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Friday 18 September 2020

The Little Treehouse That Could

The weekly grocery shop provides access to books – this week Lyndon Riggall considers the merits of a recent commercial promotion.

It’s a fascinating thing, the use of children’s merchandise as a means of encouraging commercial loyalty. Newspapers have been trying it for years to boost circulation (with there being no more sure sign of a struggling rag than a “one-a-day” DVD collecting promotion), and now it seems as if a trip to the supermarket without some kind of Ooshie, Little Shop or Discovery Garden product is a trip wasted—though where many of these objects end up for the long haul can only be a topic for grim speculation. You can imagine my surprise, then, when Coles announced that their latest venture was to hand out Little Treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton with every purchase.

The works of Griffiths and Denton are, in my mind, a curious example of the disparity between the CBCA’s consistent judgment and the nature of children’s reading on the ground level. Kids go to the Just… series and the Treehouse books in droves, but questions of their literary merit mean that they typically miss out on recognition of the kind offered by the Children’s Book of the Year awards. The concerns that might be directed towards Griffiths and Denton in times past continue with this mass-market publication, including the usual accusations that they produce texts that are “potty humour,” “promote violence” or are “disgusting” (the claims of which, I have no doubt, serve often to increase rather than diminish their readership). Griffiths has always said that his work is a subversive riff on such old-fashioned improvement literature as Hilaire Belloc’s Cautionary Tales, but whether the books are harmless fun in a world with no boundaries or encouragement of reckless misbehaviour is nevertheless up for debate. My weighing in on the issue: are the Little Treehouse books really inappropriate for children’s reading? No. Do kids love them? You bet they do.

Andy Griffiths with display of the Little Treehouse Books
Coles. (2020, July 27). Coles new collectables to inspire 
little readers
Research conducted by Coles itself found that 88% of parents said that they encouraged their children to read. What percentage of parents regularly purchased books for their children? 22%. We know that access to books make a huge difference in the literacy of children, and even if the Little Treehouse campaign was not supplemented with links to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation and a creative writing competition, it would be hard to argue that the charming, mischievous Treehouse books aren’t a huge step in the right direction from a company whose previous best efforts included mass production of inedible miniature plastic versions of groceries. 

As educators, parents, and members of the community, we know that the solution to illiteracy is found in a number of places… it is found in libraries, in schools, in bookshops and in the corners of every loungeroom and bedroom in the country. Nevertheless, we need gateways. We need books that enchant, inspire, and give children a rush of glee and dissident delight. We need books that fall into hands unbidden; that bring reading into everyday life, dragging it kicking and screaming into places we never saw it before; challenging the notions of who readers are, and what being a reader is. 

Should we need a major supermarket chain to shell out free books just to get kids reading? I wish we didn’t. Nevertheless, somewhere in Australia, a child is holding a tiny book from one of the most successful teams in our country’s legacy of children’s literature, and they only have it because they got it for free at a supermarket. They are reading and laughing. Tomorrow, they are going to want more. 

I hope that we will, eventually, have a plan for tomorrow. Today, I’m just glad that they can find Andy and Terry in the treehouse. 

Lyndon Riggall is a writer and teacher from Launceston. You can find him at http://lyndonriggall.com and @lyndonriggall on Twitter.

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