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Reading between the lines

Kids' stuff

Wendy Earle toys with the discussion about children's literature

  • Children's Reading Choices, Christine Hall and Martin Coles, Routledge, £12.99 pbk

  • Understanding Children's Literature, Peter Hunt (ed), Routledge, £14.99 pbk

When JK Rowling's Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban nearly won the prestigious Whitbread Prize in January, children's literature became big adult news once again. In contrast to the old-fashioned notion that children who read too much might become lazy dreamers, now the common wisdom is that children who do not read will be mentally and emotionally deprived, socially inadequate and ultimately unemployable. The National Year of Reading, which ended in September 1999, was motivated entirely by a concern to make sure that everybody, but especially children, understood that reading is 'a good thing to do'.

But is there any need to worry about children not reading enough? According to Children's Reading Choices, by Christine Hall and Martin Coles, they read about as much now as they did three decades ago. Hall and Coles compared a survey of 8000 girls and boys aged 10, 12 and 14 with a similar survey conducted in 1971. They found that children at age 10 and 12 read more than they did 30 years ago, and 14-year olds tend to read slightly less now than in the past. In 1971, Enid Blyton was way ahead in the list of favourite authors. The second favourite - Charles Dickens - got only 10 percent of Blyton's vote. Of the other writers listed only CS Lewis, Robert Louis Stevenson and Louisa M Alcott fall into the 'writers for children category'. The remaining writers listed as children's favourites in 1971 included Agatha Christie, Ian Fleming, HG Wells, Conan Doyle and Alistair MacLean.

A much wider range of books is now written for children, and over 8000 children's books are published each year in Britain alone. Roald Dahl has become by far and away the most popular children's author (that is, until JK Rowling came along), followed by Enid Blyton. Adult books appear with less frequency. Stephen King, John Grisham, Danielle Steel, Catherine Cookson and Michael Crichton (Jurassic Park) are included among the 14-year olds' list of favourites, but hardly appear below that age. Charles Dickens and Agatha Christie are also mentioned in the top 30 authors. Though Louisa M Alcott and RL Stevenson are mentioned, only CS Lewis remains a popular choice among children today.

So rather than obsessing on the quantity read by children, should we be turning our attention to the quality of the books? Introducing Understanding Children's Literature, Peter Hunt points out that 'the study of children's literature has been skewed towards the reader and affect, rather than towards the book as artefact'. Judgements tend to be based not on notions of what makes a good children's book, but on views about what kind of books are good for children. Agreeing on this is less than straightforward, as Karin Lesnik-Oberstein's contribution to Understanding Children's Literature illustrates. The varying perspectives of critics who may be sociologists, psychologists, educationalists or literary theorists mean that a book that is seen as good from one point of view may be bad from another. Lesnik-Oberstein quotes an example of The Slave Dancer by Paula Fox, which was criticised by one critic as 'an insult to black children' and hailed by another as 'a novel of great horror and as great humanity'.

Until fairly recently, knowing what books were good for children was reasonably straightforward. CS Lewis' Narnia stories were not particularly well-written, but were immediately recognised as classics. A strong narrative and central characters that children can relate to enabled the writer to convey a clear message about the courage to fight for good against the forces of evil, the readiness to make sacrifices and be true to your beliefs. But the CS Lewis centenary last year, far from affirming this view, led to an angst-ridden discussion questioning the heavy underlay of Christian morality in his work. At a time when such moral certainties are generally disputed, a consensus about what makes a good children's book is far from clear.

Perhaps it is inevitable, then, that most of the essays Hunt has chosen to represent the academic perspective on children's literature do little to illuminate our understanding of the art of writing for children. They examine literature for children from psychological, psychoanalytical, sociological, deconstructionist, feminist, postmodernist, linguistic, critical theory and mental health perspectives. In the end, dear reader, one finds oneself no nearer an understanding of what makes good literature for children. No wonder the modern definition of a children's classic has become a book that a lot of children (and adults) are reading. Unfortunately, the 'Harry Potter phenomenon' says less about the quality of JK Rowling's writing than about the simplistic notion that if you (and your child) have got your noses in a book this has to be 'a good thing to do'.


Review by Joseph Kaplinsky

  • Green Imperialism: A Prescription For Misery And War In The World's Poorest Countries, Deepak Lal, Social Affairs Unit, £6 pbk

  • Poisonous Dummies: European Risk Regulation After BSE, Bill Durodié, European Science and Environment Forum, £5 pbk

Deepak Lal's Green Imperialism starts from the assertion that the 'gravest danger facing the third world today is from the political moralism infecting the West, and the desire by many of its activists to legislate their "habits of the heart" globally'. He terms this desire to impose environmental concerns on the third world 'eco-imperialism', and claims that this is 'modelled less on the nineteenth-century scramble for Africa, than on the Crusades'. According to Lal, this is an inverted clash of civilisations where conflict is between the West and the Rest - but here it is the West which has rejected modernity while the Rest embrace it.

Lal locates the roots of environmentalism in a Christian worldview going back as far as Augustine. This account of environmentalism-as-Christianity is accurate as a superficial description, but unfortunately Lal takes it too seriously as an analytic framework. He has taken over wholesale the old right-wing criticism that Marxism is nothing more than a rehash of Christianity, and applied this critique to what he calls 'eco-fundamentalism'. Lal hopes that the East, unburdened by Christian cosmology, will embrace technology and the market. And it is true that the fast-developing markets of East Asia currently seem to demonstrate a great enthusiasm for economic growth and progress. However, the fascination many 'eco-fundamentalists' in the West hold for the mystical religions of the East suggests that Hindu or Sinic 'values' may not be as incompatible with environmentalism as Lal would like to believe.

Bill Durodié's study of 'poisonous dummies' illustrates the resonance that the environmentalist approach has with state officials and hard-headed business people. He examines the various components of Greenpeace's campaign against phthalates (an ingredient used to soften PVC, found in various products from medical equipment to toys). Phthalates are well-studied chemicals present all around us: in the water, in products like inks, and in our food. Having been commercially produced for 40 years their safety has been carefully assessed. Feeding lab rats high doses of phthalates can make them ill - but this is true of about half of all substances tested, whether natural or manmade. The dose makes the poison, and human intakes of phthalates do not even approach the levels at which adverse effects are seen in animals or thought possible in humans.

So how did this harmless chemical spark a major campaign? Durodié documents the way that campaigners, on seeing a potential risk with phthalates, highlighted their concerns in relation to everyday products, like plastic ducks. This played on parents' fears for their children's safety while the manufacturers, put on the defensive, refused to prioritise a rational defence of their products over a public show of sensitivity to the need for precaution. Product withdrawals provided further grist to the campaigners' mill, which put the issue on the regulatory agenda. A state-backed investigation of safety started a consumer panic, as the generalised assumption of a conspiracy to poison the population mixed with a broader susceptibility to inflated fears about health. Concern moved from Europe to the USA, from toys to medical equipment, and from phthalates to their proposed replacements.

These developments have continued to unfold since Poisonous Dummies was published last year. The European Commission proposed a temporary 'emergency ban' on PVC teethers and toys containing phthalates to give time to further assess the evidence of harm caused by phthalates. (What emergency? Who died? Who went to hospital? Nobody.) In response, retailers and manufacturers in Britain declared a voluntary product withdrawal.

Both studies illustrate the way fears about potential environmental risks can slow down new developments, and have a real impact on human welfare. No doubt the pro-market think tanks that published these critiques have their own reasons for questioning increased regulation. But in going against the grain of today's precautionary climate, Green Imperialism and Poisonous Dummies are useful contributions to the debate around science and risk.

Kicking off?

Review by Carlton Brick

  • Managing My Life: My Autobiography, Alex Ferguson (with Hugh McIlvanney), Hodder and Stoughton, £18.99 hbk

Sir Alex Ferguson has been as prolific with his pen as his team has been in winning trophies. This is his fourth book in seven years. Managing My Life, which won book of the year at the British Book Awards in February, is in fact Ferguson's first 'proper' autobiography (even though it was actually written and edited by Times sports writer Hugh McIlvanney) - the other three are devoted to his managerial career at Manchester United. The first 13 chapters (of 25) are devoted to Ferguson's early life, playing career (at Queen's Park, St Johnstone, Dunfermline Athletic, Glasgow Rangers, Falkirk and finally Ayr United), and managerial career (East Stirlingshire, St Mirren, and Aberdeen) in Scotland. Ferguson's account of his pre-United career is certainly as candid as one could expect from a man who has become infamous for his belligerent, stubborn and outspoken manner. Accounts of clashes with press, chairmen, board members and players make for entertaining and at times interesting reading, and offer a partial insight into the character of a man who has adopted the motto 'no one likes us, we don't care' as his own.

But, excuse a bad pun, this is a book of two halves. Such an honest account of his managerial career at Manchester United is conspicuous by its absence. On its publication, overwhelming coverage in the media was given to Ferguson's 'fraught' and 'strained' relationship with United's chief executive Martin Edwards and the plc board. Ferguson goes into some detail regarding the problems he faced when negotiating his own contract with the United board, but on the whole is keen to praise Edwards and the freedom he has allowed Ferguson in managing the team. Ferguson also makes great play to stress Edwards' role in providing the basis for United's current period of success, suggesting that this is something the fans should be grateful for. This point is made with brief reference to the controversial attempt by BSkyB to buy Manchester United - a move Edwards and the plc board were in favour of, and one for which they have been derided and much maligned. On his own views and opinions of the BSkyB bid Ferguson is a little less forthcoming. There is one brief but rather general mention when Ferguson states that he feels the club to be 'too important' to be put up for sale. Such a non-committed public stance by Ferguson is perhaps not surprising given that he is still an employee of the club and to all intents and purposes Edwards is his boss, but it is still a little disappointing considering his reputation as a man of forthright and principled views.

A more intriguing omission from Managing My Life is that Ferguson makes no mention of his relationship with Tony Blair's New Labour. Ferguson is a close friend of Alastair Campbell, Blair's press secretary and spindoctor, and during the 1997 general election acted as an adviser to Blair and Campbell on fitness and stress management. This relationship has since been formalised, with Ferguson taking a starring role in New Labour's European election broadcasts. Downing Street, it seems, is also keen to get Ferguson plying his man-management skills and tactical know-how in the new-look House of Lords. According to Labour sources Sir Alex is 'just the right person to bring politics into the living room', and they hope to make him a Lord in the near future. You wonder why Ferguson has seen fit to leave out political facets of his life from his autobiography - he is generally perceived as a very political person and staunch Labour supporter. Perhaps the answers will form the basis of next year's autobiography.

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Michael Savage

  • Revolution And World Politics: The Rise And Fall Of The Sixth Great Power, Fred Halliday, Macmillan, £16.99 hbk

In Revolution And World Politics, Fred Halliday provides a comprehensive account of the relationship between revolutions and international relations, by weaving together historical and theoretical themes. His account is sensitive to the ways in which both international and domestic factors conspire to tame revolutionary regimes, which he traces through the development of the thoughts of revolutionaries themselves. This is a useful corrective to the tendency in international relations theory to focus on structural factors in the international system. The concluding section develops some implications for international relations theory and world history. Halliday identifies a number of levels of analysis that should be considered in international relations, but his historical approach rightly cautions him against providing a model to apply to every case. Instead, the relative weighting of the state, the social system and ideologies should be established in relation to specific cases and problems, using concepts and methods from international relations and history.

The main problem with this book is that Halliday appears not to take some of his own theoretical points seriously enough. He tends towards determinism in his identification of three levels of international relations (state, society and ideology), which seem redundant if his points about historical sensitivity are taken on board. And by identifying these levels of analysis he often avoids the question of social agency altogether. For example, his theory of globalisation rests on the idea that states and communities exist in a world increasingly unified by economic and social processes, by both transnational formation and by the pressure on societies to conform with each other in an increasingly unified, and unequal, world. Here, he seems to be evading the question of what determines these global processes, which for a critical analysis of international relations should surely be a key task.

However, Halliday's ability as an historian militates against these extremes. In such a wide-ranging work each reader will inevitably quibble over details and omissions, but for its scope and sophistication it deserves consideration by a wide audience.

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Irene Miller

  • The Man Who Loved Jane Austen, Ray Smith, Porcupine's Quill, $18.95 pbk

Frank Wilson is a man losing control. An English literature teacher, he has two small children, a dead wife and a mother-in-law even Roy 'Chubby' Brown wouldn't joke about. The Man Who Loved Jane Austen is a surprisingly sad story of a man's endless struggle to rebuild and regain control over his life after his wife's death in a car accident. With in-laws trying to destroy him and take his children by whatever means necessary, he has a struggle on his hands.

The book makes an impact because it is so painfully believable. The dialogue, particularly between Frank and his children, is charmingly well-observed. Yet Ray Smith just manages to stop Frank being pathetic. Although often ineffective, Frank puts up a fight at every stage. Finding out the reality behind his idolised wife, he remains rational and continues to try to move on. A previously placid and satisfied husband and father, Frank finds himself thrown unwillingly into a fight for his children and, ultimately, his life. The most effective part of the book is your understanding, as a reader, of how Frank is being worn down. When he begins to give up the battle, he does not elicit pity, but anger.

References throughout to Canada's peculiar nationalist issues and the divisions these have created among its people mean that the book is in some ways very 'Canadian'. But this only adds depth to the characters involved, reaching beyond national boundaries to make this an incredibly moving story.

Read On Read On Read On Read On

Review by Hannah Lake

  • Adrian Mole: The Cappuccino Years, Sue Townsend, Michael Joseph, £14.99 hbk

In this latest book in the Adrian Mole series, Townsend has succeeded in taking the authentic voice of the adolescent Adrian into thirtysomethingdom, skilfully retaining everything we hated most. A disastrous husband, an inconsistent and unreliable father, an ever-ungrateful son, a stinge with money, a selfish individual lacking in willpower and forever wallowing in self-pity...the list does go on. And the transition to adulthood doesn't feel awkward: he is everything we expected him to be.

The Cappuccino Years is a funny and easy read. Throughout, Townsend manages to balance some marvellously surreal happenings with the almost painful normality (boringness) of Adrian's personality. There is partner swapping, the sale of fresh air, and the book culminates in a deranged arsonist falling head over heels for our feeble hero. Yet despite a glimmer of humanity at the end, I have to say I won't ever like Adrian.

Reproduced from LM issue 128, March 2000



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