On school books

ghost of thomas kempeI mentioned previously that my classmates and I were forced to read and examine The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively very closely for our English class, and all of us hated the book with a passion. It wasn’t just my class either – the English class the year above me warned us as we started the year how much we would come to hate The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. It was like a rite of passage – I was living in France at that time, and going to a school where there was one class offered for native English speakers, so when you were in 6eme (around eleven years old) every native English speaker studied The Ghost of Thomas Kempe and, apparently, hated it. My class, in turn, told the year below us how bad the book was, and so on and so forth.

It’s funny how reading a book for school sometimes ruins the book – I have similar feelings for Quiet on the Western Front due to year 10 English, and even the movie Cabaret makes me feel nauseous due to copious amounts of dissecting in Year 12.

Rereading The Ghost of Thomas Kempe for the first time since I was eleven, I don’t know what I found so bad about it. In fact it has quite a few ingredients that usually make a book endearing to me – a cosy village setting, a mischievous young boy as a protagonist, low fantasy, spatterinIgs of history… several of the books on the 1001 Children’s Book List that I really enjoyed have one or more of these same characteristics, such as Tom’s Midnight Garden. So why didn’t I like it at school? Why didn’t anyone else in my class?

For many people, there is always that book they read at school they couldn’t stand. I wonder if they had all read that book in their own time, without the book being explained and dissected an examined, they would have enjoyed it. Or if it had been taught by a different teacher. Or if they had been older, or younger.

I also wonder if some of my classmates reread the book now, if they would still despise The Ghost of Thomas Kempe. I wonder if I would have hated the book so much if I hadn’t been told by the class above me that it was a terrible book. Somehow I don’t think so, as I liked my English teacher a lot more than most of the students in my class, and so more likely to give her lessons the benefit of the doubt.

I wish now I remembered more about what we actually studied when we looked at The Ghost of Thomas KempeI can hardly remember our lessons at all, but my book is full of words underlined in pencil and notes in the margin as to what Thomas Kempe’s old-fashioned writings meant in modern English. But all that is gone now – all I can do when reading the book is read it for its face value now. Maybe I should give Cabaret another go too. I might even find myself singing along.



  1. Zee

    I think this is too often the truth – we are made to study books in English and come to dislike them for that reason. However, upon being assigned “The Great Gatsby” in sixth form, I came to really appreciate the book. Miracles do happen! Can’t say I’ve read “The Ghost of Thomas Kempe” before, though 🙂

  2. I ‘read’ Hardy’s ,em>The Trumpet Major and The Mayor of Casterbridge and Dicken’s The Tale of Two Cities at school and barely remember anything about them. I probably just wasn’t ready for them, but I’m at least looking forward to the Dickens to read and enjoy soon. And maybe even the Hardy novels, though not just yet — not in the mood for being depressed!

    Always passed on The Ghost of Thomas Kempe though I enjoyed some of Lively’s earlier children’s novels such as The Whispering Knights. Time to reconsider I think!

  3. Pingback: On where the list of 1001 Children’s Books I Must Read Before I Grow Up (Too Much) comes from | 1001 Children's Books

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