Letters extra: Criticism of libraries "ill-informed"

23rd February 2001 at 00:00

Shereen Pandit complains (February 9) that libraries are increasingly stocking 'drivel' and 'North American rubbish'; that the adult shelves are stocked 'almost completely with thrillers, Mills and Boon and the like' and that children's sections are overrun with "hoards of Sweet Valley, Buffy the Vampire Slayer , Sabrina the Teenage Witch and Babysitter's Club ". She uses the word 'hoards', although her tone suggests she actually meant 'hordes', because she sees these books as savage, uncivilised, fast-bred and short on grey matter.

'Not that I'm averse to thrillers,' she claims, rather unconvincingly. Ms Pandit's friends and family will not, I think, be giving her a thriller for her next birthday. They wouldn't, would they, when she calls such books 'brain-numbing' and perceives reading as an activity that should be 'taxing'.

Her ill-informed and misdirected tirade will have angered many people, not least public librarians, accused of being ignorant of children's writers such as Anne Fine and 'Berlie Docherty (sic)', and school librarians, accused of not minding what rubbish they have on their shelves as long as it's being read.

The very librarians Shereen Pandit maligns have year after year recognised the kind of writer she admires in their selections for the Carnegie Medal, a prize frequently criticised for ignoring the books that children are actually reading.

Pandit's own local library in Barnet may well be more ruthless than most in its policy of selling off infrequently borrowed titles, but there is no recognition in her piece that public libraries have undergone savage budget cuts and it is these that have most dramatically affected purchasing policies.

The county council in my own area, for example, has cut pound;100,000 from next year's library budget so that funds can be transferred to social services. It doesn't take much imagination to realise what this will mean for the numbers and variety of new books on the shelves in the coming months.

The accusation that all media tie-ins and mass market series are 'drivel' is unfair and, I suspect, untested by Pandit, who seems only to have a passing awareness of series fiction gleaned from her daughter's reading.

As a reviewer of children's fiction, I read a good deal of it. Yes, some of it is bad. Some of it is merely reasonable. But the rest, just like good adult thrillers or other escapist reading, is diverting and entertaining, and that's why children choose to read it.

Laurie John, the author of many of the Sweet Valley University titles, for example, is good at what she does. She writes with verve and humour, and is ironically self-aware, in a manner that all the best series-writers are, before the self-awareness inevitably decomposes into self-conscious pretentiousness, as in the case of adult TV serials such as Dallas and The X-Files.

Nor does North America have a monopoly in 'rubbish'. Far from it; some of the tackiest material is British. But the greatest hole in Pandit's case is her lack of historical awareness.

I grew up in the 1950s and 60s. I hardly read a book out of the tiny, oh-so-refined selection on offer in the kitchen library of the small independent preparatory school I attended.

The headmistress wouldn't permit Enid Blyton or other popular fiction in the school, so I borrowed copies of Malcolm Saville's 'Lone Pine' series from the local library in Wembley. Thank goodness the librarians there were not so snobbish.

Indeed, it's worth letting Malcolm Saville have the last word:

". now we have this nonsense about series. Of course I believe in them! They are a wonderful way of encouraging young people to read and to enjoy books - and even to buy them. It is monstrous to suggest that 'popular' series writers are morally at fault because they write to please their readers. What is the good of writing books that only a few children want to read?"

Saville's remarks were published in The Reluctant Reader , a collection of essays by Aidan Chambers, last year's Carnegie winner, as long ago as 1969.

'Morally at fault' is exactly what Shereen Pandit would have us believe the authors of modern series fiction, and the librarians who choose to stock such titles, are - a sure sign that battles Chambers fought, and to all intents and purposes won, back in those heady days, need fighting once again.

Michael Thorn
ACHUKA Children's Books UK



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