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

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March 5, 2020

Something about parenthood brings out nostalgia for your own childhood. So inevitably enough, we ended up with a big box of Roald Dahl books for our kids a few years ago; more recently, our eldest became old enough to actually understand them, so we started to read them to him.

Some stand up better than others. Matilda and Danny the Champion of the World are still wonderful, as is George’s Marvellous Medicine; The Enormous Crocodile feels, frankly, phoned in (“Will this do? Roald”), and the posthumously published Billy and the Minpins is formulaic. But it was after reading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and moving — naturally enough — onto the sequel, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, that I pulled up short, and suddenly found myself skipping several pages. I hadn’t remembered it being so spectacularly racist.

It’s one bit, when the US president is ringing around other world leaders to arrange a response to an apparent alien attack (which is in fact Charlie, Willie Wonka and the Buckets in the elevator; don’t worry, it doesn’t make a great deal more sense when you’re reading it). One of the leaders he phones is the Chinese premier. But his red-phone hotline to party headquarters first accidentally rings a Chinese takeaway, because, ha ha, everyone’s called Wing and Wong in China, so it’s very easy to, ha ha, “Wing the Wong number”. Then there’s an awful lot of “velly solly Mr Plesident, the plemier is unavailable”. The Chinese politicians are called Chu-On-Dat and How-Yu-Bin.

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I don’t think of myself as especially easily shocked, and I try to remember that different times had different mores — at my grandmother’s house, there were books from her childhood that I’d read on holiday; I am still amazed at the existence of Little Black Sambo, among others. But the fact that it was fine for Dahl to put all that in a children’s book — a book published in 1972, only eight years before I was born — seemed remarkable, as was the fact that I must have read it as a child, several times, without it making a huge impression on me.

(The less said about Tintin in the Congo, the better.)

People get very concerned about the books that children read shaping their minds. It’s hard to find books for very small children that don’t have some trowelled-on message: it’s OK to be yourself, people are different and that’s fine, isn’t having friends lovely, that sort of thing. This isn’t a new phenomenon, or specific to children’s literature; every generation thinks the generation after it is being warped by something, computer games or video nasties or pulp novels.

And it’s not limited to any particular part of the political compass. The Right gets just as worked up about pasteboard books called Timmy’s Two Mummies or A Boy Called Rosie as the Left does about ones called Girls Are Princesses And Boys Are Firefighters or whatever. The theory, I think, is that children’s books have great influence on the attitudes and behaviours of that child as they grow up. Give me the child to the age of seven, and I will give you the man, and all that.

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For the record: I’m sceptical. There’s a huge and ongoing argument about whether literature reflects or shapes its age; and obviously the truth will be “a bit of both”, but I suspect it’s usually a lot more reflection than shaping. Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator wouldn’t get written now because society has changed; but I doubt it inspired a great deal of anti-Chinese racism in the children who read it.

We all have books that we feel changed our lives, I realise. I read The Blind Watchmaker at a formative age and felt it twist my destiny. But it’s hard to tease out how much that is actually a book shaping my personality, or a book fitting neatly into the shape my personality already had, like a key into a lock. And I don’t imagine many people have that experience with books for the under-sevens anyway. In general, the people in a child’s life — their parents, their teachers, and, probably most importantly, their peers — must outweigh the impact of the books they read by an order of magnitude, when it comes to shaping their attitudes.

But even if you don’t think they’ll warp their tiny minds, you still might not want to read them Tintin in the Congo — or Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator — just because they’re nasty and mean-spirited and unpleasant.

We had another experience, though. When I was young, my parents used to read me the Noggin the Nog series, by Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin. Postgate and Firmin are probably best known for their TV work – BagpussThe Clangers, Postman Pat, Ivor the Engine. But they also wrote children’s books, notably the Noggin series, and my parents bought us a box set of them to read the kids, not long after we got the Dahl collection.

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There was a hint of trepidation when I read the first one to my son for the first time, with the Great Glass Elevator experience in mind. In the first book, Noggin ventures up north from his Viking-ish lands to “the Land of the Midnight Sun”; here he meets his bride, Nooka, daughter of Nan, king of the Nooks. The Nooks are obviously Greenland Inuit. Later in the series he travels to “the Land of the Silver Sand”, an orientalised Middle East, full of magic carpets and genies. The potential for cringeworthy stereotyping was enormous.

It’s not that the books avoided stereotyping altogether — the Nooks live in cartoon igloos, the Sultan has long black moustaches and lives in a palace with an onion-shaped dome on the top. But the books consistently made everyone human. The Sultan is greedy and self-interested, but only in the same way as the books’ villain, Noggin’s uncle, Nogbad the Bad, is; another Middle Eastern character, Haroun ibn Daud, is gentle and kind and unworldly, rather like Noggin himself. Wherever Noggin goes, he encounters characters — whether tiny elf-like Omruds, enormous ice dragons, or thinly disguised Inuits and Arabs — who turn out to be people, silly and self-absorbed but basically decent.

I interviewed Terry Pratchett years ago, himself the author of some wonderful children’s books — the Nome trilogy, Truckers, Diggers and Wings, have much the same gentle tone as Postgate and Firmin’s books. He identified a certain kind of voice among a certain kind of English writer of the middle decades of the 20th century — Jerome K. Jerome, Richmal Crompton, RJ Yeatman and WC Sellar, Kenneth Grahame — a “slightly satirical, people-are-rather-silly-but-they’re-not-that-bad voice, friendly about humanity, fond of its foibles”, which paved the way for him and, I’d say, for Douglas Adams. The Noggin series fitted that description perfectly.

We read the whole series, my son and I; then read it again, from the beginning, and the second time he was starting to be able to read some of it himself, which was joyous. And my parents read him some, which had me quietly dabbing at my eyes.

I’m not suggesting we strike Roald Dahl from our children’s reading lists (although you won’t be missing much if you strike Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator off it; even if you skip the racist bits, it’s just not very good). There’s a place for that misanthropic, kids-against-adults thing he has going on; I found such kicking against authority thrilling, when I was old enough to read James and the Giant Peach or Matilda myself. And as I say, I don’t think it’s going to warp your kids’ minds, in any detectable or significant way. But it’s just nicer, sometimes, to read books by people who like people. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re off to listen to Alan Bennett reading Winnie-the-Pooh.

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