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
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The Independent Culture
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?"