What’s Good For You: ‘detoxifying’ reading

I am annoyed, and I am disappointed.

Scholastic, the huge global children’s publisher who do, among other things, Harry Potter in the States, have a blog. And on their blog they had a post about doing a ‘literary cleanse’, which is what you’d call ‘throwing out books’ if you weren’t desperately hanging your monthly blog post on a New Year’s Resolution hook.

So this ‘literary cleanse’, in the way of overstretched metaphors, involves ‘detoxifying’ your life to make it ‘healthier’. And what genre of book do we find exemplified as the filthy junk poison that the author needs to eliminate? No, go on, you have one guess.

from this day forward I am officially strict in my literary screening process. I’ll think long and hard about what I want to read in the first place, and if it’s not good for me (ex: See’s Candy catalog, trashy romance novel), it’s out. (Source)

Now, you may argue that the author means only trashy romance novels and not the good ones, but let’s be honest: she doesn’t. Trashy is a word that gets attached to romance like brave to any celebrity who’s been slightly poorly, or renowned to curators being murdered in the Louvre. Romance novel=trashy romance novel. Anyone who cares about the genre wouldn’t have used this example because they’d be tired of being kicked in the teeth.

The author is of course entitled not to read romance, or to feel it’s bad for her, just as she is entitled to toss out casual dismissals of any genre she likes. I think it’s more meaningful to criticise a specific book than to dismiss a whole genre, but whatever, it’s a throwaway line in a throwaway post, who cares. That’s her point of view, fair enough. What bothers me is to find this kind of thing on a children’s publisher’s platform, and here’s why.

The thing about children’s publishing is, it cannot be worthy or didactic. We’ve been through that. Children need to read books that are the kind of thing they want to read, and that may not be what a well-meaning adult considers ‘good for you’. I hate Horrid Henry and the oeuvre of Jacqueline Wilson with every fibre of my being, but my kids go through them like maddened locusts, and every book improves their reading skills, vocabulary, reading fluency, joy in picking up a book.

Scholastic know this. You can tell they know this because they publish Rainbow Magic in the US. Brace for pink.

rainbow-magic-banner-1115528

Here is what Scholastic have to say about Rainbow Magic:

Rainbow Magic is a delightful way to boost literacy. The predictable series plotlines gently stretch reading skills, allowing children to develop their fluency and speed in a fun and familiar context.

Even the publisher says it’s predictable. Oh my God, is it predictable. We must have had fifty of these pass through our doors, and (aside from the first seven, which are actually good), every single one was identically plotted, repetitive to the point of brain death, and utterly unchallenging.

My daughter read and reread these things, her literary security blanket when she was coping with starting school. She  started to develop critical faculties off their pink-foiled backs (‘Why do the goblins always hide the stolen magical objects where Kirsty and Rachel live?’) and eventually got bored and moved on without regret. She is now seven with a reading age of 14, so I’m pretty sure they didn’t rot her brain. I never want to encounter Bertha the Barrel-Scraping Fairy again, but these books were worth every penny and every minute for her.

These books are fun and pleasurable for kids. Not for anyone else, sure, but that’s the point. Scholastic publish series after series of stuff that any tweedy literary critic would pick up using tongs because they know bloody well that there is a massive value in reading for pleasure. They know readers often need a sense of familiarity and security. They know that the book world is wider than the Times Literary Supplement would have you believe. They publish stuff that their readers want to read, not just to make money, but because the health of the entire book world depends on people learning to love stories and read voraciously.

So why the hell would a publisher that knows about the importance of fun, and familiarity, and story, and reading for pleasure, casually publish a swipe at an adult genre that offers the same thing?

Why can’t adults read for pleasure? What exactly makes romance (or fantasy, or YA, or implausible conspiracy thrillers) ‘trash’ as a genre? I’m not just defending the genre books that are brilliantly written and well executed here, legion though they are. Even the most routine, uninspired, ‘trashy’ series product can have value to readers who want that sort of book right then–just like Scholastic’s routine, uninspired Rainbow Magic series product does.

It’s book snobbery. It’s the didactic, dictatorial impulse that says ‘Take away Rainbow Magic and give that child The Water Babies!’ The urge to tell people what to read, the urge to dictate what’s ‘good for you’. The attitude that can’t simply say, ‘I will read something else,’ but has to frame it as ‘This stuff is junk and I look down on you for it.’ That isn’t how anyone who cares about reading should talk about other people’s books.

Let readers have the ‘joy of reading’, as the tagline on the Scholastic website has it, without sideswiping their tastes, whether they’re adults or children. Because if you ask me, a habit of patronising, belittling or casually sneering at other people’s pleasures is a lot more toxic than reading genre fiction can ever be, and probably more likely to turn people off reading at all. And I don’t want my book-gobbling children growing up with that.

_______________

KJ Charles used to edit children’s books and now writes award-winning romance. Jackdaw is coming in February.

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26 thoughts on “What’s Good For You: ‘detoxifying’ reading

    • I hope not. I mean, she’s entitled to her own opinions, for which I wouldn’t give a monkey’s in the general way. I just think that’s one for a personal blog, not a children’s publisher to say

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    • Which is, I think, something that Scholastic would generally agree with. There’s such a kneejerk dismissiveness about romance, though, I just think it’s thoughtlessness.

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  1. If I had a tail I’d lash it. That’s a woman who is lumping all adult readers in together – as though when we grow out of Tracey Beaker and whatever ten vampire thing is the rage at any one moment we are all going to dive intoa list of the latest awards nominees with an appreciative purse of the lips and a keen eye for literary excellence. And some do and thoroughly enjoy them but some of us like a bit more pizzazz in our reading and are prepared to give any one who sneers at us a hot foot. Self congratulatory twaddle.

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    • Apparently she’s apologised on the grounds that it was a lighthearted throwaway comment. Kind of like all the other lighthearted throwaway comments every romance reader and author gets on an ongoing basis. Sigh.

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  2. YES. This is, sadly, still a very normal attitude to have towards the romance genre as a whole – and is typically held by people who have never read a romance novel in their lives. It’s a kind of distancing behavior; romance is generally regarded as trashy, so someone trying to sound intellectual and highbrow must immediately make it clear they have no liking for the genre at all. Never mind they have no idea what they’re talking about.

    The same dismissive attitude can often be found when it comes to fantasy and science fiction, but romance is generally hit hardest. IMO, this is because it’s a genre associated almost exclusively with women.

    The worst example of this unreflected pseudo-intellectual snobbery I’ve encountered was a work that purported to be a scholarly exploration of romance novels and romance readers. It was horrible on every level, especially the “scientific” one, but one of the things that stick in my mind most clearly was the prologue by the male professor co-writing the book. He placed great value on distancing himself from the genre he was about to explore: Of course he would never ever have read a romance novel if it hadn’t been necessary for the research, and of course he disliked every second of reading that kind of thing, since he was of course so very above romance novels in every way. The topic had been brought to him by a female student, or of course he would never ever even have thought of it, because HE DOESN’T LIKE ROMANCES HA HA.

    Talk about objectivity. He disqualified himself as a scientist right from the start.

    Reply
      • It was a work of “evolutionary literary studies” or some such, which basically seem to be the Marxist literary studies of today. Really, it was rather beautiful in its absolute, unscientific stupidity. (A high point: The size of boar’s balls may be referenced to explain why women like romance.)

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    • It’s the thoughtless throwaway comments that sometimes get you more than anything else, oddly. I have sailed past plenty of direct attacks but this narked me.

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  3. KJ… I SO agree with everything you mention. I, for example, was thinking as an avid reader that I had failed to teach the love of learning to my daughters…well, along comes, low and behold, the ‘Twilight’ (ugh) series. Then teen vampire books, and then paranormal, then contemporary. And, I have to say, young girls do look for romance. They are young, and they have dreams…

    Now, maybe these books would not originally be something I would’ve picked for them, but the thickness of the novels and the fact they seemed to DEVOUR them actually got both of them to get past just looking at teen magazines with all pictures. They were READING. They were increasing their vocabulary. They were, in their minds, traveling outside of a small, conservative town to the rest of the world.

    And from there they went to Harry Potter, then, now in college, they are actually reading their textbooks! Anyway, I think our biggest responsibility is to help develop young readers however we can, and whatever it takes to tickle their interest. After that, let them choose, and they at the least are hopefully literate and open-minded young people.

    Romance needs to be done with getting a bad wrap as far as I’m concerned. I have learned so much and traveled to so many places with the ROMANCE stories that I love.

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    • I’d have hoped everyone who sees children read, as parent or teacher or librarian, would know the important thing is to light the fire – it doesn’t matter what you use as kindling.

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  4. BRILLIANT! (I expect no less 😉

    I’m very fond of saying that romance — and the “predictable” happy ending– gives us hope. I’m always sort of miffed at the idea that a romance novel is dismissed as trashier than, say, a spy thriller, or a crime novel, simply because the goal of the protagonists is to fall in love and have a fruitful life together. One of my writing platforms is that there are four basic human relationships– the filial, the platonic, the divine, and the romantic. Of the four, the romantic is the only one with an age taboo–and it’s often the cornerstone of the other three. (Parents are often friends first before becoming lovers. Children learn to be friends by watching their parents. And how many of us see the divine in our lover and our family?) With that much importance, it really hurts that we dismiss the literature of romance as trash.

    Well spoken 🙂
    (Amy Lane)

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    • Don’t even start me on the acceptability ranking of different kinds of genre fiction. Or the higher value placed on depictions of rape and murder than depictions of love. I get stabby. (And could then write a critically acceptable book!) Completely agree with you, glad you liked the post. 🙂

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  5. I sometimes wish you would write the critically acceptable book. I made that proposal as my dissertation topic, and was told by my professors that “this is not part of the academic discussion.” The books themselves did not count, nor yet the history of the Leavises’ systemic attack on popular fiction. The professors offered to let me discuss genre fiction if I would agree to use Marxist theory and create an analysis of the “commodification” of fiction–seeing no irony in this demand coming from an institution that has created what I regard as its own commodity, MFA fiction.

    Eh, it’s not worth it. I’d so much rather read about the Ricardians. 😉

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    • Okay, that is *really* annoying. The ‘popular=bad’ equation drives me nuts. Do you follow the @GuyInYourMFA twitter account? Pretty much says it all

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  6. I totally agree with you! Why be so critical of a whole genre of books? I think people of any age should read what they enjoy reading without worrying about what someone else might think about their reading choices.

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    • I wish. I really don’t understand the urge to look at someone reading a book and trying to make them feel bad. I mean, if you want to make people feel bad…loan sharks? Environment-ruiners? Anti vaxxers? Not people reading books, dammit.

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  7. I agree with you 100%. I was a heavy reader of horror stories as a teen, but then life got in the way. Several years later, somebody convinced me to read a romance novel, and since I had never read one before, I gave it a shot. I’ve been hooked ever since. I love reading about people falling in love, and I hate being judged for what I read.

    After several people pointed out how inappropriate her post was, the blogger posted a comment trying to clarify what she meant.

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    • Various places. A lot of educational and struggling reader fiction, which is why I have very strong views on not book-shaming people, and a few widely identifiable names, which I prefer not to identify so I can tell rude stories without being unprofessional. 🙂

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  8. “Children need to read books that are the kind of thing they want to read, and that may not be what a well-meaning adult considers ‘good for you’. I hate Horrid Henry and the oeuvre of Jacqueline Wilson with every fibre of my being, but my kids go through them like maddened locusts, and every book improves their reading skills, vocabulary, reading fluency, joy in picking up a book.”

    Amen.

    Reply
  9. Pingback: Links To Blog Posts on Writing | Anna Butler

  10. Oh god. Horrid Henry and those sodding fairies…..my 8 year old STILL likes Rainbow Fairies but being as we’ve also read Black Beauty, we’re reading Carbonel and next on the list is The Secret Garden I also don’t think they’ve done her any harm. She’s read almost every Roald Dahl herself. I lured my oldest boy off Henry with JK Rowling and made an avid fantasy fan by so doing (MAJOR Skullduggery and Percy Jackson fan there). But as you say you have to let them read what THEY want to read. For a long time my 2nd boy had no interest in fiction beyond Horrid Henry – but he also read children’s encycloypedias for fun.
    Sadly for me I still have the Horrid Henry stage to get through one more time….

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    • I love Skulduggery Pleasant! We are ploughing though Horrid Henry still but at least all the fairies have gone. Tell you what’s *amazing*, depending on kids’ ages: The Imaginary by AF Harrold and Rooftoppers by Katherine Rundell. Two of the best kids books I’ve read in ages.

      Reply

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