Thursday, 19 May 2016

"Fantasy damages kids' brains" - Sorry, excuse me, what did you just say? - A ReadItDaddy Editorial

No doubt many of you will have read the rather sensationalist claims by a head teacher regarding children's reading matter over the last couple of weeks. A bold claim that fantasy books, beloved and favoured by children the world over, are in fact dangerous to their mental health. "Fantasy damages kids' brains" went the headlines, clamoured by just about every news site that has a passing interest in literature (childrens or otherwise).

Graeme Whiting, quoted in the Telegraph article, mentioned several fairly high profile and 'popular' titles - kicking off with (of all things) Game of Thrones but also laying into books you'd more readily associate with child reading, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and The Hunger Games.

I wasn't happy with the article - Not just because it went on to contradict itself within the space of a sentence by recommending kids stick to 'comfortable' classics like Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley ("no dark mind-bendingly grim stuff in there kids, you'll be OK" I mumbled with a modicum of sarcasm in my inner voice) but because the article itself mimbled on without actually coming to any useful conclusion, when it so easily could have touched on two very important issues.

First - reluctant reading. With profuse apologies to Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Keats fans, being given anything like that when I was a word-hungry 6 year old would have put me off reading for life. (though I've developed more of a taste for them in adult life).

I read early, I started reading properly at 4 and was devouring bigger books shortly afterwards (and, hah, guess what genre they predominantly were? The whole driving force behind my thirst for reading was knowing that there were so many awesome fantasy books around when I was growing up in the 1970s)

If I'd been force fed classics and been entirely limited to those, well we probably wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't be writing a passionate book blog, and you wouldn't be reading this rant because I'd have long given up on books and would probably be sitting on a river bank with a fishing rod in my hand instead.

Secondly - age ratings. It feels like this discussion is never going to go away but there's a very fine line between being told you can't read something because it's age inappropriate - or having enough of a moral compass to know that books well known for being graphically violent or sexual in overtones (such as the Game of Thrones series) aren't going to be a cuddly fluffy read for anyone under the age of consent. Sometimes it feels like parents just want a get out of jail card when it comes to age ratings, purely so that they can wave a PG or 18 sticker under someone's nose when they're called out for basically not giving a poop about what their kid does until someone calls them out on it.

It would be making a very broad statement that children should do as we say, not as we do. I've mentioned before on the blog how on one fateful school trip at the tender age of 9, I'd nabbed a friend's illicit copy of James Herbert's "The Rats" and read it from cover to cover in one sitting (thank heavens for long coach journeys to welsh coal mines).

Had I known that this typical act of youthful rebellion had irreparably damaged my brain, I'd have probably not bothered (he says sarcastically). The book wasn't even that great but at the time I remember thinking that much of its appeal came from the fact that I was reading a 'grown up' book full of 'grown up' stuff - the simple childhood thrill of doing something that you know you're not supposed to do - that has been there since Eve first took a bite of a snake in the garden of Sweden (sorry forgive me, I can never forget how that old fantasy story goes).

Amazingly, I haven't gone on a mad axe-fuelled rampage, I seem to be holding down a steady job, have a sense of right and wrong and I'm still reading fantasy novels, including Game of Thrones, Hunger Games, Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings for what it's worth.

I am also, by Graeme's measure, being a terrible parent because I let Charlotte read fantasy stuff - nay I positively encourage her to, and her mum also reads C.S Lewis books to her as well. Tsk tsk, aren't we horrors! How were we to know that we were steadily turning her into a monster?

After reading the entire thing, the article felt an awful lot like those other well-meaning articles where a vociferous 'expert' tells us that "videogames are extremely bad for kids" before launching into a diatribe about how letting little Timmy play Grand Theft Auto will lead to antisocial behaviour, and how we really shouldn't let our kids play the 18 rated MurderDeathKill simulator (because again, we parents need to have the bleeding obvious stated to us in this manner - we're hopeless, we need experts to tell us how to do everything or we'll just crumble into dust!)

Perhaps it's merely this. There's no profit to be made in wrapping yourself up in fantasy stories, and sticking to a regimented diet of the classics will ensure that your brain isn't distracted (damaged) and focuses on the important stuff like passing meaningless tests to prove your worth instead. The more tests you pass, the more likely you'll be able to swing a highly paid and important job - say, becoming headmaster of a private school or something of that ilk, and be well on your way to becoming a voice of reason, a yardstick by which others may measure themselves (with no disrespect intended to school heads whatsoever, I have rarely met one that spouts such unutterable garbage as this fella).

Having someone in a position of educational authority make a rather bold and headline grabbing statement must sell an awful lot of newspapers (or school places perhaps). It certainly must've racked up a lot of clicks for the Telegraph too.