I'm having a problem because although I know what I believe about children (and adults) reading these books, I'm having trouble putting my opinion into words. I'm having trouble justifying what I know I think.
So often you hear parents and educators saying that is doesn't matter what kids are reading as long as they are reading. Of course it matters! It is like saying that it doesn't matter what they're eating as long as they're eating! A child filling up on chips and dips and artificially coloured Twisties will not have a healthy body. A child filling up on a diet of dumbed down twaddle will not have a healthy mind.
The question then is what is a bad book? Is there any such thing?
I think there is.
We need not ask what the girl or boy likes. She very often likes the twaddle of goody-goody story books, he likes condiments, highly-spiced tales of adventure. We are all capable of liking mental food of a poor quality and a titillating nature; and possibly such food is good for us when our minds are in need of an elbow-chair; but our spiritual life is sustained on other stuff, whether we be boys or girls, men or women.
Charlotte Mason, School Education p 168
To me, a bad book is one that is talks down to a child, that undervalues his intelligence. Books that appear cast in a mould are bad books - series books all lined up on a shelf looking like little houses made of ticky-tacky - looking all the same. If you open these books you'll find the same story recast with different characters and a different location. Sometimes they don't even have an author -the Nancy Drew mysteries, The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Trixie Belden, and the Bobbsey Twins are examples, as are the later Boxcar Children books, the ones not written by Gertrude Chandler Warner and the Charlie and Lola books not written by Lauren Child. This is not a recent phenomenon. Miss Mason mentions two bad genres above - highly spiced boys tales of adventure and girls goody-goody stories. The old fashioned romantic novel is another, as were the countless ballads of Robin Hood.
So is there a role for bad books? I think there probably is. How many of us were introduced to bad books first, but then made the leap into good literature? I know I was. I read my way through Enid Blyton (who probably gets a guernsey above too), Trixie Belden and Nancy Drew - all fifty-six of them -and I loved them. I thought they were fantastic.
I often wonder whether I ever would have become a reader if my mother had stopped me reading 'bad books', I really do. On the other hand I wonder what she would have done if I hadn't stopped reading them. Would she have continued to allow me to read this stuff for ever, not caring that it was vacuous instant gratification? My sister's adventure into reading began with Mills and Boon novels - one a night for years. I read them with her, reading a whole book in less than an hour. Now they are definitely bad literature. I am sure of that, but they played a major role in my sister's ongoing love of great books.
I suppose people who never move on from bad series books read them as adults as well - one Agatha Christie novel a week for ever and ever; a Mills and Boon book a night for eternity.
Does it matter? Who am I to judge their reading matter anyhow? I would be rightly angry if the literature police marched into my home and told me I was not able to have my choice of books on my bookshelves. Why should I stop others reading what they like, then? Why should I stop Jemimah?
I suppose for me, to continue my dietary analogy from earlier, bad novels, like bad food, have a place in a healthy diet. We don't have good and bad food in our home - we have 'everyday food' and 'treat food'. Perhaps we should look at books the same way. Perhaps a healthy childhood can have a mixture of everyday books and treat books - living books and twaddle, good books and bad. Just as it is my role as Jemimah's Mummy to ensure that treats are eaten once a week or so and not every day, so it is my role as her Mummy/teacher to ensure that good books predominate in her reading matter. As an emerging reader Jemimah has read Enid Blyton's The Secret Seven. She has read Bobby Brewster and Angelina Ballerina as well. What she hasn't done is read the sequels. She hasn't ever asked about them and we don't own them. Jemimah has read The Little House on the Prairie Books too, and can't wait to read the rest of the series. They sit there on her bookshelf taunting her. She is the same with Christine Harris' Audrey Barlow series, The Muddle-headed Wombat books and Kate DiCamillio's magical stories. These are the good books. These are the books where the characters come alive. These are Charlotte Mason's Living Books. I think Jemimah's Charlotte Mason education full of the finest books that literature has to offer, with the richest of language and ideas on every page, has served her well. I don't think I need to remove the treat books completely from Jemimah's diet because I think she will restrict them herself. That, after all, is the best outcome of all - education not prohibition.
Back in 1945 George Orwell the author of Animal Farm and 1984 wrote an essay called Good Bad Books. He used the term to refer to low-brow books - books with no literary pretensions that were, nevertheless, great fun to read. He used as examples the Sherlock Holmes books, Edith Nesbit's The Treasure Seekers, Dracula, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and a whole heap of others which we now reverently call 'classics'. Orwell made the point then that often these books long outlast the real classics, passing from pulp fiction into the revered realm of fine literature. In his essay Orwell writes:
In each of these books the author has been able to identify himself with his imagined characters, to feel with them and invite sympathy on their behalf. with a kind of abandonment that cleverer people would find it difficult to achieve. They bring out the fact that intellectual refinement can be a disadvantage to a story-teller, as it would be to a music-hall comedian.So what do we regard as good bad children's books today? What are your guilty secrets? Which twaddly books will you now admit to not only owning but enjoying? Which books will you hide if the Charlotte Mason police come a-knocking only to bring them out again with relief the minute they've gone?
The existence of good bad literature - the fact that one can be amused or excited or even moved by a book that one's intellect simply refuses to take seriously - is a reminder that art is not the same thing as cerebration.
Do tell. I promise not to judge you unfairly if you do!
PS Thoughts about books and the occult another day.