Robin Stevens' anger over snobbery towards her books

Robin Stevens' anger over snobbery towards her books

A children’s author has described the labelling of her books as "too immature" for certain students as "heart-breaking".

Robin Stevens tweeted about a message she received from a young fan who was told not to read her books in school because "she was too smart". The comment gained support from other authors and publishers and was retweeted more than 250 times in two days.

The Murder Most Unladylike Mysteries (PRH) author said: "Dear teachers who tell your students that my books (or any books) are too 'immature' for them to read. You're wrong. Please stop. A kid wrote to me explaining that she has to read my books at home because she is too smart to read them in school. My heart broke."

Stevens told The Bookseller she found the situation "really concerning" in case it discourages children to read at all. She said: "It was an email that a kid of around 14 sent me from New Zealand but I’ve seen it in the UK as well. She was very smart and the teacher said she was too smart and she had to read my books at home.

"Sometimes kids in England have said ‘I love your books but teachers have said they are not high level enough for me’. It’s heart-breaking. Reading shouldn’t be like that. Kids should be able to dip in and out of different things in the way adults do – many kids are reading YA or Malory Towers [Hodder Children's Books]. Comfort reading is about returning to books as a confident reader. Adults do it all the time – they could read The Essex Serpent (Serpent’s Tail) and The Girl on a Train (PRH) in the same week."

Stevens said the issue is not just with teachers: "It’s systematic. This idea, that if you are clever you should always be reading on a higher level. It is very problematic and just so sad. I’ve been in a bookshop where the adult has said to the child you can’t have that book, it’s for five-year-olds and you are seven but the kid says why can’t I, I want it?’ and they’ll be in tears. It’s sad because if they get told ‘you should not be reading that, you’re too old’ then they lose their confidence. Things like the Accelerated Readers’ Programme [a computerised program that tests reading comprehension] means kids are always encouraged to read a higher and higher level and I don’t think this is helpful. Sometimes parents don’t know what to give children to read and this is why librarians are so important because they can say ‘I think your child would like this’."

The author said she had rebelled as a child against dictated reading lists for pleasure. "My mother was given a list of books I should read when I was a child and I didn’t like this. I refused to read a book she bought me off the list which turned out to be Skellig [by David Almond, published by Hodder Children's Books] – I read it 10 years later and loved it."

Stevens believes the issue is an entrenched one: "It’s an ongoing problem. I don’t think it will go away. We push kids to improve, it hinders readers. Minimum age labels are useful and I’m pleased my books have that but there shouldn’t be a maximum age."

Fellow writers openly sympathised with Stevens on social media. Cathy Cassidy tweeted: "FFS. I get this too…infuriating," while author of Cogheart (Usborne), Peter Bunzl, replied to Stevens: "Reading rules: everyone should be allowed to read whatever the hell they like." Claire Barker, author of Knitbone Pepper Ghost Dog series (Usborne), tweeted Stevens: "My daughter's doing a Classics BA. On her bookshelf The Aeneid sits next to #HowToTrainYourDragon @CressidaCowell Yay for eclecticism." Many authors such as John Dougherty, Liz Flanagan and Holly Webb also supported Stevens.

Publishers and agents also expressed frustration. Ruth Bennett, Stripes publishing commissioning editor, said: "This happened to me at school and I still haven't got over my indignation. Disappointing to hear this still happens. Reading rocks - full stop," while Headline’s PR manager Katie Brown said: "Well we at least know one teacher who is doing the complete opposite of this... what a joke." LBA agent Louise Lamont‏ described the situation as "enraging". She tweeted: "Enraging. Our history teacher, Miss Plumtree, would sweep through the boarding house confiscating Point Horrors [Scholatstic] on a regular basis."

Diana Gerald, c.e of BookTrust said the charity aims to inspire a love of reading, whether that means repeatedly reading the same book or reading something that’s ‘officially’ for younger children. "We understand schools need to take a range of different approaches to develop an appreciation and love of reading.  However, we believe children should be encouraged to find the time to read books they really want to read, and should never be made to feel their book choice is wrong,” she said.

Louise Johns-Shepherd, c.e fo Centre for Literacy in Primary Education (CLPE), meanwhile, argued it was important to encourage children to read challenging material but not to label books as "young, easy or difficult". 

"Learning to read is a complex process and a social activity and children need to be encouraged and supported to read a range of different kinds of texts if they are to develop a love of reading," she said. "Reading for pleasure means we will all have preferences for different texts at different times in our reading journey and developing these preferences is such an important part of becoming a reader. Whilst we want to encourage children to read challenging material it is also important that we don’t label books as ‘young’, ‘easy’ or ‘difficult’ – love for a series, a character or a type of book is often what makes children realise that they are a reader."

Nicola Morgan, chair of the Society of Authors Children’s Writers and Illustrators Group and "expert in reading for pleasure" told The Bookseller that dismissing certian books could be incredibly "undermining and demoralising". She said: "We know there are plenty of teachers who don't judge children’s reading like this and who are mindful of the impact such comments can have. But when it happens it is incredibly undermining and demoralising... There are other ways to encourage growing one's reading repertoire."

Stevens’ upcoming sequel to the late Siobhan Dowd’s The London Eye Mystery, The Guggenheim Mystery, will be published by PRH Children’s in August.

The National Union of Teachers has been contacted for a comment.