Sue Palmer asks why not let children choose?
Steve Bowles (Books for Keeps No. 10) covered himself admirably at the beginning of his article on ‘mind-rot’ in children’s fiction (‘Nancy Drew’, the ‘Hardy Boys’, et al.) by announcing that he tries to be liberal about it, and is confident that few children will want to read such stuff for long. But the burden of his argument is, nevertheless, that such books are not good for children.
Why not? Why is it that whenever children find (usually without adult prompting) an author whom they love to read, we grown-ups feel obliged to disapprove? It’s happened time and again. From Blyton and ‘Biggles’, through ‘Nancy Drew’ and Willard Price, to the remarkable Judy Blume – as soon as the author catches on, we start looking to criticise. ‘That’s pap,’ we say, ‘that’s prissy; that’s prurient.’
As a teacher with an interest in children’s fiction, I’m as guilty as the next man. I’ve seen someone in my class, happily engrossed in a ‘Famous Five’ mystery, and I’ve leapt over flourishing a Gene Kemp or a Betsy Byars. ‘You’ll enjoy this, you know. It’s good, this one is.’ And the child has politely, resignedly, put aside its chosen novel, and read the good one to please me.
It’s an awful thing to do. How would I feel if, during one of my cosy self-indulgent leisure hours, someone wrenched away my P D James and tried to entice me to read Tolstoy?
We’re in this business – parents, teachers, book producers alike – presumably to help children become readers. We want them to read for pleasure, to experience the same kind of pleasure that we find in books ourselves. Surely then, we should allow them to decide what pleases them? And if it’s the ‘Bobbsey Twins’, or those ghastly boys who go about catching elephants in far-flung corners of the world, then why not leave them to it? Once they are readers, and come to us asking, ‘Read any good books lately?’ then we can start doling out the Carnegie Medal-winners.
One of the problems is that there are nowadays so many wonderful books on the children’s fiction shelves – Katherine Paterson, Jan Needle, Jan Mark, Bernard Ashley, and so on – that we adults get drunk with delight. We’re dying to share them with children – after all, dammit, they’re children’s books – and it’s such a disappointment when the children don’t want to know. A few bright sparks will consume them willingly, but the others, the ‘quiet, undemanding average-ability girls, higher-ability boys’ just want to go on reading their pap. Good books are harder, of course, and children, being people, are lazy. Most don’t want to be stimulated or confronted or moved by their choice of literature – they just want a good read.
William Golding in Free Fall tells the story of a schoolmistress beating a child for lack of attention in a divinity lesson: “‘God” Smack! “Is” Smack! “Love.” Smack! Smack! Smack!’ Too many of us seem to be doing the same sort of thing: READING (Oh no, not another Enid Blyton!) IS (Look, why not try this one instead? It’s a lot better written.) FUN! (I’m not having you reading the ‘Hardy Boys’ in this classroom. Go and choose a Good Book from the library corner.)