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Tag Archives: Series fiction

But it gets kids reading! Some thoughts on critical literacy

Goosebumps: Scary House; RL Stine


I’ve used this phrase myself, but what does it actually mean? Or, more importantly, what do we mean when we say it?

It’s a phrase used to excuse what we perceive to be poor quality literature; to imply value in books that would otherwise be dismissed as pulpy, badly written or simply non-canon. It indicates snobbery; it is an apology to the self – a platitude to excuse fiction that doesn’t fit the value system we want to impart. It may not be morally improving, but at least it constitutes practice. But practice at what? Functional literacy – the level of reading comprehension and writing ability necessary to get by day-to-day – might be the go-to excuse. But is that really what we mean?

We want our children to be functionally literate because we want our adults to be functionally literate; because functional literacy is, well, useful. It’s difficult to operate in the world without being able to decipher the intricate squiggles on road signs, on food packaging, in instruction manuals. It’s useful to be able to write a shopping list, to sign our names. Functional literacy helps us apply for jobs and mortgages. It helps us navigate from A to B. The intricate cognitive processes by which we decipher the random marks on a page and assign them meaning are second nature to most of us; we read all the time, and we read without thinking about it. Read the rest of this entry

The KidLit I can’t bear to part with

Van Gogh, The Novel Reader, 1888. Oil on canvas

Unsurprisingly, I have quite a large number of kids’ books. Most of them have found their way to me in the last few years, when my academic interest in the genre was piqued. Some of them, though, have been with me since I was a wee young thing myself.

The first of them, Peepo!, is thirty years old this year. I know this because my local WHSmith, inexplicably, is holding a buy-one-get-one-half-price event to honour the fact. This is not, as one might expect, an offer on all picture books, or even just picture books from the (considerable) Ahlberg catalogue, but on one book. Unless you have two children who are particularly reluctant to share, or are chronically unable to resist a bargain, seems to me entirely inexplicable. I adore Peepo!, but I cannot imagine a situation in which I would be compelled to buy two identical copies. Read the rest of this entry

99 Problems but a witch ain’t one (or, Harry Potter is a guilty pleasure)

First, a disclaimer. I’ve read all the Harry Potter novels, I’ve seen six of the movies (and I’m reserving Half-Blood Prince pt1 until I can watch it back-to-back with Half-Blood Prince pt 2). I’m not a (capital F) Fan, but I enjoyed the series; I didn’t cry when Dobby died, but I did go ‘aaaaww’ a bit.

As a subset of the bildungsroman the school story is well placed to both mirror and lead readers own growth into maturity, and Harry Potter does this well if not faultlessly. The series has got a lot going for it. Briefly:

  • The lampooning of clueless middle-class SOMETHING MUST BE DONE-ism when Hermione Middleton Granger (whose parents are both company directors dentists) sets up Society for the Promotion of Elvish Welfare (SPEW) despite the fact that all but one of the house elves are a) happy with their lot and b) view SPEW as an insult to their race*.
  • Rowling doesn’t keep her protagonists as pre-pubescent, pre-sexual beings througout their time at Hogwarts.
  • People die. From page one of … Philosopher’s Stone to page 607 of …Deathly Hallows people are dying left, right and centre. Because kids are actually pretty able to cope with that.
  • I cannot stress this one enough: it’s better than Twilight by several orders of magnitude.
  • There’s a Dickensian page-turnerly quality which certainly isn’t down to genius prose, but nevertheless works
  • It’s a damn good story

And, most importantly,

  • it’s got kids reading 780-page novels in a culture that demands instant access to everything.

That said, let the traditional lefty Potter-bashing commence!

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Vampire fiction in the Twilight generation

You’d have to be a hermit not to have noticed the recent shift to the mainstream of supernatural fiction. Once the reserve of old-school Goths and LARPers, the supernatural is now dripping in cool.

You can barely fire up Google these days without falling over someone complaining about Twilight, but I would suggest The Escapist’s tounge-in-cheek (and spoilerific) take-down for an overview of just what’s wrong with the series. But it’s not just the über-conservative values Meyer espouses in her that make the series objectionable. There’s the terrible writing too. Meyer’s dearth of adverbs and adjectives  – dazzling, perfect, pale, glorious, er… marble – is as grating as it is lazy. It’s purple prose at its worst.

Twilight is popular, though, and not just with its target audience. Why? To YouTube!

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Feminism for Early Starters: Books for Boys

I can’t stand the title that hovers above this post. I don’t want there to be ‘books for boys’ and ‘books for girls’; I just want there to be books. Lots of them. But the heartbreaking truth of the matter is that girls and boys do experience gender segregation in their play and have stereotypical masculine/feminine behaviour reinforced by forces outside of the control of parents and carers: the t-shirts they wear feature diggers or princesses bought not in the ‘t-shirt’ department, but the boys or girls department; the toys they play with are dinosaurs or doll-houses purchased from toy stores coded in pink and blue or a catalogue that depicts girls nursing dollies and boys zooming Hot Wheels down a track.

In schools too gendered behaviours are reinforced – countless studies over the last few decades have shown that even in classrooms with teachers that perceive themselves as gender-blind still assume the superiority of male students in maths and sciences, and grade/reward accordingly, and reward meekness in girls and outgoingness in boys. Deborah A. Garrahy’s 2001 study “Three Third-Grade Teachers’ Gender-Related Beliefs and Behavior” is an intriguing example.

I digress.  If the tone of the above seems a little apologetic, it’s because it is. Almost all the books I’ve mentioned in this series have been marketed at a female audience. But feminism is not just for girls. The message of equality is equally important for young readers of all genders.

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What I learned about trends at 9.20 AM in WH Smith

Robert Cormier Heroes

This train station vendor of books – I refuse to call them booksellers – is a queer creature. Essentially news agents, they provide bleary-eyed commuters with their daily paper and weekly NME, Grazia or Take A Break and weary travellers with limp, underfilled sandwiches only marginally less overpriced than those for sale on the trains.

The WH Smith branch in which I find myself this bright Thursday morning has a large book section taking up just under half of the small train station concourse store. Their stock-in-trade is bestsellers – books with NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE emblazoned over the Hollywood-perfect cover photo. Gaudy yellow easy-peel stickers advertise three for £10 deals on every other title. TV tie-ins and pocket-sized dictionaries dominate the reference section, travel guides and pop psychology the non-fiction section.

Children’s titles are consigned to a corner. The shelves are messy and confused. Books in on the adult shelves are organised by genre and then alphabetically, with at one copy of most titles displayed cover-on, the better to entice the casual purchaser. Not so in the children’s section. There is no sense that I can see in the arrangement; tall and thin science and maths workbooks sit beside vampire romance fiction for the 11-16 crowd, written hastily to ride on the coat tails Stephenie Meyer’s odious Twilight series. CBeebies tie-ins jostle beside My First Encyclopaedia and Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging (NOW A MAJOR MOTION PICTURE).  A Latin translation of A Bear Called Paddington, ordered by some over-eager assistant buyer, languishes dustily at the back.

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Getting Back to the Point

A few months ago Alex over at For Book’s Sake posted a bit of nostalgia about the Point Horror series of Young Adult novels. I was transported to the library at my middle school, sitting in the quiet with a bag of contraband Bombay mix and devouring Point Horror novels with gusto. They were mandatory, it seemed, for my generation. If you hadn’t read Teacher’s Pet, Trick or Treat or The Cheerleader you were no one. Like watching Blossom (Friday evening, 6pm, Channel 4) or wearing a Sweater Shop sweater with the collar of a plaid shirt visible at the neck, if you weren’t involved you simply weren’t part of the culture. We didn’t know what zeitgeist was in 1994, but we were all about it.

So, I high-tailed it over to Amazon and placed a very exciting order.

A couple of days later a package thunked on to the doormat. Inside sat three well-loved, thick books. I’d never had a ‘Collection’ before, three novels bundled into together. But now I had three of them. They sat unloved for some time, while I wrestled with an essay on Katherine Mansfield, then I someone recommended The Winter Ghosts, so I had to read that. The Point Horror collections got buried under a pile of academicy looking papers, half-completed forms, and detritus.

Last week I wanted, no, needed something trashy to read in the bath.  The feeling, to quote Meat Loaf, came upon me like a tidal wave. I had just the thing. And so it was that over the next few days I wallowed in teenage horror. Collection One – Mother’s Helper, The Invitation and The Beach Party, Collection Two – My Secret Admirer, The Accident and Funhouse, Collection Nine – The Perfume, Silent Witness and Phantom: I read them all.

They vary wildly in quality. Formulaic and predictable, they vascillate between true explorations of teen angst and empty frivolity. They utilise stock characters and simple plots. In The Perfume, for example, a teenage girl is drawn to a new fragrance on the market – Venom – which unleashes her evil twin. She could be called Tiffany. She could be called Cloud or River. She could be called Laine. I can’t remember. These are the characters we’re dealing with. Whatever, The Perfume is awful. It’s like a kick in the teeth to any teen with an ounce of intelligence. It is prosaic, formulaic, simple.

Now, simple isn’t necessarily bad. Reading through my stash of Point Horror, I was reminded frequently of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. A plot like that of The Perfume in the hands of Joss Whedon and chums could have been sassy. Something witty and scary and engaging. We could have had a protagonist to identify with – after all, the evil twin trope is ripe for exploration of some of the issues close to adolescent hearts: that fear that no one knows who we really are, that our changing bodies are capable of things we don’t like or understand. But we don’t. We have a ridiculous story that isn’t buffered by smart dialogue or worthy introspection.

It’s not all bad. The Invitation is genuinely interesting. Revolving round that almost unthinkable adolescent quandry of why a Popular Girl would bother to  invite  little old you to a party, it teases genuine emotion from its heroes. It resonates. It speaks to the AV geek in all of us.

No new Point Horror books have been produced since 2005. In a world where the Saw franchise can make more than $850 million, perhaps there is no need for them. But would I press a copy of The Cemetery in to the hands of a bored twelve-year-old looking for entertainment? Probably, yes. They’re not edifying or complex, they’re escapist. And sometimes that’s just what you need.