Is it better to read 'anything' rather than 'nothing'?
Like most people interested in children's literature, and like many authors, I like asking booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents what children and teenagers are currently reading a lot of. And like many children's literature academics, I don't conceal my disappointment and my judgement when they tell me that a lot of children are reading what I consider, subjectively of course, but still with (I hope) some good reasons, to be trash; bad literature; literature that is facile, bland, formulaic; literature that relies on easy responses from young readers; literature that doesn't count on the intelligence of its readers to be understood.
In response, people often say, 'Sure, I agree with you - these books are awful. But at least they're reading.'
'At least'. At least they're reading. This is such a minimal kind of success that it doesn't, in my view, actually qualify as any kind of success. At least they're reading! hallelujah... When do you ever hear people who care about children say: 'Oh, they love fries and cheeseburgers. Sure, McDonalds food is awful, but at least they're eating.' ?
It's like 'reading' is a monolithic 'thing' that one 'should' do, that it is always good to do. It's like there's no other alternative. Reading instead of doing what?
If the other option is going around throwing puppies off cliffs, sure, I'd rather they be reading. If the alternative is watching reality TV, would I still prefer them to be reading? To be entirely honest, I wouldn't really care either way. Undemanding, unsophisticated TV is equivalent to undemanding, unsophisticated books in my mind. If the alternative is watching the latest Pixar film, I'd much rather they watched that. But comparing activities is, on the whole, a fairly fruitless debate.
The myth that all reading is good is associated to the myth of trashy reading as 'gateway' to better reading: 'But then they'll read more sophisticated books!'. I doubt it.
Reading sophisticated, demanding books is not the 'next step' on the same literary ladder as trashy, unsophisticated fiction. It's a different kind of reading altogether. It follows the reading of sophisticated, demanding children's fiction, not the reading of undemanding, unsophisticated children's fiction. It's a type of reading which requires a specific, rather ascetic mindset, a mindset which cannot be a comfortable step away from trashy literature. A mindset which, I would argue, is in fact directly at odds with the one cultivated by trashy literature.
However, it could be a sidestep, or a parallel step, to the watching of demanding, sophisticated films, or the playing of demanding, sophisticated video games.
To me, there is no value, and I do mean zero value, in reading books which (most adults agree) are of low quality - lazy, unoriginal, facile and immediately appealing. It is dishonest, I think, to keep asserting that it is a good thing in itself.
Oh, I'm aware, by the way, that all of the above makes me sound like a horrible snob. I'm also aware that it is a frequently-debated issue, and that people have very strong feelings about it.
It's important that we keep having this discussion. There are problematic ideological and economic reasons why so many well-meaning adults (who would never be content to see children swallow down huge quantities of junk food) just go 'Oh well!' and smile when they see them gulping down the literary equivalent of junk food.
The relativistic myth that obviously, 'all reading is good', followed by the idea that obviously, 'trashy reading will lead to better reading', is hugely convenient, in both financial and political terms, to a lot of people.
So let's keep talking about it, because in these benevolent sentences there are transparent values, much too 'obvious' to be benign.
Clementine Beauvais writes children's books in both French and
English. The former are of all kinds and shapes, and the latter, a humour/adventure detective series, the Sesame Seade mysteries. She blogs here about children's literature and academia and is on Twitter @blueclementine.