On young boys and ‘proper books’

A few weeks ago, an adult who should have known better made the mistake of saying to my eight-year-old son: ‘If you want to go to a good school and do well in your education, you need to read proper books, not stuff like Wimpy Kid.’ She then helpfully went on to give some examples of some ‘proper books’ that he should instead be reading: Treasure Island was one, The Wind in the Willows was another. It’s all about the language used, you see.

wimpy kid

Sadly I wasn’t present for this conversation or I would have responded with a (probably shorter and less politely-worded) version of what I’m about to say now. It’s unlikely, but perhaps she’s reading this post, in which I will explain why I found her comment so ill-judged. 

An eight-year-old boy’s enthusiasm for reading is a fragile thing. Perhaps it always has been, but it is doubly so now given the range of other entertainment options on offer. When I was eight, I could play with my 1980s toys, I could go to Fog Lane Park, or I could read a book. That was pretty much it. I guess there was also Blue Peter. How different from the life of a child in 2017 and all its digital temptations. Until this time last year my son would read reasonably willingly, but always prompted by me, and always with me, to me, or listening to me. 

And then last autumn, everything changed. The catalyst for this change was, as I suspect it often is, J.K. Rowling. I never read the Harry Potter books myself, and so J.K.’s ascension to the figure of deity happened for me much later than it did for many others. In my case, it was prompted by my son’s newly discovered passion for reading fiction coinciding with Rowling’s characteristically courageous and principled stand on the current dire state of the Labour Party.

Once my son started to read Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, he didn’t look back. I stopped reading to him, and he finished it alone, followed by the other six books in the series. And then the Cursed Child, and the Beedle the Bard one and the one about Quidditch. What those of us who love reading fiction already know is that it’s like a drug. So once he’d finished reading Rowling’s entire children’s oeuvre, he moved on, in search of the same type of entertainment offered by Harry Potter, now that he knew he could do it alone. And he moved on to the other things that eight-year-old boys read, including the Wimpy Kid series. Am I confident that this reading enthusiasm will last throughout his teenage years, withstanding all modern distractions of games, phones, Youtube, Netflix and so on? No I am not. And this is the reason why a grown-up telling him that the sort of books he enjoys reading are the wrong sort to read is such a terrible idea. 

Until my child was on the receiving end of this comment, I hadn’t read any of the Wimpy Kid books. I’d asked him for a brief synopsis, but he seemed weirdly unable to summarise the plot. Since nothing gets me crosser than an accusation of a book not being a ‘proper book’, I dipped in, and I immediately saw why he found it so difficult to pitch them to me, as we say in the biz. The Wimpy Kid books are books about a normal boy, in normal situations. From the short section I read, they seem quite funny. In this particular bit, Greg’s mum had decided to go to an evening class to improve her career prospects and the boys in the family were all left to fend for themselves. They thought it would be great, and they’d all get to eat unhealthy dinners and have loads of unsupervised fun. Of course it went wrong and they couldn’t cope without her. It wasn’t Anna Karenina, but I could see why a boy of his age would enjoy it. It was wittily told and illustrated and it taught an important lesson: don’t undervalue the contribution of your bossy yet excellently organised mother.

I will confess, I have never read Treasure Island and I have never read The Wind in the Willows. Yet here I am struggling on, with my state school education and my lack of knowledge of Ratty, Moley and whatever the other two are called; despite these disadvantages, I managed to scrape together a first class degree and a good job in publishing. I suspect the reason why I never read either of those books in the first place is the same reason why the Wimpy Kid books are so popular. It’s all about what you can relate to. I’m not interested in pirates, and I’m not interested in woodland animals. I’m sure that they are both brilliant books with much more to offer and more universal themes at their heart, but unfortunately the fact that they appeared, on the surface, to be about pirates and woodland animals meant that I never read them. For the same reason, I never read The Life of Pi as an adult. Friends tell me it is excellent, but I am just never going to read a book about someone stuck on a boat with a tiger. 

Books that draw scorn from literary snobs tend have three things in common: 1. Massive sales 2. Accessibility and 3. Relate-ability, for want of a better word. The final point is so important. It is what fuelled the so-called ‘chick-lit boom’ of the late nineties and early noughties. These were books about everyday women’s problems, that everyday women could empathise with, and read with ease and pleasure. They were seen as not being sufficiently ‘deep’ and some of their covers were pink and so derision was heaped upon them by people who never actually bothered to read them. The same factor is at play in the current popularity of domestic psychological suspense. Of course, not all of us have lying murdering psychopaths for husbands, but the set ups in these novels are close enough to our world, our relationships, our families, that emotionally, we get it. With one small twist of fate, this could be you, these books are saying – and that is what makes the psychological thriller so compelling. 

There are some people who will always believe that a book needs to be difficult to read in order to be good. Plus ca change etc… these people are wrong, as I have written about in different contexts and at length elsewhere. But if you’re going to start telling people what they should and shouldn’t be reading, start with a 40-year-old woman who can argue her case on the internet, and leave a young boy, who has only just discovered a love of reading that needs to be nurtured, alone. 

Advertisements

Holiday reading: the books

So here it is. The final selection, and I must say I’m feeling pretty confident about them all. The eagle-eyed among you may notice that I have broken one of my own rules. Yes there are a couple of over-hyped debuts in this list, but they have been so wholeheartedly recommended to me by everyone I trust that I believe they will prove to be not over-hyped, but rather justly hyped. 

Only one of these books is an actual print book, so in the absence of the ‘towering pile of holiday books’ photo, here is a collage of my holiday books on a variety of devices, most of which I still have to locate and pack chargers for in the next 48 hours.

Holiday 7holiday 6holiday 3holiday 2

holiday 1holiday 5holiday 8

The other fairly crucial rule I’ve broken is that I’ve actually read one and a half of these ‘holiday’ books already. I’ve read the Lisa Jewell in its entirety and I started the Julie Cohen last night, a full three days before my plane takes off. I’m confident that with small children taken into account, the remainder of this lot will still last me a fortnight. 

I’ll report back on my hit rate in due course. 

On The Gruffalo and deserved success

We in publishing are fond of discussing how book history could and should have gone differently. Why some publisher spent too much on book x; why book y should have sold more copies; it’s a mystery why book z sold as many copies as it did. And so on. We love a good moan about a bit of publishing injustice. Our success as publishers is contingent upon our ability to predict what will work and what will sell. Sometimes we get this wrong. But sometimes, the industry, and the reading public, gets it brilliantly, spectacularly right.

gruffalo

The finest example of this justice at work in the publishing world is The Gruffalo. It is the best-selling picture book of my parenting years. It is also the best. At the risk of sounding dogmatic, it is not one of the best, or among the best, it is objectively, in all senses, the very very best. And I believe its exceptional quality has in every way been the reason for its success.

The Gruffalo walks a line that seriously few children’s books and films manage, in its genuine dual appeal to children and adults alike. The majority of its intended readership does not 100% ‘get it’. Right now, my 2-year-old thinks it’s just a book about a big scary monster and a load of animals larking about in a wood. Perhaps as he gets closer to 4 or 5 he will understand it a bit more. But even then, he won’t understand what adults understand, i.e. the reasons why reading The Gruffalo every night for years is so much more tolerable than doing the same with its many competitors. Its total perfection. Its words, illustrations, rhyming and cadence. The not one but two clever confidence tricks pulled off by the mouse – first on the hungry animals of the wood, and then the same trick reversed, and played back on the Gruffalo himself. The way in which the end so brilliantly echoes the beginning – from ‘a fox saw the mouse and the mouse looked good’ to ‘the mouse found a nut and the nut was good’. In just a few pages, the mouse goes from being potential food himself, to enjoying a peaceful meal having vanquished all the other animals, as well as the fearsome Gruffalo. It is the ultimate story of success against the odds. The Gruffalo’s perfect name and his perfect appearance – theoretically scary whilst still being charming enough to appear on stages and at shopping centres throughout the land without terrifying the toddler population.

Why mention this now, given that I’ve been reading The Gruffalo and thinking all of these things about it pretty much non-stop for the last 7 years? Because, in the last few weeks, I’ve had a rare spell (mainly on the holiday from which I’ve just returned) of feeling a similar sense of publishing justice about my other most recent reads.

First: The Girl Before by J. P. Delaney and Silent Child by Sarah A. Denzil. The bestselling psychological thrillers of recent months in physical and digital respectively. Neither is anywhere near as close to perfection as The Gruffalo, and The Gruffalo has better twists than both (sorry J. P. Delaney and Sarah A. Denzil) but with each of these books, I finished them thinking ‘yes, I can absolutely see why that is such a massive bestseller, phew’. From the titles, to the pitches, to the page-turning unputdownability of the books themselves, reading them was reassuring as well as massively enjoyable.

Then I read My Not So Perfect Life by Sophie Kinsella. I’ve written at more length about my love of Sophie Kinsella, and my thoughts on the belittling of her type of commercial women’s fiction here. So I won’t repeat myself, except to say that this latest is everything that all of her books are: witty, clever, and effortlessly of-the-moment. Brilliant for its piss-takes of the word ‘bespoke’ and of how city people behave in the countryside (that was me last week), as well as for its insights into the assumptions that working women make about one another.

And finally … on the topic of working women, I read City of Friends, my first ever (I know, I know) Joanna Trollope, and thought ‘oh good, everything everyone has been telling me about why I should read Joanna Trollope for the last 20 years turned out to be right’. In a world where people give you so much bad advice so often, this is pleasing, plus it takes care of my holiday reading potentially for the next 20 years. Am off to book a few more holidays in which to read her backlist now.

Your new favourite writer

Having failed to provide you with any undiscovered gems in my books of the year list, I’m going to do so now. This is a post in which I recommend a great author that you have quite possibly not heard of (especially if you’re reading this from the UK), you go and buy books by said author, and come back and tell me that she’s brilliant and I was right. Easy.

And that writer is Maddie Dawson. I have struggled to describe exactly what her books are for some time, but luckily Dawson herself has managed to do it pretty eloquently on her twitter biog, where she says: ‘Writer of novels with crazy families, secrets, and reasonably happy endings. Like life.’ I would query only the ‘crazy’ part, as her families are only crazy to the extent that all of our families are. These are books about love, family, relationships, parents and children, siblings etc. They are acutely observed but also well plotted. They are my dream type of book. To give my own view on this, without consulting the Amazon ‘also bought’ links, I would say they would appeal to you if you like writers such as Emily Giffin, Jennifer Weiner, Kristin Hannah. They are a type of book that the US have always been better at selling than we have here in the UK.

The first of Dawson’s books that I read was The Stuff that Never Happened. A US colleague gave me a copy on a work trip in 2014, and I stayed up to read the whole thing on a night flight home. It’s a book about ‘the one that got away’, essentially, but if you feel you’ve read a version of that before – you haven’t read many as good as this.

dawson

Having loved this one, I tracked down all the others, and here they are: The Opposite of Maybe and The Survivor’s Guide to Family Happiness (her latest, about adoption, which I have just finished reading and which is available as an ebook, including in the UK). And there are also two written by the same author under another name, Sandi Kahn Shelton: Kissing Games of the World and A Piece of Normal.

I loved them all and hope you will too. If you’re in the UK, you may have to order copies of some of them from the US or a third party seller on Amazon, but I promise you it will be worth it.