Welcome to the blog of the Tasmanian branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia!

Tuesday 11 October 2011

Popular versus "literary" - where do you stand?

I used to work in the children's section of an independent book shop. I made it my duty to read just about every children's book that hit the shelves, so I could knowledgeably recommend the books to both children and parents.

Some days, I wondered why I bothered.

Parents (and grandparents) would come up to me and ask for recommendations for birthday presents or occasional gifts. "She's fifteen," they'd say. "What do you recommend for a fifteen year old?"

That question in itself always made me cringe. As if all fifteen year olds are the same and enjoy reading exactly the same kind of book! But I was used to this question. I was used to having to dig a little bit deeper. So I'd ask, "Do you know what other books they've read and enjoyed?"

Often this question would get met with a blank look, or a look of aggravation - like why was I annoying them with all these questions? Why couldn't I just pick a book off the shelf and give it to them? Why was I wasting their time? If the parent did answer the question with any degree of certainty, at least fifty percent of the time the answer went something along the lines of, "Well, she liked that [insert name of popular book of the moment] book. But I don't want her reading stuff like that. I want her reading 'good books'."

At this point my soul would die a little bit.

For me, reading is pleasure. It's entertainment. Like the great Jacqueline Wilson said (and I'm paraphrasing enormously here) when asked how parents should go about getting their children to read: "Don't tell them they have to get off their computer or their video games and go and read. Don't make it sound like a punishment. Surround them with books from an early age. Set an example by reading yourself and showing them that reading is fun."

Reading is fun. And rewarding. And life-changing. And who know, parents? That [popular book] you were so quick to dismiss could well be the book that allows your child to cope with bullying - a role the very popular Tamora Pierce books had in my life - or turn them on to reading hundreds of other books and starting a lifelong love of reading. Harry Potter did this for millions of children. And I lost count of the number of teenagers who'd come into my old workplace saying "I just read Twilight. I love reading now. What else would you recommend?"

I'd take absolute pleasure in recommending a Maggie Stiefvater or a Claudia Gray or, if they were older, the delicious Gail Carriger Alexia Tarabotti series, or even (if I got the feeling they might be into it), Justine Larbalestier's incredible Liar. If they were ready to move on from vampires (but really, why should they have to?), we'd chat about the superlative John Green, or the wickedly funny and incisive Libba Bray or Scott Westerfeld or, if they were after a bit of action and suspense, maybe some Chris Morphew or even the gut-wrenching (and, yes, incredibly popular) Hunger Games series.

The kids who came into my workplace after having read Twilight were so excited about reading; so switched on; so open to new ideas, new genres, the new worlds that reading could give them.

The parents? Half the time they were the same. Half the time they just wanted their kids to read and they were happy to discuss their child's reading with me and work with me to find a book they'd actually enjoy. The other half? Notsomuch. "Is that about vampires? No thanks. That's popular rubbish, isn't it? Don't you have any Enid Blyton?"

As a side issue, my favourite comment was a common one, often from grandparents who, after I showed them piles of brilliant new kids' books, would say, "They all look a bit dark and violent. Do you have any Roald Dahl?"

I'll leave that one with you.

Back to the popular versus literary argument - or "bad books" versus "good books", if you like. I once had a brilliant conversation with a hugely popular bestselling Australian author of teen science fiction action bestsellers who told me that he didn't care if he never won an award because the main thing was that kids loved his books and that he made a difference to them, not the adults who judged children's book awards. I guess it leads to the question: Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can't he be hugely popular and win awards, because he writes books kids want to read? Surely that's the ultimate goal?

I watched "Compass" on Sunday night and had to smirk when Geraldine Doogue introduced Christos Tsiolkas as the writer of "that rarest of things: the literary bestseller." I also rolled my eyes when listening to a podcast by the (I think) wonderful Anita Shreeve who talked about the numerous newspapers who condescendingly called her books "not quite literary" and was then thrilled at all the men in her Wheeler Centre talk who stood up and "outed" themselves as readers of her supposed "women's novels".

Why shouldn't men read women's novels?

Why shouldn't science fiction books be shelved in the literary section and (my personal bugbear) books by literary writers that are blatantly science fiction or fantasy (I'm talking to you, Margaret Atwood and Jeanette Winterson) be shelved in speculative fiction? This literary snobbery might be useful in some circles but most of us just want to read. We want it to be pleasurable, not hard work. Kids especially. And you never know, if you let them read anything (within, of course, the bounds of your personal morality) - like Christos Tsiolkas' non-English-speaking father did when he bought him Mills and Boon and Charles Dickens and all manner of other random books because he had no idea what the titles meant -  they just might chance upon a few "literary" books along the way.

Reading shouldn't be a chore. I'm as happy reading the latest Joanna Trollope as I am reading Anthony Trollope (and, you know, he was pretty "popular" back in the day); as happy reading Martin Amis as I am reading Ann M Martin.

Every single author I've heard speak has said they read voraciously on a range of subjects. Popular and "literary". Wide reading means open minds and - to use Tsiolkas' own terminology - "free thinkers".

If only free thinking was more "popular".

What do you think? What's more important: that kids love reading or that they read books with "literary merit" (prepared for healthy debate here)!


  1. As a kid in the 70's I never had enough books, so I read whatever I could get my hands on. I devoured everything from Enid Blyton to Homer, from Frank Richards to Isaac Asimov via Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie.
    I had a few favourites, sure, but there was a special joy in getting a 'new' batch of dog-eared paperbacks and deciding which to read first. In my twenties and thirties I'd visit second hand bookshops just so I could buy a dozen books - almost at random - and recapture that joy of discovery.
    So, when buying books for kids I wouldn't stop at one. Get them the latest and greatest they're clamouring for, but on the way home maybe pause at the local charity shop for a stack of paperbacks.

  2. As a bookshop owner and a parent, I always think it's important to get children to enjoy reading first and then offer varied titles and genres. To get the book into children's hands is to show them that there is a wonderful world of imagination and learning in books.

  3. Doesn't matter what they read, as long as they read! Just hopt that the do move on from Enid Blyton...

  4. Two comments: As another bookshop employee, I'm particularly saddened by the parents who come in to buy a book and say my child likes (insert name of skilled/challenging/highly imaginative author) and I've put them on to Enid Blyton because I loved those. Like Shambles, I offer a variety and the comment that it’s perfectly normal to want to read funny books one day and deep and meaningful another (not that the two can’t overlap). As an adult, I don’t always want to read one genre, so why should I limit a child’s choices to one?
    As a parent, I encouraged reading. Just like running or cycling or cooking or any other skills, the more you do the easier it becomes and when it’s easy, it’s fun.