Out with Alex Rider and in with William Brown. A leading head teacher has vetoed some of the most popular modern children’s fiction for his school library, declaring it “so simplistic, brutal or banal” that it is barely worth reading.
Among the books for 11- year-olds turned down by Andrew Halls, headmaster at King’s College School, Wimbledon, one of England’s top fee-paying schools, are fantasy novels such as Skulduggery Pleasant and Artemis Fowl; Eragon, about a boy and his dragon; the vampire-themed Twilight series; and the Percy Jackson books, about a teenager who discovers he is the descendant of a Greek god.
Spy books such as the Alex Rider series by Anthony Horowitz and Robert Muchamore’s Cherub titles are also out.
Instead Halls has brought in acclaimed recent works such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about a seemingly autistic boy who investigates the death of his neighbour’s dog, and Goodnight Mister Tom, about a boy who moves to the countryside during the evacuation of London in the Second World War, and classics such as Moonfleet, Lord of the Flies and the Just William series, as well as PG Wodehouse novels, the Jennings books and the Sherlock Holmes adventures.
All, said Halls, are about complex characters leading believable lives. From their interactions and choices, he said, children can learn to understand and interpret people’s motives and feelings.
“I do think there are bad books,” Halls said. “Or, at least, books that are so simplistic, brutal or banal they are barely worth reading . . . recent research has suggested that reading books of a high literary quality has a direct impact on people’s capacity for empathy, and that’s one reason I am doing this.”
Halls’s drive to replace “bad” books with “high-quality” literature comes after studies that have revealed a growing empathy gap between the modern generation of digital natives and their predecessors. One study of 14,000 young people who started college after 2000 suggested they had 40% less empathy than their counterparts 20 or 30 years ago.
“Reading is an absolutely central part of what makes us human. More than computer games, TV or films, it helps create empathy, because when you read a book you use your imagination to become the character; you enter their mindscape,” Halls said.
“That is not just plot, plot, plot, but a slow opening-up of characters and their relationships, their arguments and how they resolve them. All the things that happen in real life, as opposed to decapitating zombies or staking vampires: those things do not happen.”
Halls also highlighted a survey from last month, which showed that, left to their own devices, 13 to 16-year-olds were reading books three years younger than their reading age. “There comes a point where just reading anything isn’t good enough,” he said.
One fantasy series to make it into the 300 books Halls has added to his library is Harry Potter, which he described as “full of imagination and real character development, not to mention humour and pathos”.
In contrast, he said, Horowitz’s Alex Rider series, about a teenage spy, was “monochrome and limiting”. “After you have read 12 of those books your mind has not grown. I like to think of good children’s literature as like slow food — it takes more effort and time, but it is more nuanced, more nourishing and more memorable.”
Horowitz said he was “amused to see that Mr Grad-grind is alive and well in the 21st century”. He added that Halls “should have more confidence in the ability of children to find the books they enjoy and which inspire them — and perhaps rather less in his ability to dictate their tastes.”