This morning, I read this Guardian article about Geraldine McCaughrean’s acceptance speech for the CILIP Carnegie medal (which she won for her historical adventure novel, Where The World Ends).
She used her winner’s speech to attack publishers’ fixation on accessible language, which she called “a euphemism for something desperate”… she warned publishers would “deliberately and wantonly create an underclass of citizens with a small but functional vocabulary: easy to manipulate and lacking in the means to reason their way out of subjugation, because you need words to be able to think for yourself. [emphasis mine]
Basically, she called out publishers of children’s books for dumbing down literature. She told the Guardian that a U.S. publisher had recently rejected one of her books for being “too difficult for children”, using words (specifically, “gallimaufry”) that were beyond their target market’s level of comprehension.
As she sees it, publishers are making the pool of books for children increasingly shallow, offering them ever more simple and non-threatening “accessible literature”, to the exclusion of alternatives that would challenge them to grow. In so doing, however benevolent their ostensible intent, they are preventing children from experiencing the very discomfort that prompts them to develop a well-rounded understanding of language, and of — by extension — the world.
Her words made me want to fist-pump, especially when you think about a perhaps more nefarious motivation to which McCaughrean alluded. “Wantonly create an underclass of citizens”, she said: an entire generation of people with vocabularies inadequate for the task of overthrowing their oppressors and fighting for their own prosperity. That’s scary stuff. It’s some 1984-esque shit. So, if McCaughrean’s speech is the kick in the pants that book purchasers and publishers need to stop that from happening, then back-slaps and high-fives to her.
Except… well, I started to think about what we really mean when we talk about “accessible literature” for children. Is it really just code for “dumbed-down books”? Or is there more to it?
I’m going to derail this conversation for a second with a childhood anecdote (forgive me!). I distinctly remember the day my grandfather, an unbelievably smart and self-made man, scoffed at my obsession with Harry Potter. I was perhaps nine or ten years old at the time, and Goblet of Fire had just been released. I was devouring the book, relishing every word, and immersing myself in the magical world of Hogwarts. I remember his expression of distaste when he saw me lugging it around, the curve of his mouth and the protrusion of his tongue as he spat his derision. I should be reading Dickens, he told me. “Real” literature. Books that would “teach me something”.
Now, don’t go hating on Granddad. I mean it: I don’t want to see any commenters hanging shit on him just because he didn’t “get” Harry Potter. That’s not the point of this tale.
My point is that Granddad was just a couple decades ahead of McCaughrean. He firmly believed that Harry Potter was the type of “accessible literature” that would dumb down my generation, turn us into a swarm of worker bees without the vocabulary (and — by extension — the capacity) to think or speak critically about the world. He feared for me, reading this “garbage”, that it would lead to a lifetime of ignorance and fear, a life-long inability to express myself and speak truth to power. As McCaughrean said: you need words to be able to think for yourself.
Unfortunately, my grandfather passed before he saw me go on to read Dickens. And the Brontës. And Austen, and Thackeray, and stacks of others. (No, I’m not being a pretentious twat about it, I promise — you can read all about my adventures in classic literature here.) Had he seen my library expand as I grew into adulthood, he might have grown new appreciation of the importance of “accessible literature”. He might have developed a more nuanced understanding of the role that those “dumbed down” books play in the early life of a burgeoning bookworm.
Kids aren’t all that different to adults, really. They want to read things that they understand. Things that make sense to them. Things that they can process. Sure, they also love to be challenged and extended and prodded to think great thoughts, but it’s important that those challenges come in cocoons of familiarity and comfort.
It’s comforting to read books that are accessible to you. It feels good to read books that don’t feel like “work”. I don’t think it’s a crime to admit that, for our kids or for ourselves. Without Harry Potter (and The Saddle Club, and Enid Blyton, and all the other series and authors I devoured as a kid), I probably wouldn’t be the reader that I am today. Those books challenged me, in subtle ways, to think about the world and morality and philosophy— sure, I had to look up a word now and then, but for the most part I understood what was going on while simultaneously learning something new.
In fact, without those early “accessible” books, you’d probably struggle to get me to pick up a book today. That’s the very pickle in which a lot of adults find themselves: 24% of American adults haven’t read a book in the past year [ref]. When you look at the 50+ demographic, that rises to 28% — and they were the ones who grew up in the “good old days” before we dumbed down kids’ books and gave them all smartphones, those apocalyptic horses so often cited in the demise of the millennial generations…
My point is: accessible literature probably isn’t the problem.
In fact, it’s probably a big part of the solution.
We haven’t yet even scratched the surface of the much-bigger problem: what is “accessible” to one child is mystifying to another. When we talk about accessibility, we seem to default to the lowest common denominator, which only serves to perpetuate the perceived problem that has McCaughrean so up in arms.
Ultimately, it would be a mistake for us to treat this problem as a binary. This should not come down to Dumb/Accessible Books versus Good/Challenging Books.
We could perhaps, instead, think of accessible books as “stepping stones” to other types of reading. There’s a great case study to back up this approach: the explosion of young adult literature in recent years has provided tweens and teens with a much clearer pathway to “grown up” reading, and an entry point for adult-adults who needed a little extra nudge to recapture their interest in literature. There’s no reason not to try adding other stones, and solidifying the ones that are there, treating them all as access points to the world of reading and vocabulary development.
What’s more, the books — “accessible” or not — cannot be considered in isolation. For a child to derive any benefit from reading, we must create and curate an environment that is conducive to reading: books in the home, books in schools, adults and other readers who want to talk about books and read books together… and it is not the number of books that influences outcomes on its own, but the variety. Without a rich and stimulating reading environment, one can hardly expect a child to develop a reading habit, regardless of the “accessibility” of this year’s print run.
As it does so often in these matters, the answer seems to boil down to this: we need to publish more books. More varied books, more complex books, more “accessible” books, more of every type of book. To make that happen, we — collectively — need to buy more books, and give them to kids. Give them “easy” books, give them “hard” books, give them “smart” books, give them “dumb” books — give them any combination of words printed on paper in which they show even a remote interest. And, where people lack the means or resources to do so for their children, help them. I can’t quite get on board with McCaughrean’s arguments against accessible literature, but I sure as hell back her call for publishers to do more.
If you liked this, you can read about my attempts to “access” more literature over at Keeping Up With The Penguins. You can also “clap” this, or share it, or whatever the cool kids are doing with things they like now.