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Kids reads

How are the latest children's books shaping the next generation?

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March 2, 2020

A new era is dawning in my home: my youngest child is on the brink of coming out of nappies. Eight and half years since my first encounter with Pampers, my relationship with absorbent undergarments is finally coming to an end, at least until I hit my dotage.

The only downside is a horrific book we foolishly withdrew from the library, called Pirate Pete’s Potty. We should have known it would be bad: it has a button on the front; press it and a tinny, echoey sort of cheer emerges from somewhere within the cardboard. All books with electronic sound effects should be banned, I’ve come to conclude.

But Pirate Pete’s Potty offends me for another reason. It’s horrifically literal. It might as well be an instruction leaflet from IKEA. Here’s a sample: “‘The potty is for doing your wees and poos in, instead of your nappy,’ explains Mummy.”

Wow. Thanks Mummy Pirate. I really needed this information to be printed onto dead trees and bundled up with a battery and plastic speaker so that it can never be recycled. I’d never have been able to explain this to my child alone. Here was me thinking that books were supposed to have stories in — to use narrative and creativity to explore the emotional reality of childhood experiences. More fool me.

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Fortunately, there is one really great piece of literature about potty training: the 1986 classic by Tony Ross, I Want My Potty. In this book, a small princess navigates the ups and downs of life without nappies. It seems absurd to summarise the plot of a 12-page book for toddlers, comprising perhaps 100 words in total, so I won’t. What matters is the book has a plot. It has ambition and despair, admiration and shame, jeopardy and disaster. And it’s funny. It’s even funny for parents, as the adults of this peculiar fictional kingdom (king, queen, admiral, prime minister) move heaven and earth to cater to the needs of their tiny overlord, only to fail. Every parent has felt like that.

A great children’s book goes far beyond the words on the page. It pulls you in. You can talk to your child about every aspect of it. You can make things up. You can imagine more. And you can spot little things that are perhaps only for you, the parents: something to help you feel you’re not alone as you struggle through the days of dirty knees and runny noses.

One of my favourites is The Baby’s Catalogue, by Janet and Allan Ahlberg. At first glance you’d think it’s just one of those “baby’s first word” books: lots of pictures to point at and practice saying the words. It is certainly useful and fun for that. But it’s also an intimate portrait of life for exhausted parents.

Among the pictures are: a little girl bringing her dad a cup of tea as he turns off the bedside alarm with an expression of despair; a mum and dad asleep on the sofa in front of the TV; a mum washing her hair in the sink. The kids won’t notice, but the parents will smile, and feel understood.

And The Baby’s Catalogue is political, too. It’s more than 30 years old but it’s a more compelling vision of liberalism than most contemporary naked attempts at propaganda — a celebration of some quieter kinds of diversity. Five families feature — including breastfed babies and bottle fed babies, working mums and stay-at-home mums, of different ethnicities. There’s a dad changing a nappy and another at the park on the swings. They eat different food and wear different clothes and have different pets and have different accidents, but the comforting sensation is that they are all the same. All caught up in the story of surviving daily life.

So my children and I have read through The Baby’s Catalogue a hundred times, and none of us is bored, because you can’t be bored when life is in the pages.

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All our favourite books are old. Peepo — another one by the Ahlbergs — is truly extraordinary. It’s a little rhyme about a baby who looks around him; on every other page is a little porthole to peep through to the next picture. My younger son still thinks it’s a book about a baby called Peepo. I, by contrast, think it’s a portrait of wartime life to rival Tolstoy. A father, home from leave. Granny takes the children to the park so the parents can be alone. A mother so shattered she “dozes in the easy chair”. At the end, Father is in uniform again, his helmet ready. Will he return? We don’t know.

My son doesn’t notice any of this, he just likes the rhythm and the pictures and the little portholes to put his fingers through. But both stories are there; there are as many stories as you want to find.

Maybe I’m just sentimental about the books of my childhood, but it seems so rare to find a modern children’s book that has that kind of multi-layered narrative. The Gruffalo is perfectly nice but it’s about how small people can be powerful, and, well, that’s it, isn’t it? Of course, it’s a message that goes down well with small people but is there anything else to it? The Snail and the Whale is a different story with the same meaning, and so is What The Ladybird Heard and half the rest of Julia Donaldson’s oeuvre.

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But at least it’s a better message than the one put forward in Guess How Much I Love You, in which a narcissistic and hyper-competitive sociopath of a father repeatedly belittles his son’s attempts to communicate his love.

Fed this sort of mono-dimensional, humdrum literature, how are our children supposed to grow up into fully-rounded adults? Are we trying to create obedient drones or independent-minded human beings? These saccharine books are now handed out in their millions by well-meaning charities, as if any book will do when it comes to child development. We’re obsessed with helping them learn to read when we should be focused on helping them learn to think.

If our children are to have a hope of thriving in our increasingly complicated world, they need more than the narrative equivalent of instruction manuals. They need to get beyond the Aesop’s fable kind of story which has one meaning, one moral, and one message. To develop a really first class understanding of the world, and their places in it, children need complexity. They need something to talk about with their grown ups. They need books that can keep on giving as you get older, and be rediscovered at a different depth in adulthood.

So goodbye Pirate Pete. You’re going back to the library where you belong. We’ll see off the nappies with our imaginations, and be all the better for it.

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