And in the case of Walliams’ books, with his continual fat-shaming etc, kinda problematic.



Books, graphic novels, magazines and comics spill from groaning bookcases, slither into the laundry basket, and are trampled on the car floor.

There are so many other wonderful books out there, but I find it difficult to persuade my kids to read any of them.


“Oh my gosh!” I exclaim to my ten year old son, “Look at this amazing book! Lizard’s Tale by Weng Wai Chan. Isn’t the cover cool? And you know,” I add impressively, “It’s about the war. With spies and secret codes and things.”


“Meh,” he says, running his finger along the spines on the bookshelf and dragging out yet another multi-fonted adventure about Brigadier Bogey Bum.


Lizard's Tale won a huge award!” I yell, as he disappears down the hallway, “It was judged the best junior fiction novel in the whole country! The author and I follow each other on Twitter! She’s very nice!”


“MEH,” comes the reply.



There are so many other wonderful books out there, but I find it difficult to persuade my kids to read any of them.


Am I a reading snob? I don’t think so. I don’t tend to read 'literature' mostly because the stories are depressing and the sentences too long. Like my kids, I have a soft spot for light, comedic yarns that you can read in a couple of hours and forget just as quickly. But the thing is, I’ve spent years getting to this point. I’ve plowed through the classics shelf. I’ve done my time. I deserve to spend my middle-aged years reading light comedy. My kids however, have never paid the slightest attention to the critically acclaimed, and given their stubbornness, are never likely to either.


Does it even matter? Of course it does! It’s important to regularly fill your plate with healthy goodness. Eat food loaded with sugar, animal fat and chemicals every day and you’ll end up in hospital with rotten teeth and clogged arteries wondering how that junk could let you down so badly when it tasted so damn good. The thing is, good books taste good too. You’re not just chewing on a lettuce leaf; you’re dining on a Michelin star salad. But my kids haven’t yet been persuaded and I don’t want to force it. I don’t want to turn them off reading altogether.



I’ve plowed through the classics shelf. I’ve done my time. I deserve to spend my middle-aged years reading light comedy.


I’ve tried hiding my own childhood copies in their rooms on the off chance they might accidentally pick up the faded, creased, musty-smelling books with tiny print and no pictures and give them a crack (can’t imagine why they haven’t so far). I’ve tried the wheedling guilt trip, “please read one chapter, just ONE chapter, for me, because I love you so much.” I’ve also employed the hearty, “you’ll probably have to read it at school one day, so you might as well get a head-start, hey?” and even the bare-faced lie, “you know, Billie Eilish posted a shot of this exact same book on her Instagram just last week!”


Nothing works. They won’t even read the book I wrote, despite it being dedicated to them.


“It was once a finalist at the book awards!” I yell at them as they disappear down the hallway. “Other kids adored it!”


“MEH,” comes the brutal reply.



They won’t even read the book I wrote, despite it being dedicated to them.


I do have one trick up my sleeve though. It requires headphones, a suitable selection of audiobooks, and a night when they’re worn out and not likely to wake. With any luck, they’ll dream of Turkish Delight and a lamppost that never burns out.



Steph's Books:



Whetuu Toa and the Magician

Written by Steph Matuku

Illustrated by Katharine Hall

Huia Publishers

$25


Buy now







Flight of the Fantail

Written by Steph Matuku

Huia Publishers

$30


Buy now







Steph Matuku

Steph Matuku (Ngāti Mutunga, Ngāti Tama, Te Atiawa) is an award-winning writer from Taranaki. She writes for the page, stage and screen, with a special interest in creating stories for young people. She was a judge for the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2020, and has had two books published by Huia Publishers. Two new titles, Whetū Toa and the Hunt for Ramses and Falling into Rarohenga will be available from July. Find her books at https://huia.co.nz/huia-bookshop/authors/author/220