We’ve discovered the sure fire way to stop children reading books

·4 min read
Agatha Christie is the latest on the sensitivity chopping block - Popperfoto
Agatha Christie is the latest on the sensitivity chopping block - Popperfoto

“Whatever your view of the book,” author Anthony Horowitz told an audience at the Oxford Literary Festival at the weekend, “even if it is something considered offensive or trivial or trite, it is better than not reading. As long as they read something.”

That last sentence sums up the attitude of every parent I know. From the moment my daughter learned to read, I didn’t care if it was a comic, one of those ghastly Pepto Bismol-pink ‘Princess and the Unicorn’ fantasies children’s writers seem to churn out in embellished seven-set book sets, or even the back of a cereal packet: just read.

There’s a tiny window of time in which we can infect children with the best bug out there, one that we know for a fact will lead to better-paid jobs, good health and an immeasurable amount of pleasure for the rest of their lives. Yet nine million adults in Britain can’t read, a quarter of 11-year-olds do not meet the expected reading standards and, according to a YouGov survey published earlier this month, “reading reluctance” is a growing problem in schools, with almost nine in 10 teachers blaming social media for driving children away from books.

“Reluctant readers” are defined as those who need to be cajoled into picking up a book. But today, when there’s an infinite number of devices available to us, all of them promising instant gratification, when our attention spans have been reduced to those of a gnat, surely every child will need to be cajoled, enticed, even bullied – initially? I would and have drawn the line at blackmail, however tempting it is, purely because it turns reading into a chore. But we wouldn’t think twice about force-feeding our kids broccoli, would we? Eat your greens. Then read a book. Because very few will pick up the bug organically.

For less lofty reasons, the publishing industry has embarked on its own campaign to get children reading again. They’ve decided that the answer is taking an antiseptic wipe to the authors and attitudes of the past, cleansing Roald Dahl’s Revolting Rhymes of their revoltingness, making his characters “enormous” rather than “fat”, cutting and censoring Enid Blyton so that appalling, nightmare-inducing phrases such as “shut up” are removed from her Famous Five series.

Recently it was revealed that Agatha Christie is the latest author to be rewritten posthumously with #bekind in mind. In the original Death on the Nile, published in 1937, the character of Mrs Allerton bemoans a group of children who are pestering her. “They come back and stare, and stare,” she snipes, “and their eyes are simply disgusting, and so are their noses, and I don’t believe I really like children.” In the Flash lemon-scented new edition, Mrs Allerton has been given a thorough scouring by the sensitivity readers. Her detoxed take? “I don’t believe I really like children.”

I’m curious: have any of these censors actually met a child? Leaving aside their disgusting eyes and noses, miniature humans are not, in fact, terribly kind. They’re quick to judge, deeply prejudiced against aesthetically-challenged people and there is nothing they love more than a bogeyman (or woman – I don’t want anyone feeling excluded here). There’s a reason all the villains in children’s fiction are outsized, grotesque, chilling enough to stay with you into adulthood.

By removing “offensive” material, publishers are actually removing the delight, the thrill, alongside the negative role models children desperately need to grow up with in order to spot a real-life baddie and understand, too, what good people look like. They are, as Horowitz went on to say, “shooting themselves in the foot” – at the very moment when we need every campaign to get kids reading to succeed.

In an ideal world, children would see books not as church-like sermons where only halo-topped figures are conjured up, but as a naughty pleasure, on a par with a hastily guzzled packet of Skittles or the kind of fizzy drink that dyes their tongues bright orange. Imagine what our literacy figures would look like if that was how they were sold? Picture millions of imaginations blooming, a greater understanding of historical context across the country, better mental health and prospects.

Penguin was clever enough to do just that – for adults. Thanks to the brainwave of one Anna Cohn Orchard, executive director of Exeter City of Literature, the publisher has installed its first vending machine at Exeter St Davids station. Only instead of Mars bars and Walkers crisps, this machine dispenses paperbacks by Richard Osman and George Orwell.

Now if these “Penguincubators” could only spring up in stations across the country and be stuffed with full-fat Dahl and E number-filled Blyton and Christie, that might help get our children reading again.