Young teenage readers have ditched literary classics for sensation, bypassing much good modern fiction, reports David Budge. Members of the Enid Blyton Preservation Society and all adults who shared their childhood with Huckleberry Finn, Long John Silver or the March sisters should brace themselves for bad news.
A generation ago 12 and 13-year-olds may have smacked their lips while reading about the Secret Seven's midnight feasts. But today's children, particularly girls, appear to have an insatiable appetite for horror stories.
Peter Benton, a lecturer in education at Oxford University who questioned 729 Year 8 pupils about their reading habits, found that although Blyton was still the children's fourth most favourite author none of her titles was among the 46 most read books. Children's classics such as Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Tom Sawyer and What Katy Did have also fallen out of favour and are now read by only a tiny minority of 12 and 13-year-olds.
Their place on the bedroom shelves has been taken by more lurid titles such as The Cemetery, The Vampire's Promise and Camp Fear. In fact, 24 of the 46 most popular books were from the American "Point Horror" series.
In 1971, when the last substantial survey of Year 8 pupils' favourite books was undertaken, girls were happy to read in Little Women how Jo March accidentally burns her sister Meg's curls off. But today's tonsorial dramas are far scarier. In The Hitch-hiker, the most popular Point Horror title, one of the main characters is dragged by her hair and thrown against a tree by a teenage psychopathic killer whose hobby is to bury girls alive. The passage that follows this incident is fairly typical of the book and the series.
From his pocket he drew forth a thin length of rope. Her arms were yanked behind her back. Another wave of pain shot through her body . . . Bobby paused in his knot, trying to press his mouth against her cheek. His teeth scratched her soft flesh. "You don't know how close we are, babe."
Peter Benton is nevertheless sanguine about the Point Horror books' popularity. School librarians have often refused to stock the series, he says. They have criticised its limited vocabulary, banal storylines and unhealthy preoccupations. But he cautions against moral panic over the disappearance of "wholesome reading", partly because he found the children to be remarkably independent readers who had tackled no fewer than 929 books during the month he surveyed, but also because this is by no means the first time that young readers have been shown to have a taste for gore.
In 1939, for example, George Orwell, a champion of the then declining Gem and Magnet, lambasted the popular "Yank mags" in which "you get real blood-lust, really gory descriptions of the all-in, jump-on-his-testicles style of fighting written in a jargon that has been perfected by people who brood endlessly on violence."
Benton, whose survey covered 14 comprehensives in an English shire county, is more concerned by his finding that the Year 8 boys are reading even less than they did in the early 1970s. The girls he questioned were reading an average of 3.16 books a month but the boys only managed 1.57 - 30 per cent of the boys had not read a single book in the previous four weeks.
None the less there has evidently been a seismic shift in children's reading matter since 1971. Twenty-four years ago the most-widely-read-books list had a distinctly 19th-century flavour but not one of those more demanding classics which made it into the Top 24 a generation ago appears on the new list.
The most popular classic, Black Beauty, which lost by a head to Little Women in 1971, now limps home in 47th place. It was read by five of the 729 pupils in the month of Benton's survey. The Wind in the Willows and Treasure Island were read by three, and What Katy Did, The Hobbit, and The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by two. But only one child had been reading Little Women, Jane Eyre, What Katy Did Next, Journey to the Centre of the Earth or Alice in Wonderland.
Benton suggests it was inevitable that the popularity of antique stories stuffed with moral precepts should wane, though individual books may be given the kiss of life through television serialisation. But he laments the lack of attention paid to the post-1960 classics.
Judy Blume's stories on aspects of growing up are extremely popular, as are a clutch of irreverent British writers led by Roald Dahl and including Sue Townsend, Terry Pratchett and the Red Dwarf authors Grant and Naylor. But Benton's research suggests that the demanding Puffin titles of the 1960s and 1970s are no longer widely read.
"A number of teachers whose classes had been involved in the research remarked that they had not sufficient time to introduce their classes to many of the worthwhile modern children's writers," he says. "They felt that there might be a polarisation taking place whereby they increasingly presented 'classic' texts from the 'literary heritage' and pupils increasingly read books of little merit.
"If the teachers are right, and there is an increasing gap between school and self-chosen reading it would seem sense for them to adopt appropriate strategies to close it. One approach would be to try to re-establish the 'middle ground' of good modern children's fiction which seems in danger of being lost."
The full report of Peter Benton's survey appears in the current issue of the Oxford Review of Education. Copies of his paper are available, Pounds 10. 25 including postage, from Carfax Publishing, PO Box 25, Abingdon, Oxfordshire OX14 3UE.
Most widely read books for 12 to 13-year-olds
1 Little Women 2 Black Beauty 3 Treasure Island 4 The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe 5 Jane Eyre 6 Heidi 7 Oliver Twist 8 The Secret Seven 9 The Silver Sword 10 The Adventures of Tom Sawyer 11 What Katy Did 12 Good Wives Source: Whitehead et al
1 Forever 2 The BFG 3 The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole 4 The Hitch-hiker* 5 Beach House* 6 Trick or Treat* 7 The Cemetery* 8 Boy 9 The Witches 10 Thirteen Tales of Horror* 11 Deenie 12 Funhouse* * Point Horror titles