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The New Zealand Herald

Garth George: Parents better watch out for these creepy scribblings


My two godsons are both avid readers. They're that way because almost from the time their eyes opened they were given books to play with and had stories read to them. Their parents and godparents - avid readers all - made sure of that.

They are 11 and nearly 10 now and both have, according to their schoolteachers, reading recognition and comprehension levels far beyond their years.

The elder, for whom special projects had to be invented in his last year in primary school to keep him interested, is heavily into fiction; the younger, who has an insatiable thirst to know what's what, prefers non-fiction, and in the few hours each week he watches television invariably opts for the Discovery Channel.

Yet they still seem to have plenty of time for their GameBoys, Pokemon, PlayStations, X-boxes and all the other intricate electronic paraphernalia that makes up a boy's toys these days.

I weep for those children who are brought up on a ceaseless diet of electronic images and who never get to know the wonderful pleasure of reading a newspaper, let alone a book.

If surveys are to be believed (and any "research" these days has to be taken with a large lump of salt), there are more boys than girls in that category. That figures, of course, since we all know that in this feminist-influenced and politically correct age boys are an endangered species.

One author my godsons will not get to read is that poor sick, sad fellow Daniel Handler, who writes "children's books" under the nom de plume of Lemony Snicket and on whom last weekend's edition of this newspaper wasted an entire page and a bit.

He also writes adult fiction and his second book, we are informed, is "full of operatic sex and casual incest".

We read: "Handler greets you with a sweaty handshake and a guarded look. His jowly face is surmounted by a severe, jet-black fringe ... He looks suspicious and disgusted about what our conversation might reveal and, as he answers questions, he occasionally smiles with his eyes shut as if having a private reverie or a convulsion."

Sounds like just the sort of bloke to write children's books, doesn't he?

"The Lemony Snicket books," writes the interviewer, "aren't just an exercise in fashionably heartless black humour. They teach the blunt lesson that good will not triumph over evil simply by being good, only by being lucky, being cunning or possessing superior firepower.

"It's an unsettling, amoral and slightly melancholy lesson and one that America's children are lapping up in their millions."

I'll go further than that. The description of the Snicket books, their plots and characters suggest to me that they are nothing short of evil and that those parents who still concern themselves with what their children read might think twice about letting such garbage into their homes.

What worries me is not that the Herald devoted all that priceless space to Handler alias Snicket, but that his creepy scribblings are accepted as if they are perfectly acceptable and that the corruption of young minds by a peculiarly perverted form of adult cynicism is quite okay.

And, please, don't try to tell me that until I've read his works I have no right or grounds to condemn. That is, and always has been, one of the most specious of liberal arguments. Perhaps you can't tell a book by its cover, but if you read the flyleaf (and some reviews), you'll get a pretty good idea of what it's about.

Another pair of articles at the weekend that caused concern were those about Plunket and the Government's refusal to provide the measly few million extra that this wonderful 95-year-old organisation needs to do its job properly.

I remain unconvinced after reading the plausible arguments about the restructuring of Plunket over the past decade or so. When Plunket says it cannot provide the level of service to babies and their mothers expected of it, I believe it. Because when a Ministry of Health official says the ministry considers that Plunket is getting enough funding you can absolutely guarantee that it isn't.

It makes you wonder, doesn't it? By far the most dreadful and most pressing problem in this country today is the parlous condition of so many its children.

Reports are called for, surveys done and no doubt large sums spent on consultants, yet the poverty, health and nutritional deficiencies suffered by tens of thousands of our children continue to get worse, to such an extent that in some areas they are as bad as found in the Third World.

Yet when a tried and true, vastly experienced organisation such as Plunket, which can do more than probably any other to ensure that a child and its mother get a good start in life and parenting - thus nipping many a potential problem in the bud - the Government won't put up the money.

What Plunket does would be cheap at twice the price - which is what it would cost the Government to do it itself, and not nearly as well.

* garth_george@nzherald.co.nz