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.

Lucerne’s Hotel Château Gütsch, one of the lots in our Homeless Veterans appeal charity auction
charity appeal
Arts and Entertainment
Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) after his son Olly disappeared on a family holiday in France

Jo from Northern Ireland was less than impressed by Russell Brand's attempt to stage a publicity stunt

Nabil Bentaleb (centre) celebrates putting Tottenham ahead
footballTottenham 4 Newcastle 0: Spurs fans dreaming of Wembley final after dominant win
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Arts and Entertainment
The Apprentice candidates Roisin Hogan, Solomon Akhtar, Mark Wright, Bianca Miller, Daniel Lassman
tvReview: But which contestants got the boot?
Life and Style
A woman walks by a pandal art installation entitled 'Mars Mission' with the figure of an astronaut during the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta, India
techHow we’ll investigate the existence of, and maybe move in with, our alien neighbours
Arts and Entertainment
Jim Carrey and Jeff Daniels ride again in Dumb and Dumber To
filmReview: Dumb And Dumber To was a really stupid idea
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Ian McKellen tempts the Cookie Monster
tvSir Ian McKellen joins the Cookie Monster for a lesson on temptation
Tourists bask in the sun beneath the skyscrapers of Dubai
travelBritish embassy uses social media campaign to issue travel advice for festive holiday-makers in UAE
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst

    £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: An established media firm based in Surrey is ...

    Ashdown Group: Java Developer - Hertfordshire - £47,000 + bonus + benefits

    £40000 - £470000 per annum + bonus: Ashdown Group: Java Developer / J2EE Devel...

    Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

    £70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

    Recruitment Genius: Business Development Executive - Nationwide - OTE £65,000

    £30000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This small technology business ...

    Day In a Page

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas
    La Famille Bélier is being touted as this year's Amelie - so why are many in the deaf community outraged by it?

    Deaf community outraged by La Famille Bélier

    The new film tells the story of a deaf-mute farming family and is being touted as this year's Amelie
    10 best high-end laptops

    10 best high-end laptops

    From lightweight and zippy devices to gaming beasts, we test the latest in top-spec portable computers
    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    Michael Carberry: ‘After such a tough time, I’m not sure I will stay in the game’

    The batsman has grown disillusioned after England’s Ashes debacle and allegations linking him to the Pietersen affair
    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    Susie Wolff: A driving force in battle for equality behind the wheel

    The Williams driver has had plenty of doubters, but hopes she will be judged by her ability in the cockpit
    Calls for a military mental health 'quality mark'

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Expert calls for military mental health 'quality mark'
    Racton Man: Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman

    Meet Racton Man

    Analysis shows famous skeleton was a 6ft Bronze Age superman
    Garden Bridge: St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters

    Garden Bridge

    St Paul’s adds to £175m project’s troubled waters
    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament: An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel

    Stuff your own Christmas mouse ornament

    An evening class in taxidermy with a festive feel
    Joint Enterprise: The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice

    Joint Enterprise

    The legal doctrine which critics say has caused hundreds of miscarriages of justice
    Freud and Eros: Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum: Objects of Desire

    Freud and Eros

    Love, Lust and Longing at the Freud Museum
    France's Front National and the fear of a ‘gay lobby’ around Marine Le Pen

    Front National fear of ‘gay lobby’

    Marine Le Pen appoints Sébastien Chenu as cultural adviser