A few years ago, I was surprised to open a newspaper and read that the head teacher of a London public school had decided to ban my books from his library. He described the adventures of Alex Rider, which have sold around 20 million- copies worldwide, in terms so derogatory that I have no mind to repeat them. Suffice it to say that the article quite put me off my cornflakes.
But the strange thing was that — once I had got past the sheer offensiveness of his language and a mindset that believed that banning books could ever have good connotations — I was actually quite sympathetic to his wider point of view. Everyone agrees that children benefit from reading, but we seldom discuss what exactly we would like them to read. I’ve always believed that a worthwhile children’s book should encourage young readers to raise their game; it should enlighten and illuminate as well as entertain. And that is what I hope I’ve written.
Last week newspapers reported that J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series seemed to have fallen out of favour with secondary pupils, who were instead turning to titles such as David Walliams’s Gangsta Granny and Mr Stink. Personally, I find Walliams entertaining and I think Tony Ross, whose illustrations often take up most of the page, is a genius. If children like these books, it would be crazy to put them off buying them. But that said, Rowling reinvented modern children’s literature, created a fully realised world that ignited the dreams of millions, and proved that a book with 600 pages could still be manageable. I read this news with a heavy heart.
The question is, if you take against the ‘farting granny’ books (and there are plenty of other authors writing in this vein), if you reject teenage spies, vampires, ghosts and dragons, what are you going to offer young readers? Again I sighed when my own demon headmaster (there is an excellent series of that name, by the way, by Gillian Cross) suggested some of the titles he had read as a boy: Goodnight Mister Tom, Treasure Island, Just William, the Jennings series, Moonfleet…
These are wonderful books. I was never too crazy about Stevenson and found the battles at the end of Treasure Island confusing and interminable, but I loved the others, and to them I would add the Willard Price adventure series, the Chronicles of Narnia, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, The Silver Sword, the Just So Stories… I’m sure all of these titles will be familiar to Spectator readers, particularly those of my age. The truth is that they made me the writer that I am.
The fact that they are still in print speaks both to the quality of their writing and to their continued relevance, and when I visit schools or talk at festivals I often mention them and recommend them. I can completely understand a parent — or teacher — who wishes to share their own childhood favourites with their children. But even so, I think they’re making a mistake if they are too prescriptive — for two reasons.
The first is that choosing a book, finding what you like, is one of the greatest pleasures of reading. It was the peculiar genius of Roald Dahl to recognise that children’s books should belong to children, not to adults, and he was the first modern author to speak their language, to share their sense of humour and their worldview. Before Dahl came along, and even when my own career was beginning, it often struck me that most children’s authors were either distant or dead. I read what my parents had read or what they gave me to read.
The beauty of reading is that it’s a journey. A child may start in the foothills with spies or zombies but once they’ve acquired the habit of reading they will be on their way to higher ranges… Dickens and Austen or McCarthy and McEwan… I’m plucking at random some of the writers I love. And I began with Tintin!
The second reason is more pernicious. The world has changed since we were children, and the books we read no longer connect with a generation which does not drink fizzy pop or think of war as being glorious or scrump apples from the local farmers. It may be hard to identify with a young hero who pipes up ‘This is going to be perfectly splendid!’, even if, a few pages later, he leads you through the wardrobe and into Narnia.
Modern children’s writers connect with modern times. Look at Malorie Blackman whose brilliant Noughts & Crosses series goes to the very heart of what racism means, both emotionally and politically: the first book has just been adapted by the BBC. Or The Hate U Give, the eviscerating story of a police shooting, written by Angie Thomas when she was still in her twenties. Her mother once took her into a library to keep her safe from a neighbourhood shooting. Not all children’s books need to be issue-based but writers from Patrick Ness (The Knife of Never Letting Go) to Meg Rosoff (How I Live Now) and Neil Gaiman (Coraline — a modern day Alice in Wonderland) have succeeded by making their fantasies relevant to a new generation of readers.
Alison David, a director at the children’s book publisher Egmont, is leading a petition to make storytime compulsory in primary schools. She adroitly summarises what’s at stake: ‘Children who read achieve more, do better in all subjects, and experience better wellbeing, yet only 37 per cent of children aged six to 11 read for pleasure daily.’
It’s those words ‘for pleasure’ that are the key. Reading for pleasure, whatever book they choose, is something that every child should experience. Watching a child browse in a library or bookshop always makes me smile. I write adventure stories, but I am aware that, in an increasingly prohibitive age, reading should be an adventure in itself.