Call me a snob, but Sweet Valley is drivel

9th February 2001 at 00:00
AST week I went to my local library and bought four books for a pound. They included hardbacks, in good condition, of Louis de Bernieres' Captain Corelli's Mandolin, Anne Michaels's Fugitive Pieces and TS Eliot's Collected Plays.

It's not the first time I've acquired really good books for myself or my child for next to nothing. In fact, at our local library in Barnet, north London, I hardly bother borrowing anymore - the books I want are usually for sale.

Even before these regular sell-offs, my local library was stocked almost completely with thrillers, Mills and Boon and the like. To find a good book is hard enough, but to find that the few good books are being sold off at ridiculous prices adds insult to injury.

Not that I'm averse to thrillers, it's just that I find a strict diet of them - as encouraged by the library stock - brain-numbing. However, I do mind that when I, or anyone else, wants to borrow something decent, the books just aren't there. We have to content ourselves with thrillers or spend a fair whack buying new books.

The policy extends to children's books. The shelves are increasingly stacked with hoards of Sweet Valley, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Babysitter's Club.

These books, like adult thrillers and romances, give no pause for thought; they are superficial, write-by-numbers things. The most that can be said for them is that sickening refrain uttered by some librarians, the public, and often by teachers too: "As long as she's reading..." This is often followed by:"We're not snobs."

Many librarians have never heard of Anne Fine, Berlie Docherty, Beverley Naidoo or any of the other fine children's writers around.

They and the school librarian - an advocate of the "as long as she reads" philosophy - would probably call me a reading snob. After all my daughter devours books, so where's the problem? Why should she not read drivel? Because I want her to read books that are not just entertaining but taxing, books that stretch her imagination.

I also want her to have access to something beyond (mainly) North American rubbish. Not everyone lives in California, land of designer outfits and posh cars for kids - where the worst problem in the world is having clothes that are "so yesterday".

This trend towards the superficial, and away from anything stimulating, is at the heart of the national curriculum.

The curriculum is not aimed at developing thinking skills. The cuts in resources and staff, the incursions into real teaching time, the curbs on the creativity of teachers and pupils, the Government's constant howling about the 3Rs ueber alles - all of this makes nonsense of the contents of the pretty booklet we parents are given citing the wonders that our children will learn.

In reality, the priorities of the curriculum imply that, as long as children have basic reading skills, it doesn't matter that they read rubbish. As long as they can add and subtract, it doesn't matter that they don't understand the finer points of maths. As long as they learn a few bits of science by rote, we should not care if they never see how science relates to society.

The attack on libraries is part of an official approach that promotes a kind of educational apartheid. The highest aim for the children of the masses is that they should learn to say their alphabet and count to 10. That way they'll make good enough manual workers and we'll have no trouble from them. Why should they have easy access to stimulating books?.

In the words of Ahdaf Soueif, in her novel The Map of Love, this means the children of the elite grow up to be the "head" of society while the children of the masses grow up to be the "hands".

When I was a child, I came across a quotation in a book awarded to an older cousin as a school prize: "A good book is the lifeblood of a master spirit".

As my factory-worker father and my excellent teacher would have said, the emphasis is on "good". Even without much formal education, my father had a sound grasp of what was important about writing and reading, what it was that made a "good" book.

The aim of the writer was to communicate something meaningful. The aim of the reader was not just to be entertained but to reflect upon the writer's ideas - to take issue with them, or to take them on board.

Such books are disappearing fast from the shelves of our public and school libraries. It follows that, in the future, we will have few readers who will be stimulated to think.

Shereen Pandit is a short story writer and poet

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