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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

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

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Production Administrator

    £17000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the leading and fastest ...

    Recruitment Genius: Trainee Sunroom / Conservatory / Extension Designers

    £16000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Planning Assistant

    £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the count...

    Recruitment Genius: Purchase Ledger Administrator

    £5120 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will be working for one of the countr...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence