The Story Cure: An A-Z of Books to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin

Perhaps I’ve been reading too much children’s literature, but to me “cures” are necessarily nasty.

As my Catholic mother would say cheerfully as she spooned in another mouthful of “Miss Trunchbull” medicine: “Darling, if it tastes nice it’s not doing you any good.”

So the idea of a story being a “cure”, rather than a joy, an escape or a place to hide, is a bit like calling Christmas a “treatment” or love a “prescription” that you must remember to repeat and collect; in short, it takes away the warm balm and replaces it with a chilly expectorant to bring up the phlegm of past pains and problems of the present. Golly, that got a bit heavy.

This follow-up book from the authors of The Novel Cure: An A-Z of Literary Remedies focuses on children’s books, arguing that certain titles can “cure” certain problems. The books may be for kids, but this literary Dr Spock is pitched at adults and its tone is confused from the start. Take this excerpt from the “How to use this book” section at the front: “This book is for grown-ups in the exciting position of choosing books for children — parents, carers, grandparents, teachers, librarians or distant aunts wishing to send a cuddle (or cautionary tale) from a distance.” It’s as though it’s been written for someone of rock-bottom IQ who has never come across a child or a book.

The directory is arranged in categories, listed alphabetically with symbols to denote age-appropriateness — oddly, they don’t include the dates when the suggested books were written. The types of affliction range from low-level issues such as “not wanting to go for a walk” (they recommend the dog-pilgrimage tale The Incredible Journey by Sheila Burnford among others; perhaps to be read on a family walk through the park — watch out for the lampposts) to the serious categories of “abuse” and “pornography”.

“It is increasingly difficult to protect young adults from pornography online,” say the authors, who go on to suggest 100 of the best books for exploring love and sex for young adults without indicating the levels of explicitness — the one thing that parents of young teens need guidance on.

For their thesis to work you need to buy the authors’ view that the books about a certain problem will help to resolve it, presumably because of the empathy the reader will feel with the character undergoing a similar issue. So if the bullied reads about the bullied then they will feel less alone. There may be serious issues that can be helped this way, especially if prescribed by a professional therapist or medic, but it seems a limited view and it’s not how most kids develop a love of reading.

The less serious natural progression of this argument would also prescribe that I read Robert Harris’s Conclave on my holiday to Rome, watch Roman Holiday in my hotel room at night and listen to Flaminio Maphia, the Roman rappers, on my taxi rides through the Eternal City — rather than rereading Pride and Prejudice, watching Star Wars and listening to Blur. If I am in Rome, I would probably rather read about somewhere else. If books that aren’t homework become homework, the fun drains away.

It’s as though it’s been written for someone of rock-bottom IQ who has never come across a child or a book

However, if you do buy the premise you will have fun flicking through the categories. The “fear of beards” category is a favourite for its earnest response. “Unless they have been raised in close proximity to one, small children frequently burst into tears at the sight of a beard. A razor is one way of dealing with it. Another is to bring out this surreal board book, which comes complete with fake beard with which, in turn, to scare the hirsute invader off.” Cue: The Runaway Beard by David Schiller. Likewise, The Story of the Little Mole by Werner Holzwarth offers “poo exposure of an intriguing and diverse kind” for those finding potty-training a struggle. Free tip: chocolate bribes beat literary incentives every time.

I’m not sure that the many dystopian novels, including Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, John Wyndham’s The Day of the Triffids and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, suggested to soothe “fear of the Apocalypse” are going to help to counter my anxieties about Armageddon — quite the opposite — although they might give me survival tips.

Still, the authors do expose holes in the market. Juno Dawson’s Spot the Difference, about 16-year-old “Pizzaface”, aka Avery, is the only suggestion under “acne”. Writers, get scribbling.

These young-adult issues tend to procure the more clichéd, schoolmarmy responses: “Getting pregnant in your teens is no joke” they advise under the “teenage, pregnancy” section.

Thankfully it’s not all about personal afflictions. The writers list the ten best audiobook series for long car journeys (although they are rather obvious with the exception of Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver). I also liked the idea of the ten best wordless stories and the ten best books for reluctant readers — a list that will be much-needed if this bid to medicalise kids’ literature succeeds.
The Story Cure: An A-Z of Books to Keep Kids Happy, Healthy and Wise by Ella Berthoud and Susan Elderkin, Canongate, 356pp; £17.99

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