School libraries are a haven for many children. I myself spent hours in its clutches, digging through old and new texts and expanding my learning in areas I would never get near during school time. That is one of the beauties of reading for pleasure at any age – it can be self-directed. While in that room, parents and teachers alike could rest assured that the books we found there were age-appropriate but also mind-expanding. No one could argue that this was a bad thing, that having a group of teenagers sitting quietly together in a world of information was detrimental to our development, personal or academic. Fiction or nonfiction, it did not matter. The point was that we were reading.
The headmaster announced that authors such as Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy were "so simplistic, brutal or banal" that children should not be exposed to them on school grounds
So when I heard a prominent fee-paying school in Britain was planning to cut some of the most popular middle-grade fiction from their library, I was outraged. The headmaster of King’s College School in Wimbledon, Andrew Halls, announced that authors such as our own Eoin Colfer and Derek Landy and others including Rick Riordan and Anthony Horowitz were “so simplistic, brutal or banal” that the children should not be exposed to them on school grounds.
When you read the list further you will find that were you to walk into any bookshop and look at their children’s bestsellers, the vast majority of them would not make it into their hallowed halls. The headmaster claims that they are “bad” books which do not show meaningful character development and that books such as Goodnight Mister Tom, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and Sherlock Holmes were more suitable.
I would never argue that these books are not masterpieces. I studied Goodnight Mister Tom at junior level in class and I enjoyed it. But it was on the curriculum and so every member of the class got to experience it, take it apart chapter by chapter and then reassemble it for better or worse. We got to see the worth of the books we studied and then when we left that classroom we were free to read what we liked and were encouraged to do so.
There are a huge number of children whose only chance to pick a book for themselves is from the school library and so this is a dangerous belief to put out into the world
Some might argue that these children can just go home and read what they want in their own time. Of course when they come from one of the most prestigious English schools, they may well be able to afford it but it will be the attitude which will go home with them that is the bigger issue. This is a high-profile move that parents will internalise and may push onto their children. Not to mention that other schools in less privileged areas may follow. There are a huge number of children whose only chance to pick a book for themselves is from the school library and so this is a dangerous belief to put out into the world.
In the years I have worked as a bookseller I have seen the same scene played out again and again. One of my favourite moments in the job is when a child comes in looking for the next book of a series they adore. There is no beating a book which pulls a child so completely that the real world ceases to exist. I found that world in many books, the vast majority of which are now banned in this school.
Countless times I have had parents come to me desperate for their child to find a book they will enjoy. They understand that reading can be an important part of developing a child’s view of the world. We live in a time where physical books have to compete with computers and modern technology of all kinds. The books need to step up and offer something they can’t find anywhere else. So when someone comes back and says they’re not a “reader” but loved a book, that is a real victory.
Had we given them an old classic set in a world that is in no way relatable to the reader, when that is not what they are interested in, they would never come back. It is so easy to put a child off reading entirely because there are so many other things they could be doing with their time. They are forced to read in school. How many other subjects can we convince them to take up in their spare time?
When it comes down to it, we need to make reading worth their while and enjoyable. Because of this, so long as it is age-appropriate, I really do not care what they read for pleasure so long as they are reading. Halls is worried about children reading below their level, and cites a report which states that if left to their own devices children from 13-16 will read three years below their reading ability. Surely if this the case it makes more sense to widen their choices rather than limit them?
Maybe teachers who hold these views need to talk to their students, ask what it is about Robert Muchamore (of the Cherub and Henderson Boys series) and Zoe Sugg (Girl Online) that they enjoy. They may find that it is because they are relatable and engaging. Not to imply that the “higher calibre” books should be ignored, but there will always be children who want to read them as taste is not universal nor should it be.
The books which are popular are such because there is pleasure in them, there is hope in them and there is something that the readers cannot find elsewhere
It is not a lack of “empathy” as Hall suggests which is causing this, but the classic need for teenagers to find their own space in the world that they can feel comfortable in. These “bad” books give them something they cannot find elsewhere, be it adventure, friendship or a point of view they have never seen before. The books which are popular are such because there is pleasure in them, there is hope in them and there is something that the readers cannot find elsewhere.
Maybe Halls needs to find empathy himself and realise that not every moment of a child’s life needs to be an academic lesson and that the gift of reading does not, and will never need to be censored.
Lorraine Levis is a children’s bookseller/buyer for Dubray Books and a YA and KidLit commentator