Saturday, 19 October 2013

Of Naked, Wanton Encouragement & Gateway Drugs - Lucy Coats

This is a post about the importance of reading, though the title may have led you to think otherwise, and those were words used by Neil Gaiman in his Reading Agency Lecture.

'We have an obligation to imagine' … Neil Gaiman gives The Reading Agency annual lecture on the future of reading and libraries. Photograph: Robin Mayes
It's rare that I read something in a newspaper which makes me want to jump up and down, screaming 'yes, yes, yes' in a When Harry Met Sally moment.  The transcript of Neil's talk in the Guardian made me want to do just that, though, especially when he says this:
"I don't think there is such a thing as a bad book for children." 
I've talked before in these pages, many times, of the importance libraries had for me as a child. Without them there are whole worlds I would never have discovered, simply because my parents could not afford my reading addiction to fiction.  But, and this is a big but, there were books I was not allowed to bring home to read because they were 'bad'.  You may be imagining all sorts of things now.  Was I trying to bring home The Passionflower Hotel? Lolita? Lady Chatterley's Lover? No.  None of those.  I was trying to read Enid Blyton.

"Oh, those are dreadful books!" I was told.  "Terrible grammar.  Badly written. Read something else." So I did.  I read Elinor M Brent Dyer's Chalet School books instead.  But just occasionally I was able to sneak a Blyton through, and gradually (under the bedclothes at night) I worked my way through Malory Towers, The Secret Seven, The Famous Five, the Adventures et al. I remember feeling slightly ashamed of myself, though, as if enjoying Blyton as much as I did was a dirty little hidden secret.

This is why I get so cross when I hear people decry the success of 'pink sparkly series' or any kind of wildly popular set of books for children which might be written to a formula.  As adults we might not think they are great literature, nor want to read them ourselves - but why should we deny any child the right to find a way into the wonderful world of reading through them? If pink and sparkly or beastly and swashbuckling or soppy romantic or ghostly horror series fiction becomes what Gaiman calls 'the gateway drug to reading' for a child, then what is wrong with that? Apart from the 'bad Blyton', as a young teenager, I had a whole year where I read nothing but Mills and Boon and Barbara Cartland.  It didn't stop me going on to love Dickens, Austen, Ken Kesey, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf and a whole host of other literary luminaries,

As Gaiman so rightly goes on to say:
"We need our children to get onto the reading ladder: anything that they enjoy reading will move them up, rung by rung, into literacy."
In a time when our literacy figures for young adults are some of the worst in the industrialised world, I don't care what a child reads, as long as they DO read.  It's the only 'drug habit' I ever want them to acquire.

Lucy's next Guardian Masterclass on 'How To Write For Children' is on 16th November 2013

Lucy's newest picture book, Bear's Best Friend, is published by Bloomsbury "A charming story about the magic of friendship which may bring a tear to your eye" Parents in Touch "The language is a joy…thoughtful and enjoyable" Armadillo Magazine. "Coats's ebullient, sympathetic story is perfectly matched by Sarah Dyer's warm and witty illustrations." The Times
Her latest series for 7-9s, Greek Beasts and Heroes is out now from Orion Children's Books.

Lucy's Website
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Lucy is represented by Sophie Hicks at Ed Victor Ltd


Anne Cassidy said...

Lucy - this is such a coincidence. I wrote a blog for BOOKTRUST about enid Blyton recently
Thank goodness for people like Neil!

Nicola Morgan said...

*applauds* *jumps up and down*

Sue Bursztynski said...

Agreed. Though I admit I do sob when required to read one of those to a child in my life. ;-) But I do it. One of my students, a bright and enthusiastic reader - one who devours books! - told me that until late primary school she never read at all. Sport was her only passion. ( She still plays basketball). Then she read Twilight. The rest is history.

I read Enid Blyton as a child. I can't understand why, looking back, but I wouldn't deny it to my young family members. In fact, my sister and I are hunting for the pre-PC Faraway Tree books, before Dame Slap became Dame Snap and Jo, Bessie and Fanny became Joe, Beth and Franny. Those books - racist, sexist, classist and every other -ist you can think of, were the basis of my love of science fiction. A new land at the top of the tree every week - if that's not "strange new worlds" I don't know what is.

Of course, the isms in Enid Blyton weren't aimed at me for the most part and I satisfied myself with hating Julian, wanting to strangle wimpy Ann and identifying with George. ;-)

JO said...

Yes, yes, yes (and I don't mean than in a 'when Harry met Sally' sense).

Andrew said...

I've forgotten much of what I read as a kid. I did read The Famous Five, lots of Just Williams. I particularly remember that one Christmas, my
older sister gave me Dr Seuss's Cat in the Hat. In retrospect, I realise why I didn't enjoy that one. It reads to me as a 'calculated for children' book.

Actually, I really liked 'The Beezer'', then later, 'The Eagle', 'The Hotspur'...., regularly reading 'Mad' magazine at the same time as I read 'Of Mice and Men'. And later, bunking off from a university lecture to watch 'Fritz the Cat'.

The concept of PC was another world to me.

In 2010, 'Mad' magazine's oldest and longest-running contributor, Al Jaffee, told an interviewer, "Mad was designed to corrupt the minds of children. And from what I'm gathering from the minds of people all over, we succeeded."

Sue Bursztynski said...

Andrew, if you were already reading Blyton, etc, you may have gone beyond The Cat In The Hat and you were clearly a good reader. But kids do love it. We use Dr Seuss for our low-literacy kids. They are in their teens and still enjoy the silliness and the rhythm and are happy to read them over and over.

Like you, I was reading simple and complicated at the same time - in my case, it was Robert Graves and Enid Blyton. :) Oh, and, later, Mad Magazine.

Emma Barnes said...

Well said - you and Neil Gaiman both!

Enid Blyton, and now those endless fairy/monster/princess series, are a gateway to reading - and I have to admit, although I don't often go back and reread Enid Blyton, when I did come across a copy of The Secret Island recently, I discovered it was actually still a pretty good read, all these years (decades!) after I first read it.

She's the Agatha Christie of children's books and perfect comfort reading.

Actually I think she's finally respectable again in schools - I even saw a poster of The Magic Faraway Tree in a primary school recently.

The important thing is that children have access to LOTS of books of many different kinds. Which is where libraries (both public and in schools) come in, as Neil Gaiman also said.

Stroppy Author said...

I agree with pretty much everything Neil (and you) said. But as for the pink-and-sparkly, etc - isn't the real problem that they are *all* you can find for that age group in some bookshops? It's not that there shouldn't be My Fairy Unicorn Princess #478 but that there should be some choice? I know, that's just lazy booksellers. But as we all know, that has an impact on what publishers will publish. Maybe we need a rationing system :-)

A Wilson said...

A late comment... I agree with Nicola's reaction! I would just like to add that I feel many young adults should be hearing this message too. I am meeting many students who dream of being writers and yet THEY DON'T READ. I was talking to a teacher about this and she said the battle is being lost early - by age 11 even children of "bookish" families are not reading as much as she thinks they should. She had tried timetabling 15 minutes reading a night - reading anything, not a school-sanctioned book or anything like that - into the homework timetable at her secondary school. This was met with negative responses along the lines of "the children have too much work already". She tried to point out that it was not supposed to be work, but enjoyment and that getting into the habit of 15 mins a night would lead to the kids reading more. She lost the battle.