Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Children’s Books: Reading Trash – Does it Matter?

rubbish bins

Papa Bin, Mama Bin and Baby Bin by Simon Kirby on Flickr, reproduced under a Creative Commons licence

Reading around the net the other day I came across an article on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure – which is a site set up and written by children’s authors.

Mostly, children’s authors are a peaceful and supportive bunch. However, this article caught my attention as much for the vehemence and crossness of some of the 72 – yes 72! – comments – as the content of the piece itself. What had got all these lovely people so hot under the collar I wondered.

Well here is her article: “Sure the book is awful but at least they’re reading something”

In this piece, writer Clementine Beauvais lets rip and savages the idea that reading trash can be a  good thing. Here’s how she starts:

“Like most people interested in children’s literature, and like many authors, I like asking booksellers, librarians, teachers and parents what children and teenagers are currently reading a lot of. And like many children’s literature academics, I don’t conceal my disappointment and my judgement when they tell me that a lot of children are reading what I consider, subjectively of course, but still with (I hope) some good reasons, to be trash; bad literature; literature that is facile, bland, formulaic; literature that relies on easy responses from young readers; literature that doesn’t count on the intelligence of its readers to be understood.

In response, people often say, ‘Sure, I agree with you – these books are awful. But at least they’re reading.’ ‘At least’. At least they’re reading. This is such a minimal kind of success that it doesn’t, in my view, actually qualify as any kind of success. At least they’re reading! hallelujah… When do you ever hear people who care about children say: ‘Oh, they love fries and cheeseburgers. Sure, McDonalds food is awful, but at least they’re eating.’ ?”

It’s clear from the comments that Clementine knows she is being controversial – or even playing devil’s advocate. But the outpouring in the comments was something else. Nearly everyone disagreed with her. She was being elitist, snobbish – who was she to judge and say some books are better than others? Various others commented that they had read trash as a kid, some telling us how they had still ended up going to Oxford…you get the picture.

My immediate response was to side with the commenters. Surely we want kids reading? And surely reading for enjoyment is the most important thing of all? Don’t we have enough of people telling us we have to do x rather than y because it is “good for us”? Isn’t that the death of real engagement and enjoyment with reading? Plus the fact that I know some voracious child readers who consume huge amounts of books that many might consider “trash” but that doesn’t stop them, like ravaging locusts, consuming pretty well every other book for kids they can as well – including stuff that is considered difficult literature way beyond their years. Surely all that practice at reading is what makes a good reader in the first place? Perhaps the reading of trash is what enables them to tackle the “better stuff”. Whatever “better stuff” means (and how dare anyone pretend there IS such a thing…etc etc).

However, as I went on reading the comments, I began to wonder. If I turned this debate around onto something that’s as important to me – art and painting – would I see it the same way?

Don’t we have to be introduced to some of the “good stuff” early so that we can understand and acquire that language in the first place? If I saw nothing but Disney cartoons – would I be able to read the visual language of paint that now means so much to me?

When I think of what I get out of looking at the paintings that really speak to me, it is very hard to put into words. I can feel it like an intense interest, a pleasurable brain-melt and a punch in the gut all at once and a sense of something quite deep and calming that I cannot explain at all but that makes life seem bigger, fuller, more meaningful. There is almost nothing else that has that effect on me. I know a lot of people don’t have that feeling. Maybe because they don’t paint – perhaps it is something to do with my brain looking and incorporating the knowledge of the doing that adds something extra. Or maybe it is to do with simply being exposed to pictures from an early age. I am TERRIBLY opinionated about art. Just disgustingly know-it-all-ly opinionated. And of course I’m always right. It is value judgement. It is snobbery. It is elitist. I’m sure many would say so anyway. But it’s not just received wisdom – there are things in painting I look for and speak to me, there are things I find facile, easy, formulaic…and I reject. Just like Clementine does in books. But if noone bothers to be judgemental – how can those artworks be created, recognised, exist? What happens if we shrug our shoulders and say noone should make those judgements, be self-critical or really try to get beyond the facile and formulaic?

Vulpes Libris is a reviewing site. By our nature we review, we judge, we evaluate. And it is opinion. The kind of heated debate on Clementine’s piece was enlivening and thought-provoking. Why are we so squeamish of others slagging off our taste and our opinions? Why can’t we passionately debate what is good and what is bad in books, in art, in music, in everything? Isn’t there even something pleasurable about when we find something that others underrate but we know that it is actually brilliant…and it is our own personal discovery?

It seems to me that the sort of opinions demonstrated by Clementine are totally acceptable on many book sites for adult readers – but it was the fact it was expressed on a children’s authors site that made it quite so controversial. Why is this? Is it because we are so sensitive about getting kids to read anything – anything at all – that leads us to be squeamish about judgement? Or is it because we inherently feel kids are easy to influence or made to feel a failure and therefore there is a feeling that their reading material must never be criticised in any shape or form?

But how about we turn this on its head for a minute? If we don’t look at it from the point of view of criticising children, or childrens’ authors and their reading or writing choices, but asking questions about publishers, models, franchises and marketing – does it play any differently?

Are we happy that so many children’s books have celebrity names but are ghost written by others? Are we happy about the dominance of formulaic series? Are we happy about generic stories or gendered covers or stereotypical characterisations of princess and fairies for girls or beasts and monsters for boys? Are we happy about the closing of libraries, the lack of school libraries and the sacking of childrens’ librarians who might guide children’s reading towards exciting stories that they think they will enjoy but that also open other branches of life and knowledge for them?

Those children who devour everything – including bucketloads of “trash” (whatever your version of trash might be) – are they voracious readers because of the practice they get by reading so much trash or because they are kids who already have a lot of opportunities to read and a wide selection of books they can choose from?

What if kids have no choice but the “bad” stuff? Does it matter?

Clementine seemed to provoke a huge reaction when she questioned the whole value of reading in an end in itself, altogether, with the following statement (her bold):

“To me, there is no value, and I do mean zero value, in reading books which (most adults agree) are of low quality – lazy, unoriginal, facile and immediately appealing. It is dishonest, I think, to keep asserting that it is a good thing in itself. “

Is reading the be all and end all in itself? We are obsessed with literacy, but this important issue aside – is it better for children to read “trash”, than watch good television, for example? Or enjoy other media? Clementine argues that perhaps quality television or even quality computer games would be more of a gateway for better books, than trashy books.

And here is a strange admission for me. For, despite being an able and fluent reader from an early age, and, despite having written a lot from an early age, I have never been the voracious reader that – say – my sister was, that my niece now is, that many of the other bookfoxes – that some of my friends are.

I love words – but I enjoy them aurally as much as on the page. The visual arts are as important to me, more so, than novels. I read more plays than novels. I can get totally absorbed in essays even. Yet novels…? Perhaps, it is largely about the kinds of stories available in books. I can find it hard to find the sort of stories I want to read. Whilst there are books I have truly loved, it can be hard to put my finger on what it is that links them – what do Watership Down, Gormenghast, The Animals of Farthing Wood, Borderliners by Peter Hoeg and The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy all have in common, for example? Perhaps I need a good librarian to analyse all of this and point me towards the kinds of things I might really enjoy.

So, I’m literate. But my choice of trash would possibly be more televisual – or internet-based – rather than book-shaped. Does this matter? Is reading in and of itself a desirable thing?

I don’t know the answer to these questions. As a child I read a lot more books and stories than I do now, but even at that age I was aware of a lack of active female characters to relate to and a lack of characters that I related to and was that interested in. When I became a teenager, this problem just seemed to get worse. I suspect that this sort of thing – characters and identity and worlds – is more important really when it comes to children engaging with reading – than the trash v good debate. But this is – perhaps – why what Clementine’s saying has a real point.

I don’t want to trash formula. There can be a comfort in formula  that can sometimes be underrated. As a child, I read a vast amount of animal books, for example, of similar style and formula.What I wanted was a predictable supply of the kind of thing I liked – to cheer me up, to engage me in my interests. The animal books series I devoured were not great works of literature and not challenging in any way – although I wouldn’t call them trash either. But the fact I knew pretty much what I was getting was an important aspect. Kids, similar to adults, can have stresses and strains, worries about school maybe or anxieties. Reading a book can be just as important in that way – as a comfort read, escapism, or just to relax.

But we do need variety. We need to strive to create good stories, a good range of characters, good books – not just the bland, the repetitive, the formulaic   – not just to encourage literacy, but to allow books and reading to do all that they can for children – introduce them to other worlds, other times, other people, different characters, different world-views and possibilities – and to stimulate imagination, engage empathy, allow them to discover themselves, think about issues and open their eyes to the world and all there is in it.

Is this achieved with the current obsession with genre and series and ghost-writing, pink covers and gender-conscious approaches or is it achieved by trying to widen all childrens’ access to a wide variety of books so they can find the kinds of books and stories that speak to them, engage them and widen horizons?

So rather than jumping on the likes of Clementine’s post, I think the fact it has stimulated such debate is a good thing and I’m glad there are people out there still flying the flag for quality – whether I agree with her definition of what quality is, or not.


Here’s a response to Clementine’s original article putting another point of view

Did you read trashy books as a child? Does it matter? Do you monitor your own kids’ books for quality? What do you define as quality in children’s books? Do you agree with Clementine’s definitions of low-quality (“lazy, unoriginal, facile and immediately appealing”)? Is reading in itself a good thing? Should we have less judgement and snobbery around children’s books?  Please feel free to tell us your thoughts.


14 comments on “Children’s Books: Reading Trash – Does it Matter?

  1. suemoorcroft
    May 6, 2014

    Whoever a book or magazine is aimed at, I object to the term ‘trash’, especially when it’s used simply to mean ‘easy reading’. Easy reading does not mean easy writing. People who read popular fiction etc shouldn’t be tagged as ‘reading trash’. It … well, it trashes them! Why should they be trashed for reading what they enjoy?

  2. rosyb
    May 6, 2014

    Hi Sue – thanks so much for commenting.

    The use of the word “trash” in the title my fault rather than Clementine Beavais’. CB did not give examples of what she considers awful books – although she defines them as “lazy, unoriginal, facile and immediately appealing”.

    I don’t see a problem with immediately appealing, myself!

    I did not get the impression she was talking about easy reading as presumably a lot of childrens’ books must be designed to be easy (or easier) reading by their nature. I wouldn’t argue that easy reading is easy writing at all!

    I agree with you about this idea of being trashed…but, like I did in the article – do you think there is a point if you turn it round to consider this issue not in terms of individual readers but the offer from the publishers/companies etc? Is there any points to be considered in relation to that or do you not think so?

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings
    May 6, 2014

    Very thought provoking post and I am with you – I won’t read anything I think is badly written, or written to formula. Life is to short and I apply the same criteria to books as I do to other media – so I won’t watch a rubbish film or tv show either. In publishing nowadays there seems to be a tendency to jump on the bandwagon with whatever genre is perceived to sell, and so all the books and series coming out fit into that stereotype. Personally, I’d get nothing from that sort of reading – I want to be challenged, stimulated, entertained, have my thoughts provoked etc. So to turn it around, I *don’t* like the idea of children just reading ‘trash’ because it won’t do anything for their brains. It might be useful in the technical sense of reading, but not in the emotional, intellectual, spiritual side of this. It’s a great pity there’s such a lack of originality in the arts generally – but that’s perhaps getting slightly off-topic….. 🙂

  4. Melrose
    May 6, 2014

    I did want to try to give this author’s viewpoint a fair shot, but read the first chapter of one of the Sesame Seade books, to try to understand her style of writing, and it seemed to be a collection of in-jokes and quaint little observations about a pretentious child, who lived in Cambridge, and was proud of using big words. It seemed very disjointed, hopping from one comment , or thought process, to another. It felt to me like a child’s book written for adults. Children are all different, and I am sure Sesame appeals to some children, but not to others.

    Who has the say on what is considered good literature, what is considered trash? Is Sesame Seade good literature? Who says so? Is it formulaic in its own way? Because a person is a children’s literature academic, does that person’s opinion count more than the child, who is enjoying a book that the academic would consider trash. If we decide the quality of book, in our opinion, that children should be encouraged to read, are we not, in fact, taking choice away from them. I think I’m a bit concerned by Clementine’s authoritarian approach to what children should read, and her disappointment when they don’t.

    “To me, there is no value, and I do mean zero value, in reading books which (most adults agree) are of low quality”. That’s a very depressing statement. How does Clementine know that most adults would agree with her (because she thinks this should be so)?

    “And like many children’s literature academics, I don’t conceal my disappointment and my judgement when they tell me that a lot of children are reading what I consider, subjectively of course, but still with (I hope) some good reasons, to be trash; bad literature; literature that is facile, bland, formulaic; literature that relies on easy responses from young readers; literature that doesn’t count on the intelligence of its readers to be understood.” What can you say to a comment like that… not a lot really.

  5. gertloveday
    May 7, 2014

    I love this post and the discussion. Is it a new thing, I wonder, to tut tut over what children are reading? If you want bland and formulaic look no further than Enid Blyton. As with many things, I wonder if the question is the wrong way round. It’s what’s in the child, not what’s in the book, that forms taste, I would say. As children we devoured anything and everything readable, from Popeye to Pepys, but as adults we’ve settled on Pepys.

  6. Kate
    May 7, 2014

    Oh just let them read, and let them find out for themselves what they like and what they don’t want to bother with again. They’re learning to read, and learning to discriminate. So let them get on with it.

  7. kirstyjane
    May 7, 2014

    Yes. What Kate said!

  8. Emma Barnes
    May 7, 2014

    I think Clementine’s piece generated more heat than light. She wasn’t prepared to define (or give examples of) trash, which meant that the debate didn’t really go anywhere helpful, because we didn’t really know what she was talking about. There’s a presumption from people commenting that “formulaic series fiction” is her target – but she writes series fiction herself, so presumably there’s more to it than that. She needed to give examples.

    Virtually none of the people who opposed Clementine’s views were suggesting that you can’t make critical judgements about children’s writing. Of course you can. And should. But there is a place for all kinds of books, and if children enjoy reading something an adult despises, then there is nothing wrong with that. I think one point that Clementine missed is that children develop through different stages, and they do need to read – and it doesn’t always have to be intellectually challenging stuff – to become literate adults. I think her view of the purpose of reading is very narrow.

    I must say, Rosy, that to relate how you enjoyed reading formulaic fiction yourself and then turn round and appear to criticise contemporary children for doing the same thing strikes me as…odd. Maybe I don’t understand the point you’re making. You say “the current obsession with genre and series and ghost-writing, pink covers and gender-conscious approaches” is not serving children well. But there is a huge variety of books out there, of all kinds, the problem is that many children face narrowing choice through the closure of libraries, school library services and bookshops. Having adults dictating children’s choices just narrows their options further. Also, I rather resent the implication that a pink cover is a sign of inferior quality! I’ve just written a book, the first of a series, with a pink cover and I don’t think that is a good criteria for describing something as “trash”. (The Scotsman review described it as “hilarious and heartwarming” by the way.) Publishers often use pink covers as a signal that it will appeal to girls particularly – i have a lot of problems with the often-voiced assumption that this means it must therefore be “trash”!

  9. Conor
    May 8, 2014

    Well said, Rosy. Fiction readers these days read a lot of trash.

    A look at the bestseller lists shows this. In many of these books there is an emphasis on plot at the expense of everything else, and on a limited range of interests and behaviour. There is hardly any exploration of feelings and relationships, no attempt to express something interesting about society or life or human nature, no effort to see things differently, no interest in the complexity of things, no awareness of the traditions of the novel that have done so much to improve the world, just an appeal to the lowest common denominator, to our worst desires, until people think materialism, greed and revenge are good, might is right, and that whatever you want is ok, no one has a right to judge you, and if something is difficult it must be bad.

    You can often see at a glance which writers take this cynical approach to writing, as they tend to write in short simple sentences in short simple paragraphs, as if talking down to small children. It is almost impossible to write for grown-up minds in that sort of reduced language. I should not be astonished at some of the responses to your piece, but I still like to think that people in online groups like this are thoughtful and concerned.

    There is a poem by Philip Larkin called ‘A Study of Reading Habits’ in which someone describes the thrills he got from genre fiction as a boy (you know the sort of thing — sex, violence and vampires) and confesses he doesn’t read much now as he’s jaded from all that and thinks ‘Books are a load of crap.’ If you read crap for years it won’t be surprising if you think crap, feel crap and talk crap. Larkin knew what he was talking about!

  10. Melrose
    May 8, 2014

    Got to disagree with you, Conor. You seem to have the same outlook as Clementine, which seems to me, as a reader, quite an arrogant viewpoint – that readers are incapable of thinking for themselves – and somehow reading books that you consider trash will somehow corrupt them. This is far from the truth – readers, both adult and children are capable of discerning. I know, as a child, I and many of my friends looked forward to our weekly comic, Bunty, and what “The Four Marys” were up to, for example. The comic strip would no doubt be considered trash, non-literary, formulaic, goodness knows what else, but we all loved it. No doubt, we each identified with one of the Marys in their adventures.

    Among my eclectic choice of reading material, I like to read murder mystery fiction. I’m well aware that most of the characters are fairly simply drawn, and the plot is everything, but I like the mental stimulation of working through the clues, and solving the puzzle. I love the Martha Grimes stories for their over-the-top, eccentric characters, who you would never meet in every day life. I get enough exploration of relationships, feelings, society, nature, all the things you mention through “real” life and non-fiction books exploring these subjects.

    As a child, I read everything and anything that appealed to me, even the back of cornflake packets, if there was nothing else available, as I’m sure children, even nowadays, do. It’s a kind of hunger to devour words, and sometimes you just want some easily digested reading material and not the equivalent of a lentil and bean base dmeal complete with brown rice and wholegrain bread.

    And comparing food to reading material, as Clementine does “When do you ever hear people who care about children say: ‘Oh, they love fries and cheeseburgers. Sure, McDonalds food is awful, but at least they’re eating.’ ?” People with children who having eating disorders will be delighted, if this happened. And, no doubt, parents who have children resistant to reading would feel exactly the same.

  11. rosyb
    May 8, 2014

    Hi all and thank you so much for all the comments!

    What’s interesting is how people all take from this things that I haven’t realised I said at all. I suppose with a short blog piece on a controversial topic, that’s maybe inevitable. For the record, I like lots of “trash” – but like one of the comments on her piece I have a “good trash” “bad trash” line in my head. To me it seems pretty obvious, but of course noone’s going to agree on their definitions – or are they?

    I think there is a bit of defensiveness that comes in because people assume trash means genre fiction – which it doesn’t of course. Or populist or popular fiction – which it doesn’t either. At least not for me.

    Connor, thank you for your deeply felt comment and bringing Larkin into the mix. I enjoyed the analogy. But I don’t think that books for adults have to be written in complex language or difficult. Books written in simple language can be brilliant too. I’ve reviewed a few on here.

    So it comes down to defining your trash, crap or whatever other lovely word you want to use.

    I think – for me – I was careful to focus in this article on what gets chosen and pushed, rather than what any individual – child or adult – chooses to read.

    I am not Clementine. I don’t think trash reading and trash tv is a problem in terms of the reader. I think it’s more of a problem in terms of the culture if it takes up all the room and pushes out other stuff or even cuts off access to other things.

    I’m not seeing this as a high-brow/low-brow debate either – the original writer was clear that that was not her bag and it’s certainly not mine (how can it be when I like lots of nonsense comedy stuff?).

    And nor do I assume the book inside a pink cover is bad either. I never said that at all. Of course I don’t. But I do object – in the culture – to the over-all pinkification of everything pushed at women and girls. I have always objected to this and am not going to change.

    I suppose if the point of my post is unclear it is merely because it was thinking aloud, rather than writing a polemic pushing one argument – which I wasn’t. I think I was pretty honest about that – I said I didn’t know the answers to any of my own questions! But I read Clementine’s article and the comments it provoked and it started me thinking and questioning. I don’t believe there is no benefit in reading at all if you are reading something of poor quality (again – whatever that means: insert your own bugbear here.). Obviously literacy is a huge deal which Clementine’s original piece rather ignored. Similarly there are other aspects that are relevant – for example the bonding or touchstone quality that some books have. And that might be as important in terms of being able to talk to your peer group or know what everyone else is talking about. This was an aspect not covered.

    But I did think the piece had some interesting points which got a bit drowned and as I said at the end I liked the fact she was arguing for quality. (Obviously everyone has a rather different idea of what that means, particularly when you bring the whole good trash/bad trash – and let’s not forget cool or ironic trash – into the equation, the whole thing is a total minefield!) But it seems to me something rather healthy for writers to be arguing for – whatever their particular bag is.

    Thanks again for the comments everyone. It’s appreciated.

  12. AnotherLookBook
    May 11, 2014

    This was a very interesting post to read, along with everyone’s comments down here. This is a subject I’ve debated with myself again and again. I’d debate it with other people too, but I’m not sure I know anyone else who’s sufficiently interested!

    I think my stance on this subject has been altered by my academic studies in anthropology–sort of along the lines of “to each his/her own.” All the same, I do hold certain standards for myself, and I do find myself looking down my nose at other peoples’ reading choices. The super-popular YA dystopia-type fiction is what puzzles me most, especially as the genre has become equally popular with adults. It reminds me of something I read a long time ago: a statistic stating that the average adult reads at the sixth-grade level. This statistic doesn’t bother me much when I’m only considering the complexity of the lexicon. It does concern me more, however, when the “sixth-grade reading level” also applies to the complexity of thought (which to me is different than words).

    Recently I was studying bestselling fiction lists from the 20th century. I noticed how many of those books are taught nowadays in literature classes, regarded as modern classics, etc. I was even MORE surprised when I started reading the once-popular-but-now-unheard-of books from the early part of the century, the books that seem to have missed the “modern classics” train. I discovered that these “non-classics” and other mainstream fiction from the time still surpasses the literary standard of today’s popular, mainstream fiction.

    When I mentioned this possible shift in standards to my father, he suggested that the shift has to do not with WHAT is being written, but WHO is reading it. A century ago, he suggested, there simply weren’t as many pleasure readers as there are today, and more pleasure readers came from a high socioeconomic background. Perhaps a similar explanation could be applied to a shift in children’s books?

    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and prompting this discussion.

  13. sshaver
    May 13, 2014


    But otherwise, fine.

  14. rosyb
    May 13, 2014

    Sshaver – hahaha! Thanks so much. Corrected (hope there are no more…)

    Thanks for the interesting comment Anotherlookbook. I remember my mother talking about when she was young and how there was a few children’s books and then nothing – then suddenly a jump to adults which could be less interesting in terms of subject-matter for early teens. I think that there is a lot more choice for different ages nowadays which must be a good thing. And a whole YA and teen literature which is excellent. Perhaps there was less choice in the past. It’s a bit like the way Tristram Shandy or The Anatomy of Melancholy were bestsellers in the past – not sure their equivalents would be today. But maybe to do with what else was on offer at the time maybe… (?). 🙂

    On the other hand, things can be so split up in terms of target audience and age-group now (I’m not necessarily just talking books but films, TV, all media) that the kind of theatre Shakespeare did which mixed the high-brow and the low is impossible. Which I think is a shame. You don’t get stories with a whole range of characters for different sections of the audience to relate to anymore. I’d say it’s much more targetted and streamlined (in general).

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This entry was posted on May 6, 2014 by in Articles, Entries by Rosy, Fiction: young adult.



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