Do we want a nation of bookworms?

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The Independent Culture
On the face of it, the creation of a new semi-official post - Children's Laureate - is no more than a piece of well-intentioned book marketing. Devised by the author Michael Morpurgo, backed by Waterstone's, and governed by a panel of librarians, critics and booksellers, it is not so much a position as a prize. It was intended that the award, worth pounds 10,000 over two years, would oblige the Laureate to be an ambassador for children's books, visiting schools and libraries, and issuing smart statements on topical matters. But the leading candidates for the post (Anne Fine, Peter Dickinson and the eventual winner, Quentin Blake) baulked at the time which all this would consume, so such duties are no longer part of the deal.

As a result, it is not clear what the laureateship will involve. Presumably, since it is not a royal appointment, Quentin Blake will not be required to illustrate books about state occasions and royal births. Just as well: the heart sinks at the thought of "Just Prince William", or "Willy Wonka wins the OBE" - even if they do feature the hit song "Walking in the Heir".

The children's book industry creates few celebrities, attracts only perfunctory reviews in newspapers, and offers far less acclaim than the world of adult books. Children's authors are rarely canvassed for their views on the Balkan conflict or the refugee situation. So no one can grudge the industry this small share of the limelight. But in seeking to draw attention to the importance of children's reading habits, the laureateship is stepping into muddy waters. Reading is not one thing. From the educational point of view there is a clear utilitarian need: literacy is decisively important (especially in the e-mail era). But most people, when they speak of reading, are thinking of something more emotional, something to do with imaginative thrills. It is hard for administrators to get involved in these, because they are by definition a private matter.

So David Blunkett can go blue in the face recommending that boys be given more boisterous adventures (Treasure Island or The War of the Worlds) instead of girly classics like Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Chris Smith can suck up to youngsters by urging them to read illicitly with a torch under their Manchester United duvets. Both are thinking only that if we can trick children into reading books instead of watching television, they might one day be employable as computer operators or missile launchers in white-hot cool Britannia.

It is true, though, that reading has a rebellious streak. Great literature is subversive: it teaches scepticism, frequently encouraging us to sympathise with murderers and mistrust bigwigs. And while we have a duty to help children become competent readers, decoders of words, making them actually thirst for books is a different matter. You can lead a horse to water, as they say, but it might just stare at its reflection. Can the ambiguous pleasure of aloneness, the dreamy, head-in-a-book quality that marks out a real reader - can this be taught? It is a hard virtue to inculcate, and it is not even clear that it is a virtue. History is full of young readers whose parents have been only too eager to knock the habit out of them. In Tony Harrison's compelling new film Prometheus, an angry Dad, jealous of his young son's love of Greek gods whose names he cannot himself pronounce, snatches the boy's book and flings it into the (Promethean) fire.

Reading is a consolation or a refuge, and the boys and girls who wrap themselves in imaginary worlds often do so because they feel clumsy on sports pitches or at parties, or with their parents. Happy and gregarious kids might succeed well as decoders: they can top spelling tests every week. But they might see or feel no need ever to surrender themselves to a book, to allow themselves to be gripped by it. A disquieting number of precocious readers are misfits, and the tragic parents knocking books out of their hands are only trying to knock sense into their heads.

Meanwhile, one of the warmer issues facing the new laureate is the large gap between young boys and girls when it comes to reading. Almost twice as many girls score A in English GCSE as boys. An intriguing new theory aired this week suggested that boys were suffering because they inhabited, in childhood, a more limited world. "Parents don't mind their little girls dressing up as pirates," said Sue Pidgeon, author of the new report. "But boys are not allowed to be princesses." She has a point. Today's tough girls have no difficulty identifying with Cut-Throat Jake, but our bewildered lads are all at sea with the Little Mermaid. It is not surprising if girls develop more supple imaginations and a wider range of sympathies. This is only a new version of a very mature old chestnut (girls like silly novels; boys like solid non-fiction) but perhaps there is something in it. Maybe our Children's Laureate should start by proposing not a reading list, but a dressing-up box.