Some time ago I came across a report from the National Literacy Trust which claimed that around 3.8 million children in the UK grow up without owning a single book. Normally, I don’t care much for newspaper statistics of the kind. However, imagine growing up and not owning at least one episode of Narnia or Harry Potter or a dinosaur picture/fact book. The idea was so bleak that it’s been hard to get out of my head.
So naturally, when I came across a poll on the Guardian website asking adults which book “you would most like to pass on to your children”, I suddenly felt the pressure was on. This is in many ways like the famous “what single item would you take to a deserted island” question in that if you get it wrong, you’re screwed- except much worse because it concerns my entirely hypothetical children. I was surprised to see that the top 10 of most chosen books included Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice) and George Orwell (Animal Farm), neither of whom I would consider children’s authors at all. I would not wish Orwell’s dystopian farm with its grinning, sadistic pigs on any child’s imagination. Then again, I feel sorry for those who chose Austen and ended up with boys, or indeed girls without an interest in Mr. Darcy or 19th century marriage politics.
(not a great bedtime read)
Number one on the list was Charles Dickens’ Christmas Carol, which I’m not sure about. While it ticks the boxes for being entertaining, wise, and rich in movie adaptations, I wouldn’t want to make children live all year round feeling that they’re being watched by the Ghosts of Christmasses Past, Present, and Future. Books that are too moralistic don’t appeal to me much. The same goes for C.S. Lewis, whose Narnia features hidden worlds, dancing fauns and roaring lions, which seems wonderful until you get to the part where the lion begins to bear a suspicious resemblance to Jesus.
I was disappointed to find that even though all the books on the list are wonderful, I probably would not have fully understood or enjoyed most of them as a child, including Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Many books I loved as a kid aren’t represented at all- I most of all miss any mention of Roald Dahl or Astrid Lindgren. The only possible explanation is that the parents considered Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Pippi Longstocking a bit too much of an anarchist influence. Pippi lives in a ramshackle villa – with no parents – and the only time she goes to school, I seem to remember her disrupting class so much the teacher is quite desperate for her to go home. As for Roald Dahl, I suppose disposing of bullies – however self-centred and nasty – by dropping them down factory garbage chutes or turning them into giant pieces of fruit to be juiced does not fit in well with responsible parenting.
If I had to choose from this list, there is little doubt that I would probably choose J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter for its imagination, adventure and the way the books get darker and more complicated as you grow up with the series. However, I remember my mother telling me she was initially reluctant to let me read the third book when I was around 10, for fear that the Dementors would be too frightening. Strangely, I cannot remember being very scared of the dementors or even Voldemort at all- the only character I found disturbing as a child was in fact a perfectly innocent and non-threatening giant bird in a dutch children’s book. It scared me not only because it looked like a cross between Big Bird and a woolly-haired mammoth and had big staring eyes, but because it was the only animal in the whole book (including pigeons and cockroaches) that couldn’t talk to the main character, a little boy. It seems ridiculous now, but at the time I found its muteness so eerie that I never liked the book much as a result.
The point is that you just can’t tell what children are going to be afraid of, or indeed what will fascinate them, unless you let them find out how their imagination works. I think children should be encouraged to read as much as possible- but by all means, let them work out whether they prefer to read Dahl or Dickens or that science book about the Milky Way themselves.