What makes a ‘story’? I’m not referring to a simple narrative with beginning, middle and end told for amusement or edification. I’m asking after that much rarer quality — that certain something that newspaper editors whisper mystically about, which transforms an otherwise rather ordinary seeming event into one worth reading about on page 3 of The Daily Telegraph.
For instance, a 24-year-old PhD student, Shelby Judge, goes on a visit to Sterling Castle and takes exception to something she reads in one of those little Mr Men books on sale in the castle gift shop. In the book she flicks through, Mr Clever is patronising Little Miss Curious, who cannot understand why the Forth Bridge is so named. “What happened to the first, the second and the third bridges?” Miss Curious asks. “It was going to be a long day,” sighs the book’s narrator. According to Ms Judge, this story reinforces antiquated gender stereotypes. “It is meant to be a funny joke but then it’s always at the expense of women.” “Mansplaining,” Ms Judge later tweeted, with a picture of the offending page. It was that tweet that went viral and became “a story”.
It was hardly a shocking or surprising comment. Even Telegraph readers cannot have been shielded all their lives from the existence of feminism.
No, it was a story for some simple reasons. First, it provided the opportunity to print some colourful images of Mr Men that worked well to offset all the dreary stuff about the election. Second, it played to the cultural prejudices of its readers — the “po-faced feminist academics taking offence again at a simple bit of fun” attitude. But also — and here, I suspect, is where that deeper and elusive quality of ‘a story’ comes in — it put its finger on one of those cultural anxieties about how we bring up our children, and what moral lessons we are exposing them to. It represents a battle for the ethics of the bedtime story.
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Every evening at about half past seven, I settle down to read my three year-old son a succession of bedtime stories. Bathed and in his fire-engine pyjamas, with his warm milk, this is my time with him. He sits on my lap and we get through maybe three or four stories every night. Our current favourite is The Runaway Pea a terrific tale of the adventures of a solitary pea who thinks there must be more to life than ending up on a plate for tea.
Every evening we fire up our imaginations with tales of Vikings who want to make dinosaur stew, Mog the cat hiding on the roof from the Christmas tree, or Harry and Gran and his robots. As I snuggle down with my son and kiss him goodnight, I do not want this moment to become some sort of ideological battleground, the next space to be conquered in the ever-widening gyre of our increasingly rancorous culture wars.
But politics keeps banging on the bedroom door. A is for Activist is a classic of the genre. B is for banner, C is for Co-op, X is for Malcolm X: you get the picture. I Have the Right to be a Child explored the United Nations’ 1989 Convention of the Rights of the Child for a children’s audience. A few months ago, Afua Hirsch published a children’s book about Lady Hale and the importance of the Supreme Court. And best of all, The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks — a children’s book by Amy Kean published last year:
“Elodie-Rose was a girl on a mission
In a town where girls act like obedient kittens,
Sing soft the same tune and dance neat the same jigs
Wear the same flowery dresses and pretty blonde wigs.
But Elodie-Rose vowed to change this old world.
Because Elodie-Rose isn’t like other girls.”
In many ways, these books share much in common with the very earliest of children’s literature from the 17th century, all being pious and instructional. First published in the 1640s, the Puritan minister John Cotton’s Milk for Babes was a collection of improving religious stories and prayers, designed as a catechism for young children. It goes through the Ten Commandments, the nature of the church and grace, the last judgment and so on. This was characteristic of much of the children’s literature that followed.
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The new moralism in children’s literature replaces the church with the courts, the Ten Commandments with human rights, prayer and the inner life with authenticity, being true to yourself, not giving a fuck. Yet the purpose today is exactly the same as it was back then, to pass on to children the parent’s view of the world. In other words, when liberals denounce religious parents for brainwashing their children, the truth is that they are up to exactly the same sort of thing.
And so they should, by the way. It is absolutely right to use children’s literature for moral instruction. It is a parental responsibility to nurture your child’s moral and spiritual sense as much as to look after his or her physical needs. The idea that a parent shouldn’t intervene morally, should respect the child’s autonomy and wait for the child to grow up so that the child can choose their own values (see my piece on the problems with adult baptism) is a load of old nonsense that liberals sometimes say they believe in theory but never accept in practice.
But apart from the fact that my own worldview is in many ways closer to 17th-century Puritans that to 21st-century liberals, the thing I most have against the modern moralism in children’s literature is that it is so clumsily issue based. Here is one author introducing a reading list of “Nine books for woke kids”:
“It is a challenging time to be a parent right now. Thousands of families have lost their homes in the devastation of Hurricane Harvey. Los Angeles is burning. White supremacists are marching in plain view on our city streets. The president has just declared that children of immigrants should be punished for the ‘crime’ of growing up American. Climate change is real. Bigotry is on the rise. And on top of all this, the unthinkable threat of nuclear war is getting more real every day. How do you help your children make sense of all this?”
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It is not a problem that children’s literature reflects adult concerns — it always has, it always will. But I question the idea that value transfer can be successfully achieved through stories that have little sympathy with a child’s mental world, and that are merely picture-book illustrations of things only an adult would recognise as moral.
Here the Mr Men stories are much better at moral instruction. Mr Noisy learns how to be considerate. Mr Rude learns that anger doesn’t always help. Mr Tall learns self-love. Part of the success of these books is their use of archetypes. That’s why they can be successfully translated into Chinese and Icelandic and Hebrew. On the other hand, I don’t know how much a Chinese child would gain from the improving story of Lady Hale and the Supreme Court. Or what they would make of Elodie-Rose in Nigeria.
What makes for a story in newspaper land is the current, the immediate, the topical. And, too often, woke children’s literature fails because it follows this very adult sense of what counts as important. The best of young children’s literature — though written and bought and read out by adults — knows that children think differently. The Oi series of picture books are a favourite — so much fun, so much to laugh at together: “Cats sit on mats, hares sit on chairs, mules sit on stools, gophers sit on sofas and frogs sit on logs.” Seemingly, not a moral message in sight.
And then, after reading them night after night, you realise there may be. Louie starts telling me that things in his bedroom have to go in specific places. The world is ordered in a certain way. A place for everything and everything in its place. There are rules. Until the revolutionary Frog comes along and changes them. Perhaps there is nothing more properly basic in moral and political philosophy than the battle between order and chaos.
It’s all so much more subtle, funny, and interesting than the flat-footed moralistic instruction of those who are only really using children’s literature as a delivery mechanism for their own narrow ideological concerns.