Why Junk Fiction Is Just as Important as "Literature"
Reading is Work
Convincing "reluctant readers" to read more is a challenging task. Kids need to read a lot to learn to read well, but for many of them reading is hard work. Just as with complex math problems that don't appear to have any real world applications, reading is often seen as just another one of those things you have to do to get through school.
But it's also apparent that some kids love reading. Some kids love reading so much, in fact, that they'd rather read than just about anything else. The difference between the kids who hate reading and the kids who love it may have a lot to do with their different personalities, but there is something else at work, something very simple.
Kids who love to read learned early on that reading was something that many people do for pleasure, and they were exposed to books that gave them pleasure. Kids who don't like to read haven't (yet) discovered that reading can be fun. They haven't met the right books, or are told the books that do give them pleasure are bad. And true, some children have more difficulty in developing reading skills. A couple of strategies for parents to get kids to read would be to let kids pick their own books: books that are fun, and even books that are easy.
Bulk Reading and Fun
Most experts on children's literature will probably agree that the best way to learn to read well is to read a lot. Where they sometimes differ is on what sort of reading that should be. Some people are inclined to believe that only challenging reading can be of value in extending a person's reach, and that's true to an extent, but very few people learn to read better only by reading more difficult things.
It's also important to gain practice by reading things that are not challenging, but reading a lot of them, sort of like developing muscle memory in the brain. This large quantity of unchallenging reading has been referred to as "bulk reading." You can think of it as calories in food consumption: not everything you eat needs to be fine cuisine and there is definite value in "comfort food."
The sort of fiction we think of as junk includes escapist novels, endless formulaic series books, comics, fantasy, romance and anything else that smacks of genre. In fact, many of the books perceived of as trash are actually very well written, but we'll leave that aside for now. The point is, easy reading shows kids that reading doesn't have to be hard, and genre fiction can show kids that reading can actually be fun and interesting.
Once kids discover that topics that they want to read about are available, they're very likely to seek out more challenging books, more "literary" books even, on the same topics. And if they're interested in the topic, they're much more likely to struggle through the difficult parts. Before they realize it, their reading abilities have improved and books that were once challenging became easy.
We Can't Know Good Without Bad
Another argument that kids should be allowed to read "bad" writing is that it can make them better judges of literature. It's difficult, sometimes, to see why one piece of writing is good without having something not so good to compare it to. Reading bad books won't make kids grow up thinking that bad writing is good. Instead, it will let them see how much better "good" writing really is.
This is important for improvement in reading, of course, but it's especially vital for learning to write well. There is no better way to illustrate why bad writing should be avoided than to see it in use.
Fantasy Can Be Healthy
"Junk" fiction is not only categorized based on the writing quality, but often also by its genre, as well. Somehow, despite the fact that our oldest stories are full of monsters and magic, we have developed the notion that anything fantastic, anything not real, is somehow less good. But there are at least two reasons why reading genre fiction is useful--whether it's out-and-out fantasy, science fiction, romance, western, or whatever genre is the current scapegoat of children's book critics.
The first reason to let kids read genre has already been more-or-less covered above. Because it has a lot of fun elements, genre fiction can be more fun to read than realistic fiction. Kids who play videogames with dragons and elves might be tempted to read books about dragons and elves. Kids interested in science might enjoy seeing how science fiction pushes science beyond its current limits. And romance can let kids try out relationships without actually having to live through them.
But more importantly, fantasy and other genres can allow real-world problems to be tackled from a distance. Sometimes, facing the scary things in our lives is simply too terrifying to do by reading true-to-life accounts. But if those same situations are approached from a place a half-step sideways from the real world, they can become surmountable. Fantasy, for example, is phenomenal at addressing things like racism, class conflict, personal morality and other huge topics; it simply does so in a world different enough from ours that it's not threatening to think about those ideas.
As novelist G.K. Chesterton once said (as quoted by Terry Pratchett), "The objection to fairy stories is that they tell children there are dragons. But children have always known there are dragons. Fairy stories tell children that dragons can be killed." Not all dragons, you see, are literal.