Crappy reading…

Author Juliet Marillier (who lives in my home state of Western Australia) writes here about her time at the Children’s Book Council of Australia conference. She makes mention of a professor from USA who, in Juliet’s words:

“used his keynote address to slam consumer culture and what he called the ‘endumbment’ and ‘commodification’ of children through the commercialization and standardization of children’s books. He was especially damning in his criticism of publishers for giving in to commercial interests by producing books principally for entertainment – his example was a certain series aimed at girls, with various tie-in products available – rather than books that reflect community values and standards.”

Luckily Neil Gaiman was also speaking at the conference. He took up that point and disagreed with the blanket condemnation of ‘entertainment’ fiction (in Juliet’s words again):

“Neil made the most telling point (for me) of the whole conference by recalling his sense of excitement and wonder at reading a certain thrilling adventure novel as a child, then his surprise on returning to that same book as an adult and finding the prose quite flat and clunky (think Famous Five). What we writers give our readers, Neil said, is a ‘raw code’ or ‘loose architectural plan’ which they use to build the book themselves. No two readers read a book alike – it’s the reader who gives the characters faces, builds the landscape, brings life to the story. Even if the book is poorly written, it is a seed, and if it falls on fertile ground it will grow, bloom and be treasured. A book may be one of those commercial titles written for corporate profit, but it can still take root in a child’s imagination. Neil pointed out that some fine things can be grown in crap.”

Oh yes.
Better for a kid to read something with passion, than to read nothing.
When I was eight, I went through a stage of refusing to read anything except Enid Blyton. This was partially as a result of being introduced to a library for the first time in my life (on a trip to visit my grandfather in Melbourne) and discovering that Blyton had written SO many books. I was in book heaven, overdosing on delicious mindless reading… Sexist, racist, uppercrust crappy entertainment – and I loved every enthralling word.

And I still remember, fifty plus years later, the joyous, glorious pleasure of that month or so, gorging on books. I even somehow managed to grow up reasonably tolerant.

I might have been eight years old, yet the only other things I remember about that trip, apart from my grandfather, was falling off a Melbourne tram and skinning my knees, the joys of running through piles of Autumn leaves (we don’t get much of that in W.A.), pressing a doorbell for the first time in my life (my mother was mortified because I was so taken with the sound that I didn’t take my finger off it), and the smell of the scullery in my Grandfather’s house (it was gas, I realise now. I’d never smelled it before).

I was a farm kid, O.K.?


Crappy reading… — 11 Comments

  1. Yeah, I too loved Enid Blyton’s schoolgirl books. With sardines, condensed milk and lashings and lashings of ginger beer…

  2. Perhaps inappropriately for a male, I also enjoyed Blyton’s books. In fact, probably among the first books I read were from her Magic Faraway Tree series. I loved them, and re-read them many, many times. I only had access to a few Famous Five books, but very much liked those, too (though I remember thinking that there was something embarrassing about my enjoyment). Great stuff! Looking back on those books, and others that I read, I wonder how much my character was shaped by those stories. More than I would have guessed, I suspect.

    Regarding literary snobbery: meh. What a load. Stories can be for pure entertainment, as well as teaching. If they’re both, that’s great, but it’s hardly mandatory. It’s not like there’s some absolutist rules that books must conform with! Consider that books have only existed as a mass medium for a couple of centuries, and it’s obvious that any “tradition” has fairly weak foundations.

  3. I did read Enid Blyton but not with as much enthusiasm as the Biggles books which were actually written a bit before my time, but which I found really exciting. My main comment though, many good children’s books can still be enjoyed when one is adult, the Narnia books are a case in point. I didn’t read them until I was an adult. Winnie the Pooh has many features which cannot really be appreciated by a child and have given me many a chuckle. I also read a Paddington Bear book with much amusement although I only ever read one. I have never read books to be educated and nor do I think it necessary for children’s books to be just educational, although I have picked up a stack of information over the years which I wouldn’t have gained if I hadn’t read books since a young child. I remember one series about the Lone Pine Club (Malcolm Saville I think) which led me to form our own local branch of the club.

  4. I just re-read what you said cat sparks, sardines, condensed milk and ginger beer. How exactly did you consume this? It sounds a very odd mix.

  5. All mixed together, Cat? Now that explains a lot…

    I think the initial speaker may have had some valid points though – about say, YA books that are aimed at girls within tie-in products available – sounds rather like a marketing con, rather than a reading experience, aimed more at their competitive peer group ‘look what I got’ mentality rather than intellectual stimulation or even entertainment.

    Biggles, ah yes, Jo, Loved them!

  6. I loved Biggles and the Enid Blyton books as a child. Having two brothers, I much preferred so-called boys’ games like marbles and riding my bike so I identified to some extent with George instead of wet Anne. As an example of attitudes to girls in those times, after a short time girls were banned from playing marbles at school because it was not “ladylike”.

  7. I remember getting into horrendous trouble at an English boarding school when I was around 9, for having American comics sent to me, they had the Superman series in them. I remember being asked if I thought blue hair was artistic (highlights in garish colours). A distant relative used to send them and I always figured if my parents didn’t disapprove, the school should have backed off.

  8. I too loved the Enid Blyton books… but back then I didn’t know about sexism, racism or anything like that… it was a story.. it was made up and it was fun…

    as to YA and tie in merchandise, what isn’t a tie in these days? Look at children’s works. TV, books, clothing ranges etc… why should YA be any different? they have to train the next wave of consumers and this is the way to do it.

    One can only hope that as neil said some seeds fall on fertile ground to encourage the next generation of readers and more importantly writers… because withoout writers we have no new stories and that would be a shame…

    and why does everything have to be educational for the children? Is it because as a society alot of parents are too busy with work and such to educate their children and therefore expect someone else do it, therefore everything must be educational? Let children be children, they will have long enough being an adult…

    let them dream of bears stuffed with fluff and magical trees and wardrobes….

  9. Hear, hear, Silver Fox. With you on all of that. Although I do think it is time we spent more time teaching young consumers to be more discerning, and to care less about fashion and what everyone else has…

    Loved Biggles too, I must admit, Jo. And George over Anne.

    Jason, surely Blyton was also for boys?

    Imagine me – yeah, I remember marbles were for boys, although as I recall it was the boys, not the teachers, who enforced that rule!!

  10. Jason – I read all the Famous Fives as a young lad, and quite a few of the other books too. (Including some of the Mallory Towers & whatever the other girls’ school series was.)

    Those plus the (x) of Adventure series, Moon Castle, etc etc. Devoured them all, looked around for more.

    One of the shelves in my special bookcase has a complete set of Famous Fives in the original hardbacks – some of them first editions. I also have quite a few paperbacks which the kids use as reading copies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.