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British children's authors boycott school readings

SOME of Britain's leading children's authors are refusing to do readings in schools because of a new policy requiring them to be registered in a national database and undergo criminal background checks to prove they aren't sex offenders.

It's not just the US$104 fee for the police checks that has outraged the authors. It's the idea that they - and even parents who volunteer in schools - must be declared innocent before being allowed to read to children.

Some of the biggest names in children's book publishing have joined the boycott beginning this fall, including a number of past recipients of the prestigious children's laureate prize. Akin to poet laureate, the government-appointed position is awarded to a noted children's author, who is charged with promoting children's literature in schools.

"Of course we have to take care, but this is not necessary," said Michael Morpurgo, the 2003-2005 children's laureate whose more than 100 books have long been revered by British students and teachers.

"I've done this hundreds of times, and you are never alone with children. There are always 100 to 200 children and teachers around you. It's absurd to think children are in any kind of danger."

The new rule, which takes effect in October, requires anyone who comes into contact with schoolchildren or vulnerable adults to register with the newly established Independent Safeguarding Authority and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check to prove they are not a known threat.

A spokesman for the Home Office said applicants who pass will have their names placed on a national database clearing them to work with children. Those who fail will be registered on the agency's Barred List, making it a crime for them to have any contact with schoolchildren, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity in line with departmental policy.

The new system was spurred by the 2002 murders of 10-year-old schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman at the hands of a school caretaker, Ian Huntley, in their village of Soham near Cambridge. The girls did not attend the school where Huntley worked, but knew his partner, Maxine Carr, who had been a teacher's aide at their school. The case spurred outrage because some authorities were aware of sexual misconduct allegations against Huntley, but did not pass them on to school officials.

The British law imposes the requirement on anyone coming into contact with children at school, even for a very brief period.

Morpurgo, whose celebrated novel "War Horse" has been made into a play, says the British government has overreacted.

"We need to warn children, 'Don't get in peoples' cars, be wary.' But for authors and illustrators and storytellers to be under this cloud, to have to produce a piece of paper showing you are not a pedophile, I think it's one step too far," he said.

"It's teaching children to be suspicious. You should introduce them to the world and say it's full of kind people with some people amongst them you really have to watch out for, not tell them the whole world is a nasty, wicked place."

Francesca Simon, author of the popular "Horrid Henry" series, said she resents the implication that authors need to have a police check in order to read to a crowded auditorium of schoolchildren.

"To visit is a great privilege, it makes such a connection between children and authors. But this is ludicrous," she said. "You're in a school for two hours, you are never alone with a child, it's not anything like working with children day in and day out."

Authors joining the boycott include Anne Fine, the 2001-2003 children's laureate whose book, "Madame Doubtfire," was made into an Oscar-winning movie starring Robin Williams, as well as Philip Pullman, author of the fantasy trilogy "His Dark Materials" and Anthony Horowitz, who penned the "Alex Rider" series and other favorites.

Horowitz wrote in a column in The Independent newspaper Thursday that the new rule is "very nearly insane."

"I'm being asked to pay 64 pounds to prove that I am not a pedophile," he said. "After 30 years writing books, visiting schools, hospitals, prisons, spreading an enthusiasm for culture and literacy, I find this incredibly insulting."

He said the law seems to have been made by people "with a bleak and twisted view of society."


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