Why young readers turn to little horrors

"It's simple," said Gary at the kids' publishing party. "Girls stop reading after 11, and boys after eight. Unless." Unless?

"Unless they get into horror. The largest market for Stephen King in this country is 14-year-old girls."

I remember a friend whose eldest daughter, aged seven, brought home from school a Walker's reading-book called The Burning Baby and Other Stories. Walker's? Oh, yes: original, imaginative, subtle. Geniuses like Jill Murphy, masterpieces like Peace at Last. You can't go wrong.

But you can. In the first story, a garage mechanic got a 14-year-old (presumably not wise to Stephen King) pregnant. To hide his crime he decided - what else? - to burn her to death. The narrator, another girl, watched as her friend died, then saw something rise from the flames. Of course - the burning foetus. Sort of thing you recognise instantly. It made for the mechanic in petrol-stained overalls. He too went up in flames. End of story.

When Becka asked "What's a foetus?", her dad took a look; and then the shit hit the egg whisk. Two relaxed parents, not run-of-the-mill book- burners, went up in smoke. First they faxed nice, sweet Walker Books, to say their daughter was reading this book with no target age on the cover: who was it for? Then they marched, book in hand, to the poor school.

The school was aghast. Couldn't think how it got there. It had eeled its way past the woman-who-puts-cellophane-on-the-covers. Had they been given this by someone who worked in a secondary school? As upset as the parents, they exploded with apologies. But Walker's return fax said: "We hope your daughter enjoyed our book. It is intended for the teenage market, as the cover picture makes clear." Well, said my friend, it didn't. A handy teenager might have realised, but not a seven-year-old.

"All kids' publishers do that," said Gary. "Scholastic's ad for a Kids' Story Competition (run by The Independent a few years ago) said: `Children often like stories surprisingly old for them. Write us such a story.' But they stuff Waterstones with `Point Horror'. We're all at it. We sell sophisticated writing, witty images, subtlety, and the cream of British imagination - John Burningham, Posy Simmonds - to three- and four-year- olds, then turn them into zombies with this stuff. It's called teenage, but it's really eight and over."

Gary got a bit carried away, but genius, imagination and sophistication really do prowl the three-to-five section of any Waterstones. And then:

"Do you know," asked Gary, "how `teenage series' get written? My boss tells me to create a formula: say, three girls who find something wrong and sort it out. I work it out 10 times over, invent an `author', hire 10 hacks at a flat fee, tell them what to write (names, plot, everything), design 10 covers with the same look - and 10 books end up on sale all exactly alike. No originality, no integrity, no imagination, no language, no -

"Take another Chardonnay," I said.

I don't mind the horror in itself. When my daughter was eight I idiotically tried her on Beowulf. After three pages it was nightmares for a month. Not because it was horror, but because it was well-written and alive. What gets me is the pornographic formulaicness, the nonwrittenness, of these things. My daughter's last school had a fab reading policy. You had to have a book on the go all the time. But you could bring your own. Heartlessly, I made her bring what she called "old" books. Her friends had "modern" ones. I produced new paperbacks: Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Italo Calvino's Fairy Tales. She adored both, but they weren't "modern". Friends lent her "Point Horror" secretly, out of pity.

I hit back. A book, I announced, is something written by a real person, who wanted to write exactly that book, and put special things into it, words and imagining special to that book. These objects are things-that- look-like-books, by people with made-up names.

Scholastic's "Point Horror" and "Point Romance" vary the authorial names. "Goosebumps" are all "by R L Stine", whose name crops up on "Fear Street" (Simon and Schuster) too. Hippo's "Babysitters" are all "by Anne M Martin". On the inside cover, you don't find "by the same author," but "titles in the same series". No personal fingerprint or language or voice, no quirks or aliveness, in any of them.

Why do kids read? It used to be, partly, to find out how the world works. You get that now from magazines, TV, CD-Roms and the Internet (updated every 15 seconds). But you can't read the Internet under the bedclothes, or up a tree. Gutenberg got you that. I think you read to increase the things you find value in. You can't find value in things-that-look-like- books. My poetry editor used to sleep with favourite books - Kipling, The Borrowers - under his pillow. These have now turned into uncool, off- putting objects known as "classics".

A new Radio 3 programme called Reading Around starts this Saturday, with funding for a five-minute spot each week on "classics". They are calling it their "Guilt List". It introduces you to something you feel bad about not having read. The Iliad. Proust. Ace presenter, ace producer; sharp, witty, searching; the programme should go down a treat. But why a "guilt- list"?

Behind that guilt is an assumption that Scholastic, Hippo and Co are now applying to kids, and which the kids are going to apply to everything else. It also governs adult music categories: things like "Classics for Pleasure". It goes like this. Classics, or anything written with real care and energy, are good for you. But unless we load them with sweeteners they are really a pain. You ought to read The Iliad, like you ought to eat carrots. But God, it's a drag. Let's go for junk instead.

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