So, what’s taboo in children’s books these days? Not sex – at least, not to anything like the same extent as it used to be. Bogeys and farts are virtually de rigeur on some shelves of the bookshop. Even death – which, having been a regular feature of Victorian children’s books was hustled from sight when I was growing up, in both books and life – has more recently been treated with full-frontal honesty in children’s books for all ages, from John Burningham’s Granpa and Katherine Paterson’s Bridge to Terabithia to Michael Rosen’s The Sad Book. What’s left? Drugs? Check. Homelessness? Check. War? The Holocaust? Check. Check. Emotional, sexual and physical abuse? Check, check, check. Very little seems to be out of bounds.
What about party politics? They hardly ever appear in children’s books - but maybe it’s because children find them dull rather than because they’re taboo as such? Oliver Postgate famously marked the General Election of October 1974 with an appropriate episode of The Clangers, but I’m not sure it was as thrilling a coup for his young viewers as it was fun for the grown-ups. William Brown once took part in an election too, designating himself a Conservative – but again, more for the amusement of Crompton’s adult readers than William’s own contemporaries. (I don’t remember the name of the story, though – can anyone help?) Budget Tuesdays, when men in suits sat discussing Income Tax and the IMF right where children’s afternoon television ought to have been, were an annual bane of my childhood during the channel-starved 1970s. The idea of having to read about such things too – and for fun! – would have appalled me.
It's not that politics in a wider sense have no place. There are plenty of books for children (both fiction and non-fiction) that deal, and in quite “messagey” ways, with the politics of the environment, or nuclear war, or race relations. They do get read, and few people seem to object to their existence very fiercely – but I suspect that would change should they declare any explicit alignment with a political party. That does appear to be taboo.
I well remember the outrage from parents when one of my primary school teachers – a keen Liberal, whom we will call Mrs H – “accidentally” scattered political leaflets on all our desks in the run up to that same 1974 election. I think she escaped serious trouble (it was a world with fewer disciplinary procedures than now, and more quiet words) but words were definitely said. I’m glad she got away with it, especially as she later taught me to use an air rifle – a source of much innocent pleasure. But for goodness' sake, what possessed you to do such a thing, Mrs H?
Didn’t you realise we wouldn’t give a monkey's?