The Princess Diaries heroine, Mia, is fuming. Her mom is pregnant with her algebra-teacher boyfriend’s baby. “Why weren’t she and Mr. Gianini using birth control?” explodes Mia. “Whatever happened to her diaphragm? And what about condoms? This is so like my mother. She can’t even remember to buy toilet paper. How is she going to remember to use birth control?”
Ellie, heroine of Jacqueline Wilson’s Girls in Love, is not happy either. She doesn’t have a boyfriend. “My tummy’s round and my bum is round. Even my stupid knees are round. Still,” she consoles herself, “my chest is round too. Magda has to resort to Wonderbra to get a proper cleavage, and Nadine is utterly flat.”
And so it goes. Kidlit has never been so crammed with pulpy paperbacks. Many are cleverly packaged to appeal to readers as young as seven or eight, even though they may be designated as ‘teen’ books. There’s the ‘dreadlit’ of R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps, teeming with titles such as Go Eat Worms, Dance of Death, Killer’s Kiss and Who Killed the Homecoming Queen? There’s the pink world of party girls, who exist only to weight watch and boyfriend hunt. And then, there are the Pokemon/Power Ranger/Barbie product placement excuses for books, in which the franchise rules. So, if you’re a believer in any form of censorship or even in a guide-them-gently-towards-the-right-books approach, it’s time for you to read the print.
You might be shocked at your pile of rejects. I was. No Mary Kate and Ashley for my tweenie girls. This, after I read about the twin heroines of Billboard Dad, where they spent all 100-odd pages trying to set up their dad with a date (even as they went to diving class and admired the very athletic diving instructor, Brad). No ‘Animorphs’, where children are morphed into creatures, speaking in staccato: “Yeah and you know how he feels about that guy. Or creature. Or whatever the Ellimist is. Ax says to watch your butt?” No R.L. Stine. No Baby-sitters Club, where Stacey is “in luv again. There’s only one problem. Wes is Stacey’s substitute math teacher. Can Love Conquer All?” And definitely no pink princesses.
Many will disagree. As Scholastic publishing director Sayoni Basu explains, “Children should be allowed to read everything. Well, almost. There is no other way that they will develop a sense of discrimination and appreciation of the good.” Certainly, we’ve all read our share of Star comics (where love did conquer all), Mills & Boon and Sidney Sheldons. But there’s stuff in the current crop that’s disturbingly insidious.
“I’d rather my children picked up Archie comics and read them rather than these stories of ultra-bratty, sassy girls, all eight going on 18, forever plotting and scheming,” says author Meher Marfatia of pink-jacketed kid chicklit. Ex-banker and stay-at-home mom Soundari Mukerjee agrees. “I wish we could go back to the basics and do away with this pink/blue thing. When I grew up, we were reading Russian books such as Baba Yaga.” Baba Yaga has morphed into Barbie, and the cash registers are ringing.
“There’s not a lot you can learn from such marketing-tool books,” says writer Samit Basu. “Names of the Pokemon,” scorns Basu, referring to what children learn from reading the Pokemon books. Or Step-Into-Reading Barbie books, which dress you up with ‘silver crowns and golden gowns’. No trace of any subliminal house-of-straw and house-of-brick lessons or of how the small boy with brains can triumph over the evil giant kind of exciting adventures.
Evil is exciting, and no writer knows this better than best-selling R.L. Stine. Kids love him. “He’s scary and he doesn’t linger only on one thing,” says eight-year-old Goosebumps fan Zain Lokmanji. But should his brand of horror and violence be in school libraries? “It’s disturbing,” maintains Marfatia. “It’s creating a culture where children are resisting joys, where that’s uncool, where it’s trendy to be twisted.” Forbidden fruit is all very well. But you could be excused for protesting, as mom Mukerjee does, “When there is so much good stuff to read, why read bratty books?”
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