Julia Donaldson, author of The Gruffalo, one of the most successful recent children's books, marked her appointment as Children's Laureate yesterday with a call to arms against "pushy parents", describing them as "a pain" who take the enjoyment out of reading.
"I don't believe you should push your children too hard. They are so sensitive," the author said. "If they are not ready to read it can be detrimental and it is more likely they will be worse off. I really find pushy parents a pain. I have met a lot in my time and while it is important to read, it should be enjoyable. It should be done for pleasure."
The role of Children's Laureate is awarded every two years to an "eminent writer or illustrator of children's books" to celebrate outstanding achievement in their field.
Donaldson, 62, is the author of some 120 books including Room on the Broom, Zog, and teenage novel Running on the Cracks. However, she is best known for The Gruffalo, which has sold more than 10 million copies and tells the story of how a mouse outwits a mythical creature. Donaldson takes over from outgoing laureate Anthony Browne.
Like Browne, who spoke out earlier this week to warn that we will "pay the price in the long term" for closing public and school libraries, Donaldson deplored impending library closures in the wake of national spending cuts.
"I have visited so many libraries in the past 15 years, and while even in the boom years libraries' belts were being tightened, it's crucial that their belts don't get any tighter," she said. "People say it is better than cutting education budgets but frankly, if you increase class sizes you can decrease them again when times are better. But if you sell a library it is very unlikely that you will ever get it back again."
Donaldson said she would soon visit Whithorn library in Galloway, Scotland, which faces imminent closure, and would lend her name to a campaign to save it. She also said she hoped to do a "libraries tour" during her laureateship.
"I feel very strongly that libraries are important for children," she added. "They are fantastic places where you can discover what you like to read, and I'm really worried about having a less bookish society. Libraries are the last bastions of communities in towns and villages."
The author, who lives near Glasgow, wrote The Gruffalo in 1999. It has since been adapted into a West End show and a 30-minute animation screened on BBC1 over Christmas 2009, featuring the voices of Helena Bonham Carter and Tom Wilkinson.
Previous children's laureates include Jacqueline Wilson, the poet Michael Rosen and the novelist Anne Fine. The winner is awarded a bursary of £15,000.
The alternative view
Julia Douëtil, national co-ordinator for reading recovery at the University of London's Institute of Education, said: "It is never too early to start enchanting children with books. It is hard to believe Julia Donaldson would discourage parents from reading with their children from the earliest possible age. The trouble is, we can become so paranoid about them being able to read, that we sometimes forget they have to want to in the first place. We regularly find children who, at age five, have given up on themselves as readers, usually because they have not been exposed to books. My advice to parents is to read to your child from as early as possible and don't stop when they have learnt to read for themselves."