Children are obscene but not heard

Farts are stifled, knickerless Nicola wears jeans, and cars drive in middle of the road. The author Carolyn Hart introduces the squeaky- clean world of children's publishing

Before Roald Dahl's flatulent Big Friendly Giant and Humphrey Carpenter's apologetic wizard Mr Majeika claimed my daughter's full attention, there were a couple of illustrated children's books of which she was especially fond. One featured a violent rabbit named Foo Foo who roared through the forest on a souped-up tricycle, bopping tigers, goblins and wriggly worms on the head with a wooden mallet. Foo Foo's reign of terror came to an end when the Good Fairy caught up with him and turned him into a goonie - a trembling, green shade of his former self, sans mallet. The other book told the story of a wayward child called Nicola who refused to wear her pants. Nicola's knickerless state - draughty, sticky and endangered by splinters - ended happily when her mother bought her three pairs of patterned knickers, but not before the reader had been fully briefed, as it were, on the territory of Nicola's unfettered bottom.

These books appeared a few years ago, before British children's publishers got the hang of political correctness. Now it is hard to imagine Nicola or Little Rabbit Foo Foo getting beyond passport control at the PC frontier. The combined strength of the American market, and of the library service that accounts for 90 per cent of children's book sales in the United Kingdom, has decreed that pictures of bottoms are just not on: and that delinquent rabbits like Foo Foo - a prototypical, dungareed Hell's Angel - display an unacceptable level of racial prejudice and unprovoked violence which sits uneasily beside more modishly correct stories of good, well-integrated children, evenly divided among the sexes, properly clad and devoted to self-betterment.

To be a children's author or illustrator today is to be hedged around with requirements. Whatever the story you wish to bring to your tiny readers, and however good it may be, you will soon be assailed by formulaic demands undreamt of even by Mills & Boon with its infamous tip-sheets. You must be constantly alert to racial and sexual prejudice (an illustrator friend was once ticked off by her publisher for picturing a black girl wearing her hair in plaits. But, my friend protested, I know lots of black girls with plaits. Quite so, came the reply - it's a stereotype). Your characters must inhabit a blandly universal landscape that would not seem dismayingly alien to a reader in Kansas or Kuala Lumpur. They must not be seen to be more than averagely well-off (another female author had her wrist slapped for writing about a party of girls going off to have riding lessons - too "litist"). They must be clothed in a quasi-uniform of trainers, jeans and patterned jumpers. Their domestic accoutrements must be standardised. ("Children don't have larders now," I was told by a right-on editor, "they have fridges.") Characters cannot be pictured roaming alone about the countryside (unless they are small animals). Children should never be naked. And buried somewhere within your text there should be A Message.

The Message should not, broadly speaking, be "Kill the bastards", or you may suffer the recent fate of Abigail at the Beach by Felix Pirani. The book was displayed on the shelves of Sainsbury's but was removed by the supermarket chain in January after objections from readers: Mr Pirani's heroine threatens to mow down some intrusive boys with a machine- gun if they keep kicking her sand-castle. The stifling of this nursery- level Natural Born Killers is perhaps the most egregious modern example of a powerful commercial organisation caving in before the Taste Police.

A lot of the taste initiatives come, like political correctness itself, from America. "If you want to get your books sold in the United States," says Liz Attenborough, publisher of children's books at Penguin, "you don't have your characters taking their clothes off. And you never, never mention lavatories - Americans throw up their hands in horror if you talk about lavatories.

"There are lots of things we have to be wary of. We can no longer include pictures of double-decker buses, for instance, or policemen wearing helmets and milk bottles on doorsteps. Of course, you can put these things in - we would never tell an author not to, only advise her - but you'd probably lose the order. And the present economic situation makes that difficult. It's necessary to keep an eye on foreign markets to survive. The illustrated children's book market is just not sustainable in this country alone."

Paying lip-service to the sensibilities of American publishing's moral guardians, who might faint at the sight of a milk bottle or a loo brush, is bad enough. But there are dismaying signs that the grim hand of the EC has also clamped around nursery reading. Korky Paul, the illustrator who has given the world such gems as Captain Teachum, the monstrously wicked pirate with the soft heart and nagging wife, and Professor Puffendorf, the lady scientist with the dastardly assistant, is infuriated by what he sees as the standardisation of children's literature in Europe. "When I draw a street scene, I put in the names of the shops - bakery, butcher's - but then you get this nonsense about having to put them on an overlay, so that the French or whoever can change it to patisserie, boulangerie and so forth. It's very irritating - we should be rejoicing in the differences between countries, not racing to hide them.

"I did a book about a cat once, in which the cat knocked over a pile of books. Naturally I put all my own titles in the pile in English, but they made me take them out so that foreign editions could have their own book titles. It was ridiculous; it was an English cat in an English house - there wouldn't have been any French books there." Worse was to come. Once he illustrated an educational book for a British publisher, who was going to sell it to America. " `You can't put cars on the left in America,' they said. `Put them on the right.' I said, `Don't be ridiculous, this is an English town I'm drawing, cars don't go on the right in England.' After a while, they came back and said `All right then, put them going down the middle of the road...' "

There's an inspired lunacy about all this that seems terribly modern - redolent of left-wing local councils in the Seventies and the wilder shores of doctrinaire feminism in the Eighties - but in fact it's hardly new. People have been suspicious of children's literature for centuries. In the late 18th century, Sarah Trimmer, author of the sentimental History of the Robins, worried that children's books had "multiplied to an astonishing and alarming degree and much mischief lies hid in them". Her unsmiling contemporary Hannah More launched in 1790 a series of Cheap Repository Tracts - stories of noble virtue rewarded - to counter the shocking proliferation of children's books that displayed no interest in humility and good works. Despite the campaigning zeal of Trimmer and More, it is not their Tracts and Robins that are read and re-read in the 20th century, but just the kinds of book she was fighting to suppress: stories such as Gulliver's Travels (what chance would the Yahoos have had in the 1990s?), Tom Thumb, The Babes in the Wood, The Prodigal Daughter - and later, Belloc's Cautionary Tales, Strewelpeter, Just William, The Borrowers, Saki...

The standardisation of children's books allows no room for genius or eccentricity, offers no showcase for foreign traits and characteristics, stimulates no interest in differences, encourages no enjoyment of the strange, delivers no frisson of fear. It is not just a deeply boring tendency, but a wholly inappropriate one: the example of Roald Dahl should be sufficient indication that children are most passionately drawn to tales of disobedience, amorality, challenge and fright.

Books should be about interest and discovery. They should provoke discussion, not stifle it. Above all, they should be fun, not objects aimed solely at scoring points in the game of political correctness. "It seems a terrible shame to me," says Liz Attenborough, "that it should be considered necessary for all children's books to do children good all the time. Adults read for pleasure, after all. Why shouldn't children?"

Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Hope Fletcher
booksFirst video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Arts and Entertainment
Damien Hirst
artCoalition's anti-culture policy and cuts in local authority spending to blame, says academic
Arts and Entertainment
A comedy show alumni who has gone on to be a big star, Jon Stewart
tvRival television sketch shows vie for influential alumni
Arts and Entertainment
Jason goes on a special mission for the queen
tvReview: Everyone loves a CGI Cyclops and the BBC's Saturday night charmer is getting epic
Arts and Entertainment
Image has been released by the BBC
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

    Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

    Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
    Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

    The last Christians in Iraq

    After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
    Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

    Britain braced for Black Friday
    Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

    From America's dad to date-rape drugs

    Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

    As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

    Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

    The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
    Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

    Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
    Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

    Flogging vlogging

    First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

    Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

    US channels wage comedy star wars
    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

    When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

    When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible
    Look what's mushrooming now! Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector

    Look what's mushrooming now!

    Meat-free recipes and food scandals help one growing sector
    Neil Findlay is more a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    More a pink shrimp than a red firebrand

    The vilification of the potential Scottish Labour leader Neil Findlay shows how one-note politics is today, says DJ Taylor
    Bill Granger recipes: Tenderstem broccoli omelette; Fried eggs with Mexican-style tomato and chilli sauce; Pan-fried cavolo nero with soft-boiled egg

    Oeuf quake

    Bill Granger's cracking egg recipes
    Terry Venables: Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back

    Terry Venables column

    Wayne Rooney is roaring again and the world knows that England are back
    Michael Calvin: Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Abject leadership is allowing football’s age-old sores to fester

    Those at the top are allowing the same issues to go unchallenged, says Michael Calvin