Friday, 23 April 2010

Not in Front of the Children? Charlie Butler

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?


Stroppy Author said...

Interesting post, Charlie. I suppose, apart from the issue of whether children are interested in party politics, there is the point that if parties and politicians are named then the book has no co-edition potential. David McKee's new book, Denver is blatant political propoganda (pro-conservative), presented through a narrative of social inequality and politics of envy. I was stunned, even shocked - and I'm hard to shock. As it's a picture book, it may be read by young children without any guidance from adults. Brainwashing, insidious, irresponsible.

Charlie Butler said...

I've not read McKee's book, but that's very interesting. My impression is that the politics of children's books are generally quite liberal, in the sense emphasizing placing value on others, preserving the environment, etc. Although there's also a strong strain of "you can be whatever you want to be", which might resonate with neo-con individualism, I guess. I wonder what others think?

Nick Green said...

I think perhaps children are simply too clever for party politics. Like the little girl on 'Outnumbered', they are quick to see through anything that is simply ridiculous in nature, and party politics is up there with American Football on the scale of absurdity.

We adults, we may have grown to accept that our clumsy way of creating a government for ourselves really is the best system we can come up with, without inviting bloody revolution, but younger minds probably won't buy that. So books about party politics aren't so much taboo, as too ridiculous for those brought up on more logical fare like Alice in Wonderland.

catdownunder said...

Trying to blatantly indoctrinate children is probably not considered acceptable by responsible publishers. That said there are many attempts at subliminal indoctrination.

Gillian Philip said...

I think party politics should probably remain a taboo, if only for the reasons Nick outlines (but for other reasons too). That said, there's plenty of politics in my books. Politics is only about how people organise and govern themselves, after all (or how they react to that government). But Cat's right - there are plenty of subliminal political messages in children's books. I haven't seen the David McKee book - does it mention a party or a movement by name, or only political principles? In the latter case, that's as justifiable as any political 'message' - and if it's too blatant, readers will see through it anyway.

Keren David said...

Plenty of politics in my books too, including descriptions of real politicians (there's one with a 'smooth certain face' for example and another who's the 'blond weird one from off the telly') But, I hope, no overt political message, just another layer to add to the mix of things readers may want to think about.

Nick Green said...

What is important, I think, is to introduce children to the idea that politics matters. That it is not just the boring stuff off the news, the men in suits, the meaningless speeches, but that it is simply the business of living.

I remember my English tutor telling us that 'politics is everything. Everything we do is political.' Someone said, 'Not everything! Tying your shoelaces is not political.' Our tutor shot back, quick as a whip, 'It is if you don't have any shoes.'

Charlie Butler said...

That's a great come-back, Nick!

Katherine Roberts said...

When I was a kid, politics belonged very much to the boring side of the adult world along with things like pensions, mortgages, overdrafts, working for a living... I guess that's the reason these things don't often feature very big in children's books? Whereas things like blood, violence, sex and death belong to a more exciting part of the adult world, one every kid gets curious about at some stage, so those books will sell.