Bye-bye Biggles, hello Hedgehog: Nicholas Tucker examines the staying power of children's fictional heroes

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The Independent Online
SEND for Biggles, Dan Dare or that ever-resourceful suburban hero Rupert the Bear; we have a grave national crisis. An NOP survey, commissioned by the Royal Mail to mark tomorrow's issue of its children's character greetings stamps, reveals that they and other popular icons of children's literature are now less well-known among under-15s than modern intruders from the world of computer games, such as the Mario brothers or Sonic the Hedgehog.

It's not all bad news for today's beleaguered book-lovers. Among 300 children and 1,000 adults, Peter Rabbit and Paddington Bear still score high, aided by the nursery merchandising now making so free with their images. But in the age of the screen, young people are often more impressed by characters they see rather than by those they read about.

Reading surveys also sometimes produce odd choices. The most popular children's author selected one year was Alfred Hitchcock, because of a best-selling collection of creepy stories in paperback, headed by his name but otherwise independent of his talents. In 1888 Dickens was chosen by children as their favourite author. This year it could well be the Duchess of York, after the forthcoming television adaptation of her slight but lucrative publication Budgie the Helicopter.

On the other hand, nursery rhymes are still alive and kicking, with more editions in print than ever before. Given that educationists now believe that early consciousness of rhyming helps significantly with early reading skills, the future of these marvellous little poems in home and classroom remains bright. So generations will at least remain linked by disparate characters such as Tom the Piper's Son or Georgie Porgie. Once their basic rhymes and rhythms have been passed on from adult to infant, nursery rhymes generally stick with us for the rest of our lives.

Traditional fairy-tales are also doing well, in spite of occasional attempts to make them more politically correct by rewriting their treatment of gender issues. Even without Walt Disney, Cinderella or Aladdin seem certain to survive in pantomime, or simply as the principal characters of a story told to children during a long walk or car journey. Tales such as these have always appealed to the popular imagination, long before they appeared in print. Few could ever forget characters like Little Red Riding Hood, once described by Dickens as his first love: 'I felt that if I could have married Little Red Riding Hood, I should have known perfect bliss.'

The real literary casualties signalled by the NOP poll are not great figures like Little Riding Hood or Alice in Wonderland, both still known by around 90 per cent of children. They are, instead, those characters popular with readers for some time, but who lack staying power over the generations. It seems almost inconceivable to someone of my age that Biggles or Orlando the Marmalade Cat are known to so few modern children. But the history of popular children's reading is littered with the corpses of the once famous: who now remembers Harry Wharton, Tom Merry or those other once-celebrated characters circulating around the ample figure of Billy Bunter?

Some adults never accept that their childhood literary heroes have become largely unknown. The most devoted fans fight back by forming exclusive appreciation societies worshipping at the shrine of children's writers from Charlotte M Yonge up to Enid Blyton or Elinor M Brent-Dyer, creator of the Chalet School adventures. Regular newsletters and meetings sustain the illusion that nothing has really changed, with enthusiasts happily swapping minute factual details about every achievement of their favourite author.

But the rest of us former readers are happy enough meeting someone of roughly our own generation every now and again in order to exchange a few swift reminiscences about Rockfist Rogan, Stoneage Kit the Ancient Brit or Wilson the Wonder before being called to order by others who neither know nor care.

Today's children may also, one day, enjoy raking over the adventures of Terminator or Street Fighter. But they will have to find someone very close to their own age with whom to do this, given the rapid replacement of one screen hero by another. Popular literary icons once united whole generations for decades at a time. Even Gladstone enjoyed Treasure Island (on hearing this, Robert Louis Stevenson tartly observed that 'He would do better to attend to the imperial affairs of England').

Today, turnover of one hero for another is much speedier. As a result, parents frequently know little about what their children are viewing or playing with. Children, too, are often ignorant of yesterday's fashions. Nostalgia could therefore one day prove an altogether less inclusive business, no longer bringing together different age groups. Each year- group could remain locked in their own particular childhood screen craze, with Ninja Turtle fans having little to say to followers of Mortal Kombat, and neither with any idea what or who a Womble might be.

So could books still end up having the last laugh in the future nostalgia stakes? Barely advertised and not dependent on a screen, they often linger on bookshelves, however unregarded, over the decades. But one day they may be taken out again by readers turned parents searching for a good bedtime book. Familiar stories retold can bring back powerful memories, unfolding at a gentler but more persistent pace than is usually so when viewing an old film.

But for such nostalgia to become possible, today's children must start reading now. The counter-attractions of Eco the Dolphin, Streets of Rage or whatever often leave precious little time for novels. Yet as well as the older books celebrated by the Royal Mail's new stamps out tomorrow, there are many excellent stories by modern children's writers. For imagination and excitement they often knock spots off video games. Sadly, too many chidlren never discover them until the time for childhood reading is gone for good.

The author is a lecturer in psychology at the University of Sussex

(Photograph omitted)

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