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British children's authors boycotting school readings

LONDON - 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.

LONDON - 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 $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 starting this fall, including some 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 responsible for promoting children's literature in schools.

"Of course we have to take care, but this is not necessary," said Michael Morpurgo, the 2003-05 children's laureate, whose more than 100 books are 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 new Independent Safeguarding Authority and undergo a Criminal Records Bureau check.

Aapplicants who pass will have their names placed on a national database clearing them to work with children, a spokesman for the Home Office said. 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 system was spurred by the 2002 murders of 10-year-old schoolgirls Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman by a school caretaker, Ian Huntley, in 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 United States does not have a national policy or database of this type, though many communities, including Philadelphia, make adults undergo background checks before they can work at schools, even as volunteers.

The British law imposes the requirement on anyone coming into contact with children at school, even very briefly. Morpurgo, whose celebrated novel, War Horse, has been made into a play, said the government had overreacted.

"We need to warn children, 'Don't get in people's cars. Be wary,' " he said. "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.

"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."

Authors joining the boycott include Anne Fine, the 2001-03 children's laureate, whose Madame Doubtfire was made into a movie starring Robin Williams; 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 that the rule was "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."

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