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.

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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.

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

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