CultureWatch

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A review of What Should My Child Read? By Susan Moore.

May 10, 1992

Albatross Books, 1992.

In America nearly 60 per cent of all adults have never read a book. Bachelor’s degrees in English literature have declined by 33 per cent in the last 20 years. As much as 40 per cent of the American public is functionally illiterate.

Similar problems plague Australia. The Victorian VCE has only one Shakespearean play on its English syllabus, and its list of novels excludes such authors as Hardy, Austen, Dickens and Melville. Last year more Victorian students took physical education than VCE literature.

In an age of MTV and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, such trends should not be surprising. Indeed, to write in praise of the written word is a daunting task. Yet it seems that if children get hooked on books – especially the right books – at an early age, they may well become life-long bibliophiles.

This is where Susan Moore’s book comes in so handy. Many parents, concerned about cultivating good readers, are overwhelmed by the large range of children’s books to choose from. Questions arise as to the best books available, the viewpoint of the author, the suitability of certain subject matter. Or more mundane questions come to mind: ‘What do you recommend for my son who is crazy about dinosaurs?’ or ‘What novels can you recommend that deal with ordinary children facing ordinary problems?’

Dr Moore lists, and describes, 178 books by 147 different authors. Each book receives a meaty paragraph or two description of the books’ contents, characters, themes, styles, and target audiences. Indeed, Dr Moore has helpfully arranged the books into two major sections: books for younger readers (8-12 years), and books for older readers (12-15 years). Each of these two sections is also subdivided into realism and fantasy. These subdivisions in turn are further broken down. The younger reader’s realism books, for example, are divided into five categories: family life/school/ friendship; animals/outdoor life; comic adventure; mysterious adventure; and historical adventure.

In addition, an author index and a title index makes this book an especially easy guide to use.

How has Dr Moore selected her titles? What basis did she use for including some authors and titles, and excluding others? She tells us in her helpful preface. “Excluded are books that are crass or nihilistic, schmaltzy or slick …. I have chosen novels capable of enlarging young readers’ experience in a way that does full justice to their capacity for wonder. I have avoided those children’s books that represent assaults upon innocence – a feature of the vast change in public taste – against which I have reacted strongly.”

What we are left with then is some of the cream of the crop. Indeed, most of the books listed by Dr Moore have won major prizes or have been included in national lists of notable books. In an appendix she lists all the prizes for fiction written in the last thirty years in Australia, America and the United Kingdom. Many of these titles are included in her book.

Two other sets of books were excluded, however: those which are so well known (Winnie the Pooh, The Hobbit, etc.) that they require no write-up, and those which are especially hard to obtain.

“This book”, then, “is for parents eager to find good literature for their children.” And how is good literature defined?

“The essential difference between the good books and the bad is a difference in the point of view – moral and linguistic – of the author. Those novels which treat both traditionally acceptable topics and once-forbidden ones, if they are worth reading, avoid sentimentality and sensationalism. Unlike third-rate practitioners whose sales sometimes skyrocket, the better novelists shun fundamental distortions of experience, addressing controversial issues in their entirety rather than in their more loaded aspects.

“A common view of literature in our post-modernistic age is that unless it concentrates on the ugly, the bleak and the grim, it isn’t ‘real’ but a cop-out, the product of a stubborn refusal to see things as they are. This is a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the most valuable imaginative writing.

“Essential to all the best literature for children and adults is a sense of proportion. Gifted children’s writers (like gifted adult ones) show their respect for reality by rendering it in all its fullness, neither leaving out the pain nor exaggerating its importance. A feature of their understanding of what young readers can accommodate emotionally is the recognition that portraits of the things that hurt need to be balanced by a powerful rendering of the sources of joy and delight.”

Amen! Surely much of the current drivel that passes for children’s literature today is not only worthless but actually harmful. That is why this guide to good literature is so important. If you are a concerned parent, or simply a concerned reader, get this book!

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2 Responses to A review of What Should My Child Read? By Susan Moore.

  • I know it’s strange, but one of my main concerns when moving to Africa to do missionary work was – how would my youngest son, (then 9 years old) cope without a steady stream of books? When minimising packing to only 6 suitcases for a 2 year stay, Hardy Boys novels couldn’t take total priority! Besides, he was reading a book a day, so that would mean packing 730 books!

    In Australia we would spend hours and hours searching 2nd hand bookstores for Hardy Boys and similar literature – usually the older, out of print books.

    When we arrived at the mission base in Zambia, we discovered they had a little (dark and very dusty) library on the base. And to our joy, a good majority of the books were books that we had searched high and low for in Australia! Who would have thought!

    Annette Nestor

  • Susan Moore taught me literature at college. The best teacher of literature and culture I’ve ever had. She introduced me to Arnold’s concept of “Sweetness and light”, explaining it beautifully and intelligently. For that concept alone I will be forever grateful to her and Arnold. I hope you read this one day Susan. I’ve never had the opportunity to thank you enough.

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