FOR THE last few years I've kept my mouth shut when I've heard people saying that the sales of Harry Potter books were doing wonders for children's reading. On some occasions I defended the books, particularly if they were under attack from snobs. These are the kind of people who only want kids to read the books they read as a child, like Alice in Wonderland and the Just William books.
The times I kept quiet were when experts said things like, 'Well, they may not be great literature but they're certainly getting the kids reading.' 'Look at the sales,' they would say, 'trillions and trillions-isn't it wonderful?' Why did I keep shtum? Firstly, because I thought they might be right. Secondly, I had a hunch that contradicted what they were saying, but I couldn't prove it.
I reckoned that a combination of the literacy hour and the testing was actually putting kids off reading. Now after the Potter euphoria comes a bit of sober thought. In last weekend's Observer a report showed that the spending on children's books (for 5 to 14 year olds) has stayed steady, but the total number of children's books sold has dropped.
At the same time only 36 percent of the Harry Potter books sold are bought by or for children under 14. So what's going on is that the children's book market has been taking the same amount of money.
But the hidden trend is that fewer and fewer books for five to 14 year olds are being bought, while the range of books being read is narrowing year on year. The report didn't suggest any reasons why this should be so, but to my mind it isn't difficult to come up with some ideas.
The retail market in children's books is dominated by the big high street players-W H Smith and the like. All over the country these are the only bookshops that parents and children can get to. Mostly these stores stock a narrow range of top ten bestsellers, with no specialist staff on hand to help children or parents find a book that might suit their situation in particular.
It's a perfect example of the way the massing of the capitalist market runs directly against individual human needs. Meanwhile in schools, teachers are under instruction to turn anything to do with the reading of books into a dull, mechanical chore.
Nearly every bit of reading has to be interrupted with questions. The correct answers are supposed facts about what's just been read. In the talks I do to teachers and in schools, I've discovered that in the upper years of primary schools there isn't time now to read whole books. The demands from the syllabus, backed up by panicky headteachers, bullied by inspectors and school league tables, are forcing teachers to limit the teaching of reading to worksheets and extracts of books.
This means that many children, with no access to books at home, will go through a crucial period in their lives without reading a whole book and without talking about what that book means to them personally. They will go without thinking about what the author might have intended to say in the book, and without hearing what other kids from different backgrounds might think of it.
In other words, New Labour's schooling delivers the kids up to the marketplace with no sense of themselves as discriminating, knowledgeable readers. Instead it shoves them into the arms of the high street big boys who simply say, 'Read this-we've got nothing else for you.'