When discussing the practise of reading, and how beneficial it can be on a growing child’s mind, imagination and capacity to focus, there’s always a friction between the broad approval that children are reading at all, and the specific disapproval – that children are reading THAT.
Neil Gaiman has recently felt the sharp end of this conflict, when his book Neverwhere was taken out of circulation at a school in Alamogordo, New Mexico, after a complaint from a child’s mother that it was inappropriate.
So you’d expect him to be broadly in favor of letting children make their own minds up about their tastes in children’s fiction.
But, giving the second annual Reading Agency lecture, to key people in the arts and education in London’s Barbican on Monday night, Neil went a step further, calling recent changes in public taste towards authors such as Enid Blyton “tosh, snobbery and foolishness.”
He said: “I don’t think there is such a thing as a bad book for children.
“Every now and again it becomes fashionable among some adults to point at a subset of children’s books, a genre, perhaps, or an author, and to declare them bad books, books that children should be stopped from reading.
“I’ve seen it happen over and over; Enid Blyton was declared a bad author, so was RL Stine, so were dozens of others. Comics have been decried as fostering illiteracy. It’s tosh. It’s snobbery and it’s foolishness.
“There are no bad authors for children, that children like and want to read and seek out, because every child is different. They can find the stories they need to, and they bring themselves to stories.
“A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is the gateway drug to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same taste as you.
“Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the 21st Century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature. You’ll wind up with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”
Speaking about his recent experiences as a banned author, Neil was quick to praise the teachers at the school who spoke up in favor of his work, and takes a philosophical view of his critics:
He told the BBC: “Books get challenged. I tend to take books of mine being challenged and occasionally being banned – and very occasionally being burned – as a kind of badge of honour. You know you are doing something right.”
He added, with a grin: “And in Alamogordo, New Mexico, you know that… those kids are going to be really desperate to get their hands on Neverwhere, and I want to apologise to them all because there really aren’t lashings of sex and violence.”