Monday, 16 January 2012

Children Don't Change - John Dougherty

Individual children change, of course. They grow up, and much too quickly for my liking. And childhood changes, because it’s a cultural construct and our culture is ever-changing; and also because some childhoods are filled with more horrid plastic toys than others.

But what a child actually is - that doesn’t change. A twenty-first century baby is no different from a Tudor baby, or a Viking baby, or a stone-age baby; and a modern child has the same needs for love and nurture as any of its historical counterparts. I’m therefore deeply suspicious when anyone working in the field of children’s books talks about ‘the modern child’ or ‘our readers’ as if they’re substantially different from the children the industry was serving ten, or twenty, or a hundred years ago.

My daughter has recently become something of a Beano addict, so for Christmas - among other things - we gave her a big pile of Beano back-issues. She loved them. It became at times impossible to have a conversation with her that wasn’t preceded by “Put that Beano down!”

The interesting thing about this is that they weren’t new Beanos. They were 35 years old or so - copies I’d saved from my own childhood, and which had recently emerged from the back of a dark cupboard. And while she loves the old Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx strips just as much as the current ones, her all-time favourite Beano feature is Tom, Dick and Sally.

For those of you unfamiliar with the strip, Sally is the youngest of the three siblings, forever put down and put upon by her big brothers. They play tricks on her, offload their chores onto her, and generally do her down… but of course it’s Sally who wins out in the end, and often because the boys are hoist with their own petard. Hmmm… I shall have to ask my son if he has any idea why his younger sister relates so strongly to this.

Anyway, the point is that this is a story that was phased out of The Beano some time in the 1980s. But it’s just as relevant to today’s children because it deals with something that’s a childhood constant, regardless of cultural shifts.

And don’t the best stories?

John's website is at
He's on twitter as @JohnDougherty8.

His latest books include:

Finn MacCool and the Giant's Causeway - a retelling for the Oxford Reading Tree
Bansi O'Hara and the Edges of Hallowe'en
Zeus Sorts It Out - "A sizzling comedy... a blast for 7+" , and one of The Times' Children's Books of 2011, as chosen by Amanda Craig


madwippitt said...

So true ... a good book doesn't date, it improves with age ... for the annual Christmas book-present buying spree for my godson and his brother I chose a couple of more recent books - your Zeus books and Richard Fegen's Aquila (1997)and The Indian in the Cupboard which is now 30 years old. I also gave them some real antiques too - The Phantom Tollbooth and The Weirdstone of Brisingamen(50 and 51years old respectively)and The Incredible Adventures of Professor Branestawm (80-ish). They loved them all, the new and the old. Good taste is always in style!

JO said...

My father used to tell a story of waiting to meet the headmaster of a school he hoped my brother would go to. It was all very nerve-wracking in the waiting room - till he realised the other dad there was reading The Beano hidden inside a folded-up Telegraph!

Miriam Halahmy said...

I quite agree and that's why I don't worry too much about writing contemporary child/teenage characters. In so many ways they are just the same as I was at their age, or a young person a hundred years ago. The lingo might have changed but the experience of being young is very much a shared experience. By the way, we loved Superman comics!!

Abi Burlingham said...

You are so right! In fact, we had a huge pile of Beano back issues too, passed on to our son. As relevant now as ever.

KMLockwood said...

I enjoyed this post. Children don't change - but language does. Our usage of English changes over time as do the attitudes we will accept. So whilst I love children's books written decades ago, I also like to keep up-to-date.

Sue said...

What I find interesting is that books and comics don't seem to date as much as, say, TV series, where the expectations in terms of special effects are just different these days.

My son showed zero interest in the Thunderbirds Boxed Set I bought partly to satisfy my own nostalgia and partly in the hope he'd enjoy it, too.

But he's quite happy to read books from the last century - currently on The Box of Delights.

Maybe it's something to do with the imagination?

Rachel said...

Your daughter sounds like a kindred spirit, Mr Dougherty! Please do tell me, where did you get all the Beano back issues from? What's the best place to buy a large pile of them, at a reasonable price? I ask because Tom, Dick & Sally = my all-time fave Beano strip, too, and I'd love to catch up on the ones I missed before I discovered the comic.

The most embarrassing skeleton in my closet is, I used to fancy Walter the Softy, about 25 years ago. I was recently shocked to discover that Beano characters (including poor little Walter) now have South Park-type bodily functions; they never did in my day!!! Well, Walter's flatulence may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, could make people think of him as being more masculine.....

Rachel said...

Oops, I've re-read the post, and see that the old Beanos were saved from your own childhood. I guess Ebay = probably my own best bet.

David said...

Er—he said nervously—I'm a gay guy reader and I fancied Walter as a kid, too! His flirty, "soft" mannerisms were actually a turn-on to me as a preteen... oh, the shame!

Nothing's wrong with being gay, mind you. Just with being as nerdy as Walter.

To be fair, before Walter was portrayed so effeminately, he was instead quite snooty and sneaky (1960s). I haven't read many recent Beanos, but I've heard that the staff, to avoid seeming homophobic, have recently reverted Walter to this meaner, "pre-soft" personality.

Being quite familiar with homophobia, I get the reasoning... but I'm sorry to lose the Walter who often wore a tutu!