Thursday, June 10, 2010

Reading Notes - Bad books for children

"Is there anything worse than being forced to read bad books to children?" an acquaintance of mine asked the other day, as she hoisted yet another pile of Barbie books into her car at the library.

Her 7-year-old is obsessed with all things Barbie - books, dolls, movies, games, etcetera. This particular consignment represented the fifth week in a row that her child had selected nothing but Barbie books from the library.

I had observed them earlier in the children's section. "Mummy, look, MORE Barbie stories!" the 7-year-old proclaimed excitedly.
"Oh, great," said the mother weakly. "That's really great, honey."
Slightly depressed pause. Then, a faintly pleading note in the mother's voice:
"Look over here, I've seen some Enid Blyton books! Why don't we get some of those, huh? I think you'd really like them!"
The girl shakes her head softly and regretfully. "Oh no, Mum," she explains, "I only have enough slots left on my card for these Barbie books. And I do want them, all of them."
The mother's shoulders visibly sagged as she contemplated her fate. Her daughter is not yet reading independently, so those Barbie books in her girl's hands were books that THE PARENTS would be reading her, every single word of them.

Hence the mother's throwaway remark to me as we both loaded our cars with children, groceries and books. The question was rhetorical, but it started a train of thought in my head about the whole vexed question of bad children's literature, and parents' role (if any) in selecting or guiding reading choices for children.

My own daughters have lovely instinctive literary taste in some respects. They fell in love with Sandra Boynton and Winne the Pooh as toddlers, devoured Mem Fox, Pamela Allen, Lauren Child and a world of beautiful classic and modern picture books as preschoolers, were lost for a long time in a passionate devotion to Wind in the Willows, all thing Blyton, and Edith Nesbitt. They are now engaging with texts as diverse as My Side of the Mountain, The Little White Horse, the Ramona books, Roald Dahl's many stories, Paul Jennings' tales and other great and varied books. Reading these stories to my girls, and watching the eldest (at almost 7, an avid and confident reader) read them herself and aloud to her sisters, has been purest delight for me.

However, not all my girls' choices have been so salubrious from my point of view. About a year ago they developed an interest in the Tiara Club books after one of them was given some for a birthday. Slightly later, they stumbled across the Daisy Meadows Rainbow Magic Fairy books (a franchise of well over 100 titles now, and still going strong). The eldest was recently waxing rhapsodical about yet another series, the Enchantia books or somesuch (I might have the title a bit wrong - they are about magical ballet shoes, in any event). Both my husband and I have perforce read a *lot* of these books aloud to the girls, and their interest shows no real signs of abating.

The thing is, these books are, I would contend, not enjoyable for adults to read. They are formulaic, and I *mean* formulaic, not in the traditional series sense of just "sticking to a theme / consistent characters" (think Famous Five, Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden et al). They essentially have the same plot in each book, with very minor changes of scenery or detail. The writing varies from pedestrian at best (for the fairy books) to downright turgid (the Tiara Club books, my personal least-favourites). The characters, where they are given any airtime at all, are flat and featureless. The language is tired. There are no surprises, no discoveries, no flights of fancy to capture the imagination. And in most of them, the moral messages are heavy-handed, overstated, and clunky. (I must be fair and say that this is less apparent with the fairy books than the others I'm talking about here).

Here's the thing, though - I don't like these books. I think they are boring, repetitive, poorly constructed, and fall way short of the magic that so much children's literature has to offer. I don't have a good time reading them to the girls, and yet I do it anyway, and so does my long-suffering husband (albeit with frequent insertions of Dad-sarcasm to leaven the experience).

Why do I read them despite thinking they are essentially bad books? Because the kids choose them, and choose them unequivocally. Because these repetitive formulaic texts have struck a chord with them, alongside the wonder and excitement they are finding in the classic old and new that they are also reading and choosing. Because when I say these books are bad, what I really mean is that, in my literary judgement as an adult, they're not up to scratch - I'm not claiming they are unsuitable in content or approach, or unpalatable to children, in any way. (Clearly they are not the last, as evidenced by their wild success).

Allowing children to choose with as great a freedom as is consistent with their age and abilities is a central tenet of my overall parenting philosophy. Nowhere is it more important, I believe, than in the choice of reading material. Children's fascinations and motivations are their own, and often baffling to adults. The very repetitiveness of the plots has its own appeal for children, especially, I have noticed, for new readers (the fairy books helped my eldest make the leap from reader to confident reader, in fact).

The fact that these books do not appeal in any way *to me* does not render them valueless and does not mean I should direct my daughters away from them. After all, I read cosies - lightweight, low-gore mysteries - almost constantly, side-by-side with my more serious reading material. It would be difficult to argue (and I wouldn't so argue) that most cosies have any greater literary weight in the adult fiction scene than fairy books do for children. Yet they are comforting and enjoyable for me, and I relax when I read them.

So, for the foreseeable future, I think I'm resigned to the fact that I'll be reading books I don't greatly like to my daughters, alongside the pleasurable privilege of reading them wonderful, soaring children's books, both old and new. That's really OK with me. It takes all kinds to make a world ... in the literary sense as well as any other. And my girls' tastes will emerge as they read and are read different kinds of books and texts, and that's good too, it's as it should be.


  1. I agree with you to a large extent regarding the mass-produced books for girls of a certain age. My daughter (now 9) has gone through her Rainbow Magic stage and still reads these books occasionally. She also enjoyed the Magic Ballerina (books featuring Enchantia), which we discovered when I was sent the books to review.

    The Magic Ballerina at least feature characters from classic ballets and some talk about ballet moves etc.

    The only solace I take from my daughters interest in this style of books is that she also reads a wide variety of other books. Recently this has included Zac Power, Diary of a Wimpy Kid, Toppling by Sally Murphy, the original Paddington Bear, a children's novel version of The Three Musketeers, Gabrielle Wang's The Garden of Empress Cassia and a variety of other novels and picture books.

    To me, the less appealing (to me) books are simply part of what is overall a well-balanced literary diet. I have my own literary fairy floss that I read at times.

  2. My way out was that I read "good" lit to my kids, but the kid version of "penny dreadfuls" they had to read for themselves. I read all manner of books as a kid. From classics to sweet dreams romances to outright trash. I'm finding that, just as it was with me, the great stories linger with my kids. They can tell the difference.

    Those rainbow fairy books! My son went through a stage of bringing them home from the school library each week. That was fun :) Now he's engrossed in Artemis Fowl & a book about germs. The worm has turned :)

  3. I agree. Every time we go to the library I choose books with beautiful illustrations and they stay in the library bag. Yet I have to read the same book about Disney fairies (I think?) every night for a week. There are times I rebel and say no, I don't feel like that one tonight. That's part of our ongoing campaign to teach the pre-schooler she doesn't always get her own way and other people have a say too. But I read them because she loves them, and as an about-to-be reader the thing I want most is for her to love books.

  4. What a great post. Kids are always going to pick books that do not interest us. My son is obsessed with dinosaurs. This is not a bad thing. He loves nonfiction books about dino's. But guess who has to read all of these books to him?! You've got it me and his father. I finally told him no more! I'm ready to read something else. Then I gave him a little incentive, "Won't it be great when you can read anything you want anytime you want?!" This idea does excite him. I still read dino books. But just not every day!!!

  5. Yes, I'm with jeannine - my son is only interested in non-fiction. Space travel and the solar system, to be specific. We've exhausted our library's supply of age-appropriate books on the topic. Oh well, at least my knowledge on the subject is increasing!


  6. Reading the above comments, I think I need to loosen up on the 'bad books', I'm a bit of a Nazi! When Mr 6 was really little (3-4) he used to mostly try to borrow TV show knock-off books at the library - Transformers, Ben 10 etc. Rightly or wrongly, I just couldn't bear reading that stuff. We even stopped going to the library for about 18 months as a result!

    Over the past few years we've used our own second-hand book store books much more than the library. We've read a lot of 'classics' - Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, Wind in the Willows etc. and he has absolutely loved all of these, asked to read them multiple times etc.

    He's now just-turned 6 and tends to ask for books by favourite author or series (currently obsessed with Harry Potter.) But we still hardly ever go the local library! He's just started to read independently and we've bought him the first few 'Zac Powers' books. He is loving them and reading alone in his bed at night.

    I guess I do need to take him to the library occasionally now and loosen up a bit on the 'bad books' if that's what he finally wants to read at this stage!

  7. We have those fairy books in our house too. And Max Rumble and Too Cool and Harry Potter and Zac Power and the Bum series by Andy Griffiths. But we also have Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl, S.E. Hinton, Dickens etc etc. I agree with you Kathy that it is about balance and allowing the kids to develop their own taste.

    It is the same in our house for music. I like the non commercial variety but have artists like Miley Cyrus, Owl City, Hill Top Hoods, L'il Wayne on my iPod so the kids can listen to their music through the main stereo (we just plug the iPod in). I am hoping that eventually they will acquire some taste!

  8. I really like your perspective here. My son's only 3, but I have that same experience of "Wait, why do you like this?" It comes up with toys, too, like when he attaches to an ugly, cheap plastic trinket, but he plays with it alongside the natural, hand-painted wooden toys I value more. Who am I to say his one choice is wrong and the other right? For toys and books, the child should get to choose. My mother used to denigrate my choices when I would attach to things she didn't value, and I remember it hurting my feelings to some degree.

    I'm reminded, too, that my husband grew up not liking to read for pleasure. He did well in school but just didn't consider himself a reader. In high school, he came across Grisham and Clancy and realized for the first time: You can enjoy a book. Now he reads constantly, and very dense reads indeed, but those first lighter books were his entry into actually wanting to read.