Summertime views

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The Independent Online
The summer holidays are upon us and with them come the promise of lazy days on a beach sunbathing with the aid of a good book and a spot of sun cream. Or, if you prefer to risk a British location, curled up in front of a fire as the rain pours down outside, but still enjoying a good read. For many of us, one of the great pleasures of the summer break is catching up on all those books we've been meaning to read since we were given them for Christmas, or finally getting round to looking at those titles our friends have been enthusing about for months. But what of our children? Despite the gloomy forecast that the computer generation no longer reads, book sales are booming and there has never been such an array of fiction aimed exclusively at the younger reader. But there is a gap in the market and the irony is that it is often the more proficient reader who is affected.

Publishers assume a linear development in which children move from picture books to imprints such as Young Hippo, Walker's Sprinters or First Young Puffins at around the age of seven. They then graduate onto Young Puffins or Walker books at eight; discover the delights of Roald Dahl's at nine or 10, along with more traditional authors such as CS Lewis and the indomitable Enid Blyton; then move on, at 11 or 12, to enjoy Alan Garner before arriving fully fledged into the teenage market at 13.

The Goosebumps and Point Horror series, which figure so highly on sales lists, assume that children will encounter the former at around nine and, having exhausted all it has to offer, will first start to read titles from the latter at about 12.

Yet a very different profile could be written. Children who have reading ages well above their chronological age not only read more extensively than their peers do, but read everything at a younger age: at ten or eleven they find themselves with little or nothing aimed specifically at them.

Another problem exists. Throughout their reading odyssey, girls are catered for better than boys. One of the chief pleasures for young readers is following the fortunes of a central character or group. Such titles proliferate for girls. Bel Mooney's Kitty stories, Magdalen Nabb's Josie Smith series or the wonderful Sophie books of Dick King Smith all provide the female bookworm with feisty heroines in recognisable situations. Even the numerous Animal Ark series by Lucy Daniels is aimed more at a female audience.

Without wishing to stereotype the youthful male reader, many of the excellent writers for slightly older children who might fill the gap, such as Judy Bloom, Anne Fine or Margaret Mahy, have an emotional register that many young boys find tedious. In fact, much teenage fiction has a highly moralistic and worthy tone more reminiscent of Victorian and Edwardian cautionary tales than any of the more surreal books of fantasy lands, talking animals and an adult-free world aimed at the younger audience.

It is perhaps hardly surprising, therefore, that many able boys give up on fiction at around the age of 11 or 12 for the world of computer magazines and encyclopaedias until they perhaps rediscover it four or five years later at the height of their adolescent angst, in the works of Camus, Sartre and Kafka.

Some writers bridge the gap. Both Robert Westall and Robert Cormier write demanding but slightly sinister teenage fiction that does appeal to the younger male reader. Genre fiction can often do the same. Many boys, for example, encounter science fiction at around this age, either through humorous spoofs such as Douglas Adams's Hitch-Hiker series or through writers like William Sleater, Arthur C Clarke or John Wyndham.

Yet perhaps we should not be so concerned by the reading habits of boys. We should recognise what they are achieving while seeking to increase the range of their reading. Many boys do remain prolific readers throughout their teenage years even if they are not immersed in the same sorts of material - ie, novels - that their female contemporaries are. Non-fiction demands sophisticated reading skills and girls should be encouraged to engage with this type of book just as much as boys need the odd graphic novel or even comic book to persuade them that the narrative and emotional content typical of the novel are worthwhile.

So when you sit down with E Annie Proulx or the latest Thomas Pynchon and your son whips out a Batman comic, remember - a comic is a work of fiction full of moral dilemmas and its troubled hero may only be a short step away from a Raskolnikov. In the meantime, if there are any writers out there who have a children's book in mind, write it for a bright 11- year-old boy n

The writer is a lecturer in English at King's College London.

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