17 July, 2009

Choosing Books for Children

Someone asking for recommendations for good speculative fiction for children and teenagers got me thinking. As a culture we tend to feed young people the most awful rubbish in this genre. I don't mean books that are badly written or poorly plotted, I mean unrealistic fantasy.

People picking books for youngsters tend to avoid sex and violence, quite reasonably, but will not balk at choosing a book full of unicorns or angels, talking animals and walking trees. Does anybody ever stop to wonder which will do more harm to a young mind, the reality of sex and violence, or the unreality of fantasy and religion? Truth? Or make-believe?

How can we expect children to mature into adults who can understand and cope with the real world if we feed them bizarre fantasy worlds and strictly-censored distortions? As a society we warn parents that TV shows might contain 'themes' - usually meaning the story deals with drug abuse, incest, torture, sex, or some other set of issues that many children could use our help in understanding. Yet there are no warnings for shows that involve magic beings (vampire stories, religious broadcasts, talking dogs, psychics, etc.), vigilanteism (Batman, for instance), or state-sanctioned violence (cop shows, P.I. shows, and war stories).

I'm sure that finding suitable books for children is hard but that doesn't mean we have to feed them the strange fare that currently passes for acceptable. Forgetting the complete abandonment of reality most of these stories represent, just consider the political statements that most fairy stories (and fantasy novels) make about the legitimacy of inherited power, or the complete abnegation of personal moral responsibility implicit in any story involving 'higher powers' (as gods tend to be called in fiction these days) who dictate or enforce moral absolutes.

We can't expect a world full of morally responsible, socially skilled, and politically sophisticated adults if we give our children unrealistic, nonsense to read.


Anonymous said...

We were brought up on fairy tales, Rupert Bear, Winnie the Pooh, talking trains, talking cats etc etc. But we are rational, aren't we?

graywave said...

Are we? Are we really? How many people actually believe in all this nonsense? I don't mean talking trains particularly - you only have to meet one real train for the glamour to be gone forever - but I mean believers in animals that have human-level intelligence (or even psychic abilities), people who can communicate with the dead, people who can 'see' the future, people who can read minds, magical beings who live among us, or above us, people who believe in souls, gods, the ability to manipulate 'luck', people who believe in 'destiny' and 'curses', people who believe they are being 'watched over', or that magic beings listen to them and even talk back to them.

Sure, we were all fed mickey Mouse and Father Christmas and God and we didn't all turn out completely bonkers. But I believe that this treatment of children distorts their perception of reality, weakens their ability to reason from evidence, and creates a bias towards belief in irrational, supernatural claims.

Of course we're not all crazy because of what people did to us as children, just as we do not all use corporal punishment on our children just because it was used on us, but the great majority of people who do hit their kids also say things like, "My Mum used to slap me when I was little and it never did me any harm."

KylieQ said...

Do you mean there are no unicorns, angels, talking animals or walking trees??? Do you know what you are doing to me by suggesting this? Lack of unicorns and angels I can accept but I refuse to believe that animals do not talk and trees do not walk. I'm not listening anymore.

graywave said...

Actually, Kylie, the trees all talk (haven't you heard them whispering together in the wind?) and walk about and even dance in the night (every now and then they have a bit too much to drink and they fall over and that's why you sometimes see them lying on the ground in the morning.) Animals talk too, of course, but only about food, and only in code so that people don't know what they're plotting to steal next.

I apologise sincerely for upsetting you and trust you will continue to drop in and listen to my rants from time to time, however ill-informed they are.


KylieQ said...

Ha ha, now every time I see a fallen tree, I'm going to wonder how drunk it got the night before.

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