A reasonably large part of my reading consists of books my son and daughter read. Though their medium of instruction till Class V was Hindi, you wouldn’t think so from the fiction on their shelves, which is wholly written in English. This is not so different from my middle-class childhood when, despite my mother’s attempts to make me read for pleasure in Hindi (our shelves were stacked with unread copies of Parag and Chandamama, Hindi magazines for children), my brother and I determinedly gave ourselves up to the pleasure of English children’s fiction. This is not the place to explore why north Indian children of a certain class don’t read fiction in Hindi; the point of this piece is to see if children’s tastes in fiction written in English have changed over time. More particularly, I set out to discover if reading habits among Anglophone Indian children — which in the Sixties were dominated by British English writing by default — have changed or become more diverse as our colonial past recedes into history.
The one thing that was ungendered in the childhoods of middle-class children forty years ago was their taste in English fiction. Through primary school, everyone, boys and girls, read Enid Blyton. My brother and I read her St Clare’s and Mallory Towers sequences entire, though the boarding schools in question were exclusively for girls and everyone I can remember, read her Five Find-Outers and Famous Five books. It was in secondary school that reading began to divide by sex.
The boys read Anthony Buckeridge (the Jennings and Darbyshire prep-school novels), Frank Richards (who was attacked by George Orwell for his Billy Bunter boarding-school stories), Richmal Crompton (who wrote the William stories despite being a girl), Edgar Rice Burroughs (Tarzan) and Captain W.E. Johns (who wrote a million books about the ageless Biggles). I’m not certain what girls read: I have this dim idea that they went from reading fairy tales and Brer Rabbit stories and Noddy to Enid Blyton and once they had finished with her, moved on to Louisa May Alcott and Agatha Christie and from there either graduated to Georgette Heyer and Mills & Boon or set their sights higher and took to reading neurotic 19th-century masterpieces authored by women called Brontë. There were, of course, cross-dressing free spirits on both sides of the gender-divide who read androgynously, though these were more likely to be brainy girls.
With the exception of Louisa May Alcott, it’s obvious how English (as opposed to American) this sampling is. This is not remarkable, given the English ruled us for more-or-less two hundred years. A sprinkling of juvenile intellectuals, who fancied themselves, read the unspeakable American, Ayn Rand. A larger bunch of undiscriminating children devoted themselves to the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew series, but generally Indian schoolchildren didn’t read fiction mass-produced by American syndicates. The odd boy might read White Fang and the odd girl The House of Green Gables, but generally, in the matter of fiction, we bought (or borrowed) British. Even the writers of adventure fiction we read from an earlier time — G.A. Henty, Wilkie Collins, Rider Haggard, Kipling, J.M. Barrie — were consistently British, as were their contemporary inheritors: Alistair MacLean, Nevil Shute, James Hadley Chase.
The reason for this is not a mystery. Our reading was closely connected to the unspoken contract our parents had with the schools they sent us to: we were to be socialized into English for all the reasons that Macaulay had specified more than a century ago. As a consequence, we learnt to love the superior rituals of an English childhood: boarding-school codes (Bunter, Jennings, St Clare’s); countrified adventure (the Famous Five); urban mysteries complete with constable (the Five Find-Outers). Later, we enjoyed at one remove, the excitement of colonial/Western derring-do (Henty, MacLean) and modern love (Denise Robins, Mills & Boon).
Between my childhood and my children’s, there has been a massive turn-over of favourite authors and books. Blyton is still read, but she isn’t hegemonic and few children today systematically read through her massive ouevre. J.K. Rowling owns the market and both sexes within it. I haven’t given in to the pressure to buy separate copies of each Harry Potter novel for my children, but the last time round I nearly gave in for the sake of peace.
As lots of people have pointed out, the Harry Potter series is the boarding-school novel by other means. This is both true and false. True because the romance of adventure away from parents is something that different generations of schoolchildren clearly share, and false because Hogwarts is a co-ed boarding school (and that’s not just a detail) and, more importantly, because magic and fantasy are crucial in a way that they weren’t when I was reading books as a child.
My anecdotal research reveals that nearly everything boys read today can be classed as fantasy. Christopher Paulini’s Inheritance trilogy, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen trilogy, D.J. MacHale’s Pendragon series, Paul Stewart and Chris Riddell’s Edge Chronicles, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus trilogy, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, Brian Jacques’s seemingly endless Redwall series, and there’s at least a dozen more trilogies and authors in this genre. Even Cornelia Funke’s The Thief Lord — which, for most of its considerable length, is a sharply observed novel set in Venice — turns out to have a ‘magical’ twist in its tail.
I suspect my generation didn’t need generic fantasy because our imaginations were already stoked by the post-colonial fantasy of living English lives. Bunter and Jennings and Kirrin Island and scones were as dreamily strange and wonderful as Brian Jacques’s canned English countryside, teeming with warrior mice, talking badgers and scheming rats must seem to my son.
Most of these writers are English, but there are a couple of Americans (Paulini, MacHale), and even an Australian (Garth Nix), which seems to suggest that genre is more important than sensibility. To my (admittedly prejudiced) eye, the Englishmen (and they’re all men) write at a different level of sophistication from the Americans, but it doesn’t seem to matter so long as there’s lots of fantasy served up. My daughter and her friends, who are twelve years old or thereabouts, read Meg Cabot (The Princess Diaries), Jacqueline Wilson (Girls Under Pressure, Girls Out Late, etc.), Georgia Byng (the Molly Moon series) and Ann Brashares who has written a wonderfully plausible series of novels collectively called The Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants. There seems to be a real difference between the books boys and girls read at the secondary and high-school stage. There are some authors they have in common (Rowling, Pullman to a lesser degree), but girls don’t seem to be that keen on fantasy as a genre. The books and stories they like seem to be set squarely within a real (or at least, non-magical) world. Also, while this is a small sample, three of the four authors mentioned in this paragraph are American.
I’m not sure what explains the difference. Perhaps routinely written fantasy serves the function that the Tarzan and Biggles books discharged for boys in the past' The difference in reading tastes across generations is easier to understand. England, still important as a source of fiction, is culturally and politically part of a larger Anglosphere, together with America and Australia. What our children live is a global fantasy of Anglo-ness instead of the more parochial English dreams that coloured our childhood.