Open a book, and close a tiny mind: Joanna Reid examines political correctness in children's writing

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Equal opportunities for children are enshrined in the 1989 Children Act and taken seriously by those who educate and look after youngsters. These ideals are designed to encourage a more integrated society, and it is surprising to find that authors of children's books do not always embrace them wholeheartedly.

Writing fiction for children is different from child care; the aims of fiction are different, and the relationship between author and child is less direct. Books, nevertheless, can have a direct impact on a child.

At a recent public discussion on censorship in children's books, organised by PEN, which opposes censorship in all countries, Janet Boateng, a social worker, told the following story. She had been cooking in the kitchen and could hear three of her children reading a funny historical poem to each other, one verse each, about Cook's discovery of Australia. Suddenly there was silence. They had read this verse:

The Aborigines it appears

Have been here 40,000 years.

'Don't count them,' Cook answered back,

'They're naked and besides they're black.'

The children were shocked and outraged by these words, Mrs Boateng said, and the intended joke was lost on them. Later in the discussion, Gina Pollinger, a literary agent, argued that Roald Dahl's reference to 'greasy Greeks' in The BFG was not insulting to Greeks, whereas an Asian bookseller in the audience said that it was not acceptable or funny and could cause offence.

It is impossible in a racially mixed society for anyone to have a complete grasp of the culture and psychology of all its members. So there is a real need for vigilance and sensitivity, in books as in other areas.

The problem is that vigilance can easily turn into sweeping political correctness, applied without thought for a particular piece of writing, or even for those it was supposed to protect.

Jean Ure, a children's writer, said that an editor had objected to a reference to her sparky black heroine 'capering about the room like a monkey'. If her heroine had been white, Ms Ure felt, she would not have been asked to alter her description.

Would Mrs Boateng's children have been stopped in their tracks by such a description? I doubt it. Would they really object to 'Things were looking black', as one editor did? What is the muddled thinking behind changing 'Dad, can I have a cuddle?' to 'Dad, can we go for a walk?', or deleting 'grassy lawns' on the grounds that many children do not have gardens?

One author showed me a set of 'equal opportunities guidelines' sent out by a reputable publisher to writers on a children's educational series. Some of its suggestions are entirely reasonable, for example, 'avoid using the words 'cripple' or 'handicapped' for people with specific disabilities'. Others, such as 'avoid using 'man- made' and write instead 'artificial' or 'synthetic' ', are ludicrous.

The guidelines also state that 'over half the population is female . . . We will need to count the relative numbers of male and female characters' with a view to achieving 'a balance overall'. Counting male and female characters, like sticking token black faces into illustrations, is much less valuable than publishing books in which, for example, a black author writes honestly from his or her own experience.

Literature is about broadening the mind and stimulating the imagination. As Mrs Boateng says: 'It is a myth to believe that children in the inner city don't want to wallow in Swallows and Amazons, or that those without gardens wouldn't want to read about them.' Literature does not exist merely to provide positive role models and heroines for particular groups, but also to enable everyone to step out of the confines of their small place in the world, and widen their possibilities.

We have to recognise, though, that most children's authors are white, which means they must be especially sensitive to the different groups in their audience. Publishers must encourage new talent from a wide range of backgrounds.

Most children's authors write for children because they like children, they want to give them pleasure and are wary of hurting them. However, they cannot and should not write to order, on issues such as feminism, or ecology, or disability.

Good writing comes from within and is true to the author's own sense of integrity, which is why leaving writer's to their own self-censorship is probably a better and truer safeguard than any imposed by other people.