Today, I was struck (temporarily) speechless by this report on the Huffington Post about a Headteacher of a private school who claims that Harry Potter (and similar) books are 'damaging' to children.
It shocked me on many levels. Firstly, I can't work out why any teacher would appear to discourage children from reading anything. The benefits of reading are well-researched and well-known. Millions of pounds are spent every year in order to encourage children to read. Reading regularly improves logical thinking skills, language, communication, memory, knowledge, concentration, imagination and writing. I could go on.
Then, I was struck by the pure snobbery of it all. As someone who has been a big fan of fantasy and (to a lesser extent) science fiction books for most of my life, I'm well used to people looking down their noses at my literary choices. As a Christian and a fan of Harry Potter I am used to deflecting comments about it's supposedly 'demonic' influence.
The Headteacher, Graeme Whiting, goes into detail on his school blog, describing his 'passion for literature' and naming 'Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Dickens' and Shakespeare as approved authors that parents with a 'protective attitude' will encourage their children to read. I'm not saying that children shouldn't be reading these authors and poets, they're brilliant and I have enjoyed reading works by most of them. So, I'm astounded that Whiting has managed to convince himself that the works of Shelley and Shakespeare, for example, are devoid of 'magic, of control and of ghostly and frightening stories', has he not read Frankenstein? The Tempest? Macbeth? The works of John Keats are similarly dark and sinister in places and Charles Dickens' tales are perhaps worse given that they are based in fact.
So I hope you'll forgive me for thinking that, rather than having an issue with the content of the books he deems 'inappropriate', Whiting instead is displaying simple bias against those books which he deems to be 'sensational'.
He does raise some good points about parents knowing what their children are reading and guiding them towards age appropriate books. That is all well and good - Game of Thrones is certainly not a series of books for children. However, as a child I devoured books, sometimes reading a book a day. If my Mum had decided to read every book before I did I wouldn't have got very far. In addition, parents are obviously the best judges of their children's ability to cope with certain topics and issues and those diligent parents are not really going to be swayed merely by a brightly coloured book cover.
According to Whiting, texts that are 'mystical and frightening' should be left for when children have 'first learned to love beauty'. A noble goal that leads me to question whether he has actually read any of the books he is currently criticising? If he has then he would surely know of the beauty and creativity in some works of fantasy? Any argument I would put forward would focus primarily on the sheer genius of these authors who can spin a world from their imagination and bring it to life for their readers. Worlds built with reason, with creativity, with historical and scientific research. The effort is astounding. The end-result can be life-changing.
I didn't have it easy as a young adult and yet reading opened worlds for me that offered an escape. Somewhere to go whilst I stayed in the same place. Sometimes those places were those we would recognise - an American school, an island north of Scotland, or blitz-torn London. At other times I was whisked away to Middle Earth, Riva, Tortall or Santhenar.
I think Whiting has completely missed the point in encouraging children and young people to enjoy reading for reading's sake. For the joy of picking up a book and jumping straight into someone else's story. I'll be honest, I hated reading Dickens at school. I know many peers who felt the same. But, I wouldn't discourage my children from reading them, or anything else. Part of reading is deciding for yourself what you like and don't like, not having it dictated to you by stuffy and snobbish headteachers out of touch with modern children and teens.
Frankly, I don't care if you, or Whiting, think Jane Austen is a better writer than David Eddings/Tolkien/Ian Irvine/Terry Pratchett et al. We can agree to disagree. Afterall, one of the things reading has gifted me with, is an open mind.