15 Dec 2009

Bad Books

Image from here I'm still here, but I'm having a crisis of confidence in my opinion. I've been thinking about books containing witches, vampires and werewolves. I've been thinking about bad books. I've been thinking about twaddle.

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.

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.
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?

Do tell. I promise not to judge you unfairly if you do!

PS Thoughts about books and the occult another day.


  1. What immediately came to mind is that popular literature is popular for a reason. Often the writer has excellent story telling abilities ~ far better than more thoughtful & literary works. Shakespheare has survived because his dramatical pacing is excellent.

    So I've always read all over the place. The number of classics I haven't read is phenomenal. The slow pace, or the ponderous waffling irks me & the use of language isn't beautiful enough to carry the slow pace. On the other hand I read stuff for pleasure that even academics don't because the use of language intrigues me so much & the style is beautiful even if there is no story. I read good books & I read a lot of twaddle. Ash [current book] is twaddle ~ but a rollicking good read. [editing out a lot of the foul language etc] I read Enid Blyton till I could quote her in my sleep & the Saddlers Wells series by Lorna Hill, all the *Dimsie* books, the Chalet School ones, The Abby Girls [does anyone remember those?] & horsey books ~ Lorna Hill again; I liked her *Patience* books. I also read Tom Brown's School Days & Stalky & Co., ~ slightly better quality school stories ~ but hey, if all else failed I read jam jar lables & billboards! Probably best not to enquire too cloesly as to what resides in my head. ☺

  2. I never liked twaddle, even as a child. I always found it predictable and dull. But my child enjoys some of it. Because books are so hard to come by for us, I can control what she reads and do my best to foster a taste for living books. But I have allowed Junie B. Jones for some of the same reasons you explain. (A Hostess Twinkie a few times a year is not going to kill you.) It's a hard line to follow. Sometimes making something forbidden makes it all the more attractive. I hope that by reading some twaddle and lots of excellent literature, my daughter will herself realize the superiority of the one.

  3. It's about as tough as deciding how much sugar you will allow into your house. We have three classifications of books; healthy, junk, and poison.

    Healthy books would be those living books as defined by CM. They make up the bulk of our library.

    We have plenty of junk around though, too. It is hard to find enough reading material for the younger set without delving a bit into twaddle. I would consider Inkheart twaddle. It's a fun story where a family has the ability to make everything they read in a book come to life. Fairy tale characters are all over the place. Part of why my daughter loves it though is because she has read so much of the GOOD literature mentioned in the book.

    Then there is poison, which we consider books containing occult, violence, etc. that cross a line with us. That line is a bit different for everyone. Harry Potter crosses that line with us but Inkheart (pre-read of course) didn't b/c it retains more of the fairy tale flavor.

    We feed our children healthy food and healthy books. We introduce them to a wide range of flavors so that we build in them an appetite for the GOOD, but let's face it, a candy bar every now & then is fun.

  4. I guess 'twaddle' in a way has been important for me especially during the time just afte having my babies - anything else was just too heavy and I couldn't remeber from one chapter to the next what on earth I had read before. Not that motherhood makes one stupid of course, quite the opposite I think :) just stress of a new babies does take it's toll. Magazines and short stories were good for that time.

    I liked Nancy Drew as a kid too. And Doctor Who paperbacks...my parents were and are scifi nerds, we had a bookcase or more full, so, I read heaps of that genre though I don't necessarily enjoy it now.

    I think where the food analogy falls short is that bad food will cause physical disease and more than likely kill you, eventually. Bad reads (not thinking about occult stuff here), I'm not so certain. I suppose it depends on what you aspire to?

    Have a good holiday Jeanne!

  5. Hi Jeanne,
    The one that comes immediately to mind is "Sniff, Snuff, Snap" by Lynley Dodd - total dribble, but the children loved it. :D

    Have a great week,

  6. Weeeell, I suppose Encyclopedia Brown fits into that category. I enjoyed them as a kidlet and now Max does. Oh, and we have every Barefoot sing-along published, a most definite CM no-no.

    Thatsh it, offisher, I shwear - I've only had a twaddle or two.

  7. Jeanne, you're on a roll! You found heaps to say, and said it beautifully, for someone who was struggling to express what you knew you know!!
    i too love the mixture. Alas, I do not read as much as I would like to. I have a frustratingly poor memory too which doesn't help me to recall past good and bad reads too much. I loved Enid, I love all the Billabong books. Are they repitious twaddle? The (unrealistic) Romance of the Bush!
    Always hated M & B. I do love true Australian stories, especially pioneering, war, battler type ones which are often not literary classics.

  8. Oh wow - I love how Daisy lists her books - I am adding that to my mind - so good.

    I have to admit that I still keep snack books. I try to serve healthy reading though.

    Awesome post. Loved every bit of it. :)

  9. I am glad to learn that Jeremiah likes The Secret Seven. I too as a child liked The Secret Seven and The Famous Five. I recall that when my pocket money used to fall short, I would sneak into the basement of the bookshop/bookstore and read The Secret Seven "free of charge," since they were very short books. Fast foward to the present as a result of my nostalgia for Enid Blyton's books, I decided to publish a book in honor and memory of her, titled, The Famous Five: A Personal Anecdotage (www.bbotw.com).
    Stephen Isabirye

  10. I think these sorts of post are great to get us to ponder, and challenge our own stereotypical thinking perhaps.

    Good children's books, in my mind, are books that are well-written. Who judges the quality of the writing? Why me of course, and quite subjectively no doubt. Some of the books I loved as a child, love still as old friends, would perhaps not pass my current criteria.

    Does that belief of mine hold true for adult books? One of the best writers I know is Stephen King. Yet the content of some of his books absolutely appalls me. I just don't think we need horror, worry that it encourages horrific acts.

    Re-evaluate. What makes a good children's book? Is it a book that has gained consensus in literary circles as having merit? Is it a book that has sold many copies? Is it a book that is well-written and has wholesome values?

    Very difficult to say. So how can I decide on what a "good bad" book is? Hitherto, I would have called them "exploding underpants" or "celebrity" books. But I am not sure I am qualified to identify them, judge them, categorize them. And when I do, blow me down if a book written by a celebrity turns out to be beautiful, or a child tells me his love of reading began with a book about twaddle.

    As a book reviewer, I am approached often to review books. Sometimes I have thought, in my arrogance, "This is rubbish." Now I try to re-frame it: "This book is not a match for me."

    So I say this: I don't know the answers, but I applaud you Jeanne, for asking the questions!

  11. Hi Jeanne,
    I have just popped back to tell you how much I've enjoyed reading everyone's comments on this post and the Life changing books post!!

  12. Thank you for submitting this post for the upcoming Charlotte Mason Blog Carnival to be posted January 5th.


  13. I think in part you have to evaluate the book in light of the child's reading level. I cheerfully indulged my kids with Bionicle chapter books in 1st grade because they were easy and formulaic chapter books that helped build their reading stamina. Now that they are upper elementary grades I would label these as popcorn books that are to be limited in number. There was a time when the Hardy Boys was a big leap in reduced pictures and dense text. But I do aspire to move them to heftier fare. And the Sherlock Holmes that we read last night had at least two words that sent us to the dictionary.
    I guess to extend the food analogy, as kids I might give them more mild, childish food or indulge a desire for mac & cheese, spaghetti or peanut butter as comfort food at lunch, while also expecting them to have no thank you bites of what is put in front of them for dinner.

  14. I enjoyed reading your thoughts on this subject.

    We owned at one time every Berenstain Bear book there was and we read them over and over.
    Definite twaddle but it helped my boys to learn to read to have their favorite bears read every night.

    The boys enjoyed all the Hardy Boys books they could read when they were first reading chapter type books.

    They moved on from there into more substantial series like Horatio Hornblower and our family's favorite Red Wall series by Brian Jacques.

    Now as high schoolers they have an appetite for twaddle free reading.

    To use your food analogy, we have a variety of foods/books to choose from. Most everything in moderation except for the poisonous type books like someone mentioned in a comment above. (No vampires, no Harry Potter, et.)

    Barb-Harmony Art MOm

  15. This is a fabulous post. I have seen in my own family that starting Kathryn on a "diet" of good books has caused her to love those best. She does enjoy a bit of twaddle here & there, but really just because she's a voracious reader & I have a hard time finding enough good stuff to give her. She definitely prefers good books, though.

    As for Lindsey, she has grown up on a diet of major twaddle; while I'm glad she loves reading, I am now facing the challenge of developing in her a taste for the good stuff. Much like learning to like healthy food after living on twinkies for way too long.

    But it's possible. Once I began twaddle-free reading myself, I find twaddle-ish books a waste of time and effort. So I have to remind myself that it will all come with time.

  16. I really enjoyed your post. Very thought provoking!! I want my boys to read better books than I did growing up!! I also appreciated reading everyone's comments. Be Blessed, Angie in GA

  17. Going through some of your old posts today and SO enjoying the challenge! I find myself on both sides of the dilemna, much as you said. If it weren't for those crazy series, I started with Bobbsey Twins, I might not have been such a reader. However, I do strongly believe what goes in, comes out. We need to protect and nurture our childrens hearts and souls with literature choices. I think I need to find more about Charlotte Mason!

  18. I just love this post, Jeanne. Thank you!

    For myself, Christian Romance novels are the main twaddle I read...and you are so right...as I have challenged myself to read better things, I'm slowly becoming more and more critical of them!!!! I even have come to the point of loathing them because they are so inane and trivial. However, I still do read them occasionally and read SO MANY of them at the end of my last pregnancy and the early months nursing. I think you are so balanced in what you say...that we crave the good after we've had a healthy dose of it...and then we just have an occasional treat...my daughter LOVES Nancy Drew, we like Angelina Ballerina, etc.

    Interestingly enough, both my sister and I were taken to the library and we read piles of twaddle...my youngest sister and brother weren't taken to the library and had more technology...who are the big readers now? Yep. My sister and I...I agree that there is a place for a little twaddle within the broader feast of GOOD literature. I am eternally grateful for the twaddle that starting me off on my lifetime love of reading!


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