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Foreign Correspondence: The Curious Incident of the BBC Radio Show

“Why are we all reading children’s books?” That was the question raised in February by the acerbic cultural critic Norman Lebrecht on Radio 3, the BBC’s high-brow arts station. He grappled with the question with the aid of a panel consisting of children’s writers Anne Fine and Anthony Horowitz; Howard Jacobson, acclaimed author of adult fiction and Leavisite literary critic; former newspaper literary editor Miriam Gross; and Steve Rubin, U.S. publisher of The Da Vinci Code and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.

The program raised some thought-provoking issues; unfortunately, it also revealed some ugly assumptions about readers and writers of children’s books by those who claim to love literature. Their comments led to a flurry of protest descending upon the BBC and an extended venting of spleen afterward on children’s literature listservs.

A more appropriate question might have been “Why are they all reading children’s books?” because not a single member of the panel, apparently, would be caught dead with one, including the children’s authors. The they in question are the twenty- and thirty-something guys in suits who take a laptop and a copy of the latest Harry Potter to work — the ones to whom Howard Jacobson mutters, “You should be ashamed,” under his breath when he catches them reading Harry on the tube station platform.

The question is a reasonable one, and even somewhat brave, for it is now considered somewhat politically incorrect to ask it for fear of sounding elitist. The most forthright listener contribution, tellingly, was offered anonymously. Why are we all reading children’s books? “The GCSE [high school exams] syllabus prepares us for little else.” The respondent succinctly highlighted the intelligentsia’s growing fear of the dumbing-down of the UK: its culture, its education system, its media. The fear is not unfounded. For some time, the prevailing feeling has been that popular culture is inclusive and therefore good; that the arts are exclusive and therefore suspect; that everyone is entitled to a university education, even if they finish high school without learning to read or write adequately. A survey in which four out of five eighteen- to twenty-four-year-olds were unable to identify the author of The Canterbury Tales coupled with the sight of adults reading children’s books for fun must, to British intellectuals, pretty much sound the death knell of a proud literary heritage.

Certainly, that was the panelists’ view. Anne Fine pointed out that in some cases children are reading only one complete book a year in school, a factor that may be contributing to the impoverishment of reading skills in the UK. Fine said education has been dumbed down “far more than we dare admit”; she believed that adults will not want to read literature if they never learn how to tackle challenging texts when they are children.

There is undoubtedly quite a lot of truth in all this, but I can’t help feeling that Fine is adding two and two and getting five. Granted, fewer young people know who wrote The Canterbury Tales than in the past, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the number of kids actually reading and enjoying classics has changed. Furthermore, studying a difficult text in school can help foster a love of reading, but it can also have the opposite effect. No, it seems that the real objection is not to a paucity of reading skills among the population at large but rather to a culture in which PlayStations, text-messaging, and Harry Potter are as popular with adults as with children.

In fact, let’s face it: the subtext here, as in virtually everything said or written about children’s books by people who don’t usually take an interest in them, is not really children’s books per se, but Harry Potter. As usual. If people who work with children’s books are irritated by Harry’s status as the chosen one, it’s no wonder that some readers who stick to adult books are also irked by the phenomenon. The reasons adults read Harry are many, and well rehearsed: the hype has drawn them in; they read Rowling as they would any best-selling author, like Grisham; they observe the way Harry captures children’s imaginations and hope he may capture theirs, too. But whatever the reason some adults choose to read Harry Potter, the fact remains that those who usually read so-called “literary” fiction are unlikely to abandon Ian McEwan in favor of Goosebumps.

Many people who disapprove of the Harry phenomenon don’t seem to know that the broad spectrum of books for children includes some novels that are sophisticated enough to offer something to adult readers as well. Therefore they put Philip Pullman in the same pigeonhole as J. K. Rowling, where he quite clearly doesn’t belong. These readers may never encounter any of the more challenging titles for children and teenagers, relegated as they often still are to a section at the back of bookshops and in library basements, where Junk (published as Smack in the U.S.) is shelved near Traction Man Is Here! Harry Potter is neither sophisticated enough nor intended for older children, yet it may well be the only book for children that people like Howard Jacobson come across, so despite the fact that it is so very unrepresentative the series has nevertheless come to represent the whole of children’s literature. The literary purists assume that if “dumbed down” adults comprise a significant proportion of Harry’s readership, the same must be true of other books for children. Thus, when Jacqueline Wilson, the new children’s laureate, was revealed to be the most borrowed author in UK libraries for the second year running, Norman Lebrecht accused her of jumping on a bandwagon, thinking that her books, like Rowling’s, must attract an adult readership. The truth, though, is that adults don’t read Wilson’s novels; children do. Last year her books were borrowed more than two million times for or by child readers. How sad that children’s healthy use of public libraries should be misconstrued as something to be sneered at rather than celebrated.

These high-brow cultural commentators conclude that since Harry Potter is both a children’s book and a symbol of dumbing-down, it follows that all children’s books must be of little or no literary value. It was no surprise, then, when Howard Jacobson bemoaned the cult of the bestseller and the cult of the children’s author in the same breath, implying that bestsellers are bad and children’s bestsellers, even worse. Lebrecht compared Meg Rosoff’s reported million-pound advance for how i live now with the pittance with which “successful and long-established adult novelists are being palmed off.” But what about the respected and established writers for children who are palmed off with a pittance? And the mediocre writers of adult fiction who get million-pound advances? Why should Rosoff’s books be worth less than another author’s simply because they are written for a younger readership?

The panel, with the exception of Anne Fine, seemed to believe that children’s books are intrinsically inferior to those written for adults. Miriam Gross dismissively declared, “For adults to read these pointless plots seems to me [to be] demeaning.” These, presumably, would be the same pointless plots used over and over throughout the history of literature. To his credit, Anthony Horowitz pointed out that Pullman’s work is superior to that of John Grisham and Dan Brown, but he still believed that the National Theatre’s production of His Dark Materials — “an adaptation of a children’s book” — was confirmation “that the world had gone mad.” From here it was a short step to dismissing the entire corpus of children’s literature as unworthy of consumption — not just by adults but, bizarrely, by children as well.

Howard Jacobson, fondly recalling reading Dickens and comic-book versions of Macbeth in his own childhood, suggested that children should read classics or nothing at all. “Every time we give a child a child’s book, we are keeping from them from . . . an adult book,” he said. “We’ve got to the point now where we’re so excited that kids are reading that we think the act of reading is itself so wonderful that anything [that] gets them to do it is good. . . . Reading is not necessarily a good thing.” Later on he added, “If you’re reading something not worth reading, don’t read.”

In claiming that children’s books are of no literary merit, Jacobson did a huge disservice to the children’s authors who write books that are adventurous and challenging in form or content and as complex in literary terms as many of those intended for an adult readership. Would the Archbishop of Canterbury really have discussed the moral implications of His Dark Materials with Philip Pullman before a National Theatre audience if he felt the books were unworthy of debate among adults? One hundred years from now, His Dark Materials may well be included in the canon of classic literature. With the series labeled “classic” rather than “children’s book,” the panel would presumably then admit that it is of a sufficiently high quality to be taken seriously.

Pullman listened to the program. Afterward, he was scathing, calling it “a rich mixture of ignorance and condescension. . . . It pandered to what it thought a clever audience would naturally think, without taking the trouble to think for itself. There was a sort of idle smart-aleckry at work; the dismal assumption that naturally everything to do with children would be of a lower standard than anything to do with adults. . . . Is it really better to read nothing than to read Harry Potter? Really? Nothing? Ever? What canting drivel.” Other listeners wrote in to the BBC’s Feedback program, demanding a rematch with a more balanced panel. The complaints were listened to politely, but no satisfaction was forthcoming.

The furor began to die down. Then, a few weeks later, an article titled “The Greatest Stories Ever Told” appeared in The Guardian, the quality press’s champion of children’s books. An oblique rebuttal to the radio show, the article trumpeted our “golden age of children’s literature.” The proof of this new era, the journalist suggested, was in the interest adults are taking in children’s books, as well as in the vast sums of money that publishers pour into new releases.

A golden age of children’s literature? That remains to be seen. But a golden age of marketing? Now that, certainly, must be true. Even popular authors like Jacqueline Wilson bemoan the fact that children’s book publishing has become too heavily weighted in favor of finding the next big thing. “I have a little suspicion that often so many children say they want to be writers because they’ve read about various high-profile authors and think it’s an easy way to get rich and famous,” she says. “Sometimes, inevitably you feel that it’s all about the push behind a book, rather than the book itself.” It is, of course, quite possible that this will prove to be a golden age of children’s literature; it’s just that the majority of readers will have to dig through the mountains of hype to find the gems.

An article in The Independent newspaper marking Wilson’s appointment as laureate raised the issue, referring to children’s literature’s newfound “gravitas and glamour.” The trouble is, it’s the glamour that’s taking center stage. At an event to celebrate his Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award (worth an admittedly glamorous sum), Philip Pullman spoke of a need to focus once again on quality rather than quantity. The quality is there, of course, and always has been, despite what the talking heads on Radio 3 think. Norman Lebrecht seemed to concede that when, seeking a snappy ending to his program, he contradicted virtually all that had gone before: “Why are we all reading children’s books?” he asked, and answered his own question, grudgingly, “Maybe because some of them are just good.” If he and his “experts” read a few more children’s books before making public pronouncements on their value, maybe they’d find that — for once — he’d gotten something right.

From the September/October 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

About Madelyn Travis

Madelyn Travis is features editor and a reviewer for, the children’s book website of the London-based educational charity Booktrust. She is currently completing her M.A. in children’s literature at the University of Surrey, Roehampton.

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