School Blues by Daniel Pennac

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School Blues by Daniel Pennac

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Category: Politics and Society
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Luci Davin
Reviewed by Luci Davin
Summary: An impassioned polemic about how children who struggle at school can be helped, by a French novelist and former teacher who himself was once labelled as a dunce
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 320 Date: September 2010
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 978-190669464

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School Blues has been translated from the original French by Sarah Ardizzone and has a foreword by Quentin Blake.

Daniel Pennac's book discusses the issue of children who struggle at school, and offers some ideas on how teachers can and should help them. It is not a dry textbook on educational theory. He writes from personal experience, as a teacher and novelist who was once un cancre, translated here as a dunce or a bad student.

I found this use of his own experience to inform his discussion on the subject of school very helpful; it brings a real passion to his subject, and it also makes this book very readable and accessible. Also, the knowledge that Pennac himself later became a teacher and novelist points to one of the key arguments of this book, that the dunce can and should be helped, not just written off as a failure.

Fortunately for his own pupils and readers, Pennac was eventually rescued by one of his own teachers, aged 14, after years of struggling at school. This teacher discovered that he read a lot, for pleasure rather than study, and noticed the imagination in his excuses for not doing homework, and encouraged him to write a novel instead. He also then mentions some other teachers who particularly inspired him.

He then offers some accounts of his own teaching challenges, of changing his students' perception of themselves as useless failures through helping them get to grips with language through using traditional French school methods but in a different way. He writes with warmth and wit, and his lessons sound like a lot of fun.

Pennac himself was from quite a privileged background and his family were shocked by his academic failures as he came from a very well educated background where entry to the best universities as preparation for a high flying career was the norm. He is well aware that many of his pupils were from more working class homes, and/or from immigrant communities. A series of stories and anecdotes of this work again give it a personal touch and make it a good read.

Finally, this book is an argument that we need to rescue 'dunces', that no one should just be left to struggle, that it is essential to try. Pennac's critique of education is not saying that school is bad, far from it. He believes that school has saved many children from vice, prejudice, ignorance, stupidity and greed, as well as from class-bound or fatalistic families. He is offering ideas for making school better able to do that.

At the end of the book, Sarah Ardizzone offers a translator's note on the challenge of translating his words accurately, and also making the work accessible to readers outside the French education system which has its own specific features. She explains briefly the different types of school and university, and the academic qualifications. She also describes the linguistic challenge of translation, given Pennac's varied language and love of wordplay. This note, and the book, made me wish I had maintained my A level French, as I would love to read this book, and a previous work by Pennac on the right to read, in the original language. I liked the translation though, as it retained a French flavour without ever being clunky.

There's also a foreword by Quentin Blake, best known as an illustrator of children's books (he also drew the front cover), which picks out nicely the important themes of this book and why it should be read, hopefully by parents, teachers and people responsible for the organisation of education.

Thank you to Quercus/Maclehose for sending a copy to the Bookbag.

Another book on education is Wasted: Why Education Isn't Educating by Frank Furedi. Two other books which mix autobiography and observation to inform their examination of society are The Education of a British-Protected Child by Chinua Achebe Gary Younge's Who Are We – and Should it Matter in the 21st Century?

Buy School Blues by Daniel Pennac at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy School Blues by Daniel Pennac at

Buy School Blues by Daniel Pennac at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy School Blues by Daniel Pennac at


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