“Let Children Pick Their Own Books”

“There is no such thing as a bad book for children,” says author Neil Gaiman, best-selling writer and Carnegie Medal-winner.  He was delivering the second annual Reading Agency lecture at London’s Barbican on October 14.  He said that compelling children to read books deemed appropriate by adults will leave them convinced that reading is ‘uncool and unpleasant’. . . 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 or 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. . . . 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.”  My own recent experience with children’s reading involves my grandchildren.  In Sicily this past summer, I brought along two illustrated books: one of Aesop’s fables and the other of fairy tales.  After dinner, I offered to read to them.  One grandson, in particular, was very keen to listen.  He would select one book or the other, pick out a particular story, and comment on it after I had read it (or even during the reading).  His younger brother and sister were interested, initially, but they preferred other occupations. More recently, I read bedtime stories to two other grandsons, aged 5 and 3.  They each picked out a book they wanted me to read.  (They had to take turns.)  The older one picked out a child’s book that would have been difficult for a thirteen-year-old to follow.  (It was a compilation of ancient fairy tales in ancient language.)  I pointed out that it maybe he wouldn’t like it so much, but he insisted that I carry on with the reading, perhaps because he wanted to get an idea of what older children liked to read.  After about the third tale, he selected another book.  His younger brother wanted to be read to, also, but his idea of being read to was to explore illustrated pop-up books, and comment on them. I can remember when I was about thirteen, there was a paperback novel called The Amboy Dukes in which my classmates were highly interested.  I was told, when I finally got a copy, was that the cover illustration was two teenagers having sex.  This seemed rather doubtful, as both the boy and the girl were dressed.  I remember showing the book to my mother, and pointing out the cover illustration.  She, too, was sceptical, but she made no other comment.  But, I decided to read it, in case there were salacious sections.  There weren’t.  It was boring.  King Arthur was much more interesting.

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