Let's put the fun back into pupils' reading

28th September 2007 at 01:00
Joanne Harris is the author of 'Chocolat' and other novels

Since the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter books and the wave of interest that has followed it, children's literature has been surrounded by a renewed and mostly justified enthusiasm. Once seen as a slightly inferior genre compared with the literary mainstream, the children's novel and its trendy brother, the "crossover" is now often on bestseller lists and many authors previously known for their adult work have turned to this rewarding field.

In a world where it is getting harder to encourage children (especially boys) to read, this can only be good. That such acclaimed authors as Tim Lott and Jeannette Winterson have joined the forum surely means children's literature will gain the respect it deserves. I hope so.

Yet this misses the point. Respect was never the main problem at least not with the target audience: children. Teachers and parents may be fooled into believing that some books are more worthy or educational than others, or that the winner of a literary prize may prove more attractive to young minds than one who has spent a career trying merely to entertain. But it is unlikely that the children themselves would agree.

In an education system dominated by targets and Sats, the idea of reading stories for fun has become alien and slightly reprehensible, and replaced by such concepts as "issues", "classics" and "social awareness". The feeling seems to be that "non-educational" reading (graphic novels, horror, manga) should not be encouraged as if stories in themselves don't matter, or the enjoyment, whatever the perceived quality of the prose, were not enough in itself.

If we want our children to read, we need to change this attitude fast. Reading should be an escape from the pressures of an education system that has tried so hard to be all things to all people that it now means nothing to anyone.

I am not saying we should scorn this new wave of children's writers. A good writer should be capable of writing anything in any genre and for any age group. But young readers vote with their feet, regardless of reputation. The books for which our young readers vote are wonderful stories first and foremost, to be enjoyed on any level at all, but always as a joy, not a chore. We, the parents and educators, should offer fervent thanks to the likes of Darren Shan, Terry Pratchett, Eoin Colfer, KA Applegate, and of course JK Rowling for bringing our children back to books.

Joanne Harris spoke at the Bath Festival of Children's Literature last Saturday. It runs until Sunday. See bathkidslitfest.co.uk

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