I know what's 'inappropriate'

1st March 2013 at 00:00

Angela Glover, along with teachers, parents and other people concerned with children's literacy, needs to choose what books to encourage children to read, but there are real dangers in prescribing books for the use of specific words or subject matter ("Warning over 'inappropriate' children's books", TESS, 22 February). The dangers of what is effectively censorship are, I believe, greater than the use of an "inappropriate" word or two.

The specific example she uses is Michael Morpurgo's Elephant in the Garden, where "towards the end of the story set during the Second World War, a German soldier is quoted as saying: 'Bastard, bastard.'" The context of the story is that Dresden has just been firebombed and flattened - with countless casualties. The Germans are looking for a downed Allied bomber crew. One of the German policemen looking for the crew says: "There is no city any more. There is no Dresden. There are so many dead. It is impossible to know how many. Bastards. Bastards."

I'm unsure what words Ms Glover would have put into the mouth of the character had she been the author, but any less strong language would be both unrealistic and patronising to young readers.

We must distinguish between discouraging swearing or "bad" words which add nothing to a plot or characterisation, and understandable emotions shown by protagonists.

I understand that "where schools were working with children's novels and sending them home in schoolbags, teachers had to feel comfortable about content and language". But I fail to believe that a 7- to 11-year-old has not heard worse language in the playground, at home or on the TV. To ban, in effect, a book at school for two words (used appropriately and in context) in 230 pages is a mad form of "correctness". Look instead for what the book is, overall, teaching the child.

If a major task of literary programmes has as "one of its key principles ... the replacement of traditional reading schemes with 'real' children's books", Ms Glover and others must also understand that children come to books and reading through being excited and involved in the story. Many of the best authors deal with "grittier" subjects than I was brought up with, and the books are all the more interesting as a result.

The prospect of a "reading police" deleting "bad" words or banning a highly regarded and valuable book from schools fills me with dread.

markmorvenlodge via the TES website.

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