Remembering Clausewitz's dictum that good strategy 'takes matters as it finds them', I quizzed my 12-year-old daughter's friends as they hopscotched on the pavement. For a start, they all dislike libraries: 'We lose the books or the tickets, and we get frightened about the fines.' They much prefer buying (or being bought) paperbacks, or borrowing each other's books. How do they choose? 'By the cover - and what's written on the back.'
With the competing demands of television and Nintendo, each reckons to read only one or two books a week, more if they are a stateside fast-food series such as The Babysitters or Freshman Dorm. Derrida would have enjoyed their modish ability to make free with the text: Sweet Valley High was 'Trash. Easy to get into - you can start anywhere. You just sink into it. Brilliant.' Laura had read 14 (of a possible 250 titles), Ella (she of the 'Trash') two, Tamar 35 (thanks to a bargain purchase of 25 for pounds 5 from a friend). Top favourites at the moment are 'scary thrillers, the Point Horror series, Agatha Christie, Lois Duncan'.
Did their parents ever suggest books? 'Yes. Boring ones. We keep them on the shelf rather than read them.' Were they ever read to? 'Yes.' Does it work? 'Mmmm . . . not often.' They swapped memories of bedtime trials, and I experienced a trampling of Nike trainers across my dreams: 'The Hobbit: yuk. The Ghost of Thomas Kempe: awful. Ballet Shoes: really great.' (All is not quite lost, then).
Boys are said to read much less than girls, and these particular kids are exactly the sort I assumed would be heading through the landmarks of children's literature like hungry caterpillars. So who on earth is reading all the excellent children's novels that win the Smarties Prize, the Children's Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, and so on? 'We read them at school. The teachers make us. Some are OK.'
It is in fact possible to get your children to read the odd classic, but you have to resort to low cunning. Even if you still have your much loved hardback edition, buy Little Women smartly dressed up in paperback with a comehither blurb scrawled on the back ('Jo swore she'd never speak to that beastly boy next door ever again, but there was something about Laurie's deep blue eyes and raven black hair that made her change her mind') and leave it casually lying round the house. If it goes down well, announce you happen to have the sequel - or the library does.
A good bargain at the moment is the handsome boxed set of eight great classic stories celebrating 50 years of Puffin books. But ask yourself why it has been reduced from pounds 25 to pounds 15, and don't thrust the boxful at your child unless he or she is a bookworm. Use them one by one as carefully guided missiles on a long car or train journey. Finally, never ever refer to the fact that Little House on the Prairie, Swallows and Amazons or Stig of the Dump was your own favourite. No self-respecting child wants to read in its parent's thumbprints. Let them tell you how good it is.
Because their children's tastes change so rapidly, parents need constant guidance about new authors - and there are plenty of good ones hiding among the yards of sickly, sub-teen trash and the would-be therapeutic psychofiction. Bookshops and libraries generally have lists of recent award- winning books, and a useful, annually updated list of the best of current titles is Julia Eccleshare's Children's Books of The Year (Andersen Press, pounds 4.99).
But be wary. Quite a few officially highly-rated writers seem to be performing cathartic autopsies on their own childhood traumas rather than telling good stories, and some of the critics' darlings should be entering their novels for the Booker not the Carnegie.
Keep a clear picture of your own child in your head, and skim the opening pages before you buy. Most children prefer books with parents dead or firmly in the background, and will get no further if not hooked by page three. For what it's worth, my personal mnemonic for the authors that go down well with my 12-year-old is as follows: 'Mark (Jan) how the Needle (Jan) Nimmo(Jennifer)bly stitches Fine (Anne) Pilling (Ann) cases.'