Tuesday, March 13, 2007


The Secret of Children’s Books…

…Is to write stories that children want to read. That’s something lost on a lot of writers of ‘improving’ works, but I remember the secret from when I was a boy, and was reminded of it listening to this morning’s Today Programme. Though I’ve not been able to find details on the BBC or other media sites today, shortly before nine am there was a piece on some books employed as part of a campaign against homophobic bullying. Several mums were interviewed, as was someone involved with the campaign, but I’d have asked kids what they thought of the stories. If they think they’re dreary and boring, for example, I’d scrap the books and go back to the drawing board – because isn’t what the children who read them think the whole point?

Losing the Will to Live With Eric and Martin

Now, I’m not critical of the books that were mentioned this morning: I’ve not read them, and not only do I try not to make an idiot of myself by criticising stories I’ve not read and TV I’ve not seen, but the brief descriptions of them actually sounded fairly appealing. That’s something I’d have been more interested in questioning than their ‘notoriety’, and a key reason why lies in another hoary old canard that the Today segment raised, that of ’80s cause celebré Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin. I didn’t read it in school as a boy. For a start, it came out half a dozen years after I was at the ‘picture book’ stage; but also, despite it being such a favourite of screeching tabloid bigots and vile attacks on kids and their parents in Conservative Conference speeches that it was cited as a primary reason behind the drafting of state-sponsored bigotry ‘Section 28’, there’s no evidence it was ever seen in an actual school library for any kids to pick up and read. I did, however, read a copy after my own coming out, probably sometime about 1990. Because this is a book I’ve read, I can be critical: my reaction was ‘This is dreadful, and it shouldn’t be given to children.’ And yes, I felt like a traitor to the cause, but I didn’t dislike it because it had a girl with two daddies. I disliked it because it looked nasty and bored me to death.

Long-term readers may remember that I learnt to read on Doctor Who books that were ‘too advanced’ for my age, having been completely uninspired by dreary picture books about walking to school in the rain. If any child was ever given Jenny Lives With Eric and Martin, I’d worry that they’d look at the tedious lack of story (simply an exercise in describing life with two dads) and stark, ugly black and white photos in that peculiar style common to so much ’80s left-wing pamphletry and think how drearily unattractive gay life must be. I’m sure it was very well-meaning, and it touched on some very important issues – but I just can’t imagine any kid getting pleasure from reading it, and without that, there’s really no point in writing an ‘instructive’ story. A well-meaning, earnest book that wags its finger at children to tell them about something so tediously mundane-but-very-slightly-different… Well, kids can get ‘boring and ordinary’ themselves at home with two small aubergines (as opposed to the mixed-vegetable relationship of an aubergine and a courgette. Hmm, I think this metaphor has become a little overcooked).

I don’t know what the new books look like, but thankfully they sound more promising: one was called something like Spacegirl Gets Sick, about a girl astronaut who falls ill and is restored to health and the stars by her two mums; one was about two male penguins falling in love and adopting an egg; and the other to get a mention was, I think, King and King, about two princes falling in love. What do they all have in common? Stories. Some reason for a child to get hooked into them. This is crucial, rather than just resorting to ‘It’s good for you,’ like spinach; even spinach has Popeye to make it easier to swallow. So, going out on a limb and assuming the writing style’s engaging and the design isn’t ugly, ‘a girl who’s an astronaut,’ ‘cuddly anthropomorphic animals’ and ‘fairy-tale princes’ all have something going for them that might get children interested and make the message digestible (sorry, it’s back to the vegetable metaphors, isn’t it?).

This is far from a new trick. Many fairy stories have ‘a moral’; many religious teachings are in the form of parables; even He-Man cartoons used to end with a ludicrous homily after all the violence. Closer to my heart, Doctor Who, too, started off being sold to the BBC as educationally useful. Though they soon dropped that and made scaring children the prime aim (and long may it continue), I can still remember being much more excited at school by periods of history ‘done’ by Doctor Who than most of the teaching, even if only one very early story goes all-out with the shtick of ‘today, children, we’re going to learn about boiling points and atmospheric pressure, then about how hot air expands in a different context, and we’ll also learn the exciting historical background of hashish’. No, really, they did.

I’ve Got Nothing Against Them, But I Wouldn’t Want My Daughter to Marry One

On the bright side, Today’s interviews were less loaded than many they’ve done, and most sides of the argument got a fair grilling. If I remember correctly, there was a straight mum who thought the books were bad – and to be fair, she’d read them and had come to slightly different views about each – then two straight mums who thought they were fine, followed by a lesbian mum who saw them as a breath of fresh air and finally a more combative studio interview with someone involved in distributing the books as part of combating homophobic bullying. The last made the good point that this bullying can be directed against many kids and not just the gay ones, including those who have gay parents or those who are just assumed to be gay and abused as such even if they aren’t (bookish boys, say, or tomboyish girls), and how it really can’t be good for any kids to feel they can’t talk about their families without being persecuted for it. That’s just evil.

The question I’m a little surprised that didn’t come up, though, was any link to other campaigns or carefully designed propaganda against bullying. There was never a mention of anything gay from teachers when I was at school, but I can remember books we were given to read featuring friendships between, say, a white boy and an Asian boy. Perhaps arguing against my own point here, I can’t remember the story, but I remember the didactic message, and took it in. Yet every time the issue of homophobia comes up, an interviewer reacts as if this is some strange and alien idea and ‘ordinary people’ (ie the Daily Mail) are right to treat mentioning that someone has two dads as if it’s exactly the same as showing primary school children videos of full-on bumsex. Well, that’s rubbish, and I’m sorry, but the straight mum who explicitly said she had nothing against those sort of people, but it was wrong for her daughter to see the books because they might give her ideas (yeah, because gayery is so addictive that one hint of it and you’re gone, like crack; goodness, woman, how horrendous must your own heterosexual home life be if you assume your child will run from it on merely being told some people or even penguins live a little differently?) needed a more searching response from her interviewer than a sympathetic nod. Because I’ll lay any money you like that when the sort of books in my school library as a boy came out, there were plenty of parents who didn’t like them at all, and didn’t want their kids being told it was all right to mix with ‘that sort’. And I’m sure they just saw themselves as concerned parents, and saw nothing wrong with saying, ‘I’ve got nothing against them, but I wouldn’t want my daughter to marry one’.

It’s a very simple parallel, between people who hate anything mixed-race and anything same-sex. And if it doesn’t occur to interviewers, they’re not doing their jobs properly. If I were an impartial journalist, my response would have been to ask if this mum was equally against any story with an anti-racist message, and if not, what was the difference in schools having a mix of stories so that not every single one gives the impression that every family is a nuclear family? But I’m not an impartial journalist, so my response is pithier: ‘Fuck off, bigot’.

I’m strongly in favour of cracking down on any sort of bullying, and homophobic bullying is unusual in that it’s something a lot of schools don’t tackle – not least because it’s not something governments have ever cared about, except when the Conservatives made it statutory policy to bully gay kids and kids with gay people in their families. I can remember suffering homophobic bullying, too, when I was younger and (hard to believe, I know) less gobby about putting the world to rights. So whoever’s putting together this campaign, I wish them well. I hope it succeeds. And for the sake of the children, these books had better be worth reading.

15 March Update: A piece on The Guardian’s Comment Is Free yesterday deals with the same campaign, though it rather credulously assumes the campaign’s entirely won: tell that to the kids in schoolrooms that this is reaching out to, rather than just observing the statistically improbable sample of ‘Guardian writers’, hey? Anyway, I feel better about not having found anything online, as she obviously didn’t either, though I suspect she had a faster Internet connection than my steam-driven dial-up and had listened again to Today on, er, Listen Again before that morning’s disappeared from the Radio 4 site. So, to her credit, she was able to name the ‘official’ interviewee (Elizabeth Atkinson, from the organisation No Outsiders), and correctly name the book Spacegirl Pukes, which to my embarrassment my memory bowdlerised. Just in case you wanted to know…

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