Culture Wars: Why Roald Dahl will not do
The way to win young hearts and minds is by inspiration, argues children's author Helen Cresswell
This is the 'year of reading'. Tony Blair, when he launched it, gave a somewhat pallid list of books he had enjoyed as a child or had read with his own children. It included, perhaps predictably going for the popular vote, a book by Roald Dahl. He confided that he liked this because it was subversive - though I don't think he used such a long word as that. Boys in particular, he said, enjoyed something a bit 'naughty'.
He did nobody any favours. Dahl's books are page-turners all right, and that is all he himself ever claimed for them. When they first appeared, a lot of schools and libraries banned them. Bad move. This gave them a notoriety and a glamour that lingers to this day. They weren't worth banning. They should have been left to find their own level among the fun and easy reads that have always been part of any child's reading diet. I got through a fair number of Blytons myself, along with the Beano and Dandy. We all did. It has been ever thus.
What is happening to Dahl's books now is far more scary than their being banned. They are being elevated - with the prime minister's endorsement - to a Good Thing. And of course they have spawned a whole generation of imitations. These books are aimed mainly at primary school children going through their slapstick phase - jokey, slangy, a bit 'naughty' - you might call it the Pooh Stripe in the Pants School. And their publishers are simply meeting a demand; they are not there to underwrite any airy fairy notions about the primacy of the imagination. Fair enough. So far, so good. We get the children more or less literate, and they have had fun doing it. And yet, and yet...
These books are not subversive, or if they are, only at a harmless, cock-a-snook level. What is really subversive, and what consciously or unconsciously frightens most adults and pretty well any government, is the unfettered freedom of the imagination. (Notice how repressive regimes throw the writers in jail first.) The key to that freedom lies in books - but not those books.
Once a child has achieved basic literacy, that is not the moment to think 'mission accomplished' and tick the child's name in the target register. That is the moment to inspire the child with a passion for a whole new world that now lies spread before it, the rich world of literature - and I don't mean just children's books. And inspire is the operative word. You do not win the hearts and minds of children by setting tests and targets, you win them by inspiration. Not a lot about inspiration in the national curriculum, I gather. Not a lot about the imagination, either. After all, you can't grade that. You can't quantify it or give it little annual targets and tests. It is not a commodity.
Recently I spoke at a conference in Manchester on reading, attended by over 300 teachers. Afterwards, a delegate came up and told me that, in many teacher training colleges, children's literature was not even part of the course. Is this really 'education, education, education'?
I fear so. Recently I adapted E Nesbit's The Phoenix and the Carpet for BBC TV. The scripts were hardly delivered when I had a phone call from Penguin. Would I do a novelisation of the series? Excuse me, I said, I think you'll find there already is one. The Phoenix and the Carpet? By E Nesbit? Published by yourselves as a Puffin Classic? Oh no, they say, children today can't manage that, it's too difficult. What is happening here? E Nesbit wrote her novels over 90 years ago and they were bestsellers; children read them in their thousands. Today they are beyond the average child. Why?
I don't know. But what I sense is parents, teachers, librarians running scared, so hell-bent on a narrow-target literacy that they are blinkered to anything else. Terrified of stretching children too far - as if you could! (Anybody who doubts that children can be given wings to fly should read Sybil Marshall's inspirational classic An Experiment in Education.) Whatever happened to the pursuit of excellence? How can children know the excellent unless we show it to them? We are the grown-ups - that's our job. I am infinitely grateful that in my own childhood somebody showed me, and so, I daresay, is every single person reading this.
Tony Blair, as well as being dead-set on literacy at any price, is very keen for every school in the country to be wired up to the internet for the millennium. Well, I have news for Tony Blair. Every single child is born already wired up to the internet. You don't need expensive equipment - it comes with being a human being. It crosses all boundaries of race, class and even time. Its resources are inexhaustible. And it has been responsible for all artistic, scientific and humanitarian achievement since time began. It is called the human imagination. That's the real internet, and you log on simply by opening a book - a good book.
Helen Cresswell is a bestselling author of many children's books, including the Carnegie long-listed novel Snatchers. She also writes original TV drama, and adaptations, including The Demon Headmaster and The Pheonix and the Carpet for the BBC
Reproduced from LM issue 123, September 1999