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Read me a dirty story, Mummy

Rachel Johnson on why so many children’s books are about sex (or ‘shagging’) and hard-core social issues

24 July 2004

12:00 AM

24 July 2004

12:00 AM

Rachel Johnson on why so many children’s books are about sex (or ‘shagging’) and hard-core social issues

‘I sit on the toilet, pushing it all into my hand, and then I paint the walls brown. Brown to wash out the white of my anger. Brown to make them hate me. Oh, how they hate me. Back in my room, I tear off my pyjamas and rip them to shreds….’

Well, it’s not nice, this extract from a children’s book called Georgie by Malachy Doyle, I know. I’m sorry to share it with you. I do hope you’ve already eaten. But it’s in my ten-year-old daughter’s bedroom, along with the rest of her utterly representative contemporary ‘kid-fic’ or ‘child-lit’ library of Jacqueline Wilsons, Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen paperbacks, her Babysitters’ Club collection, her Princess Diaries series, all much-thumbed compared with the pristine editions of books that I loved at her age, which remain almost defiantly unread: Anne of Green Gables, Watership Down, The Secret Garden, The Warden’s Niece, Little Women, I Capture the Castle, How Green was My Valley (it still gives me a shiver of pleasure, just to write their titles), A Traveller in Time, The Dew Drop Inn, What Katy Did. I could go on. I think we all could.

I used to think that Jacqueline Wilson — who was given an OBE in 2002 for services to literacy in schools but is known as ‘the devil-woman’ in my house — was about as bad as it gets. I would, out of curiosity, dip into The Illustrated Mum (as the blurb goes, ‘a moving and sometimes comical story of how two girls cope with looking after their manic-depressive mother’). Or Dustbin Baby, about a girl who was dumped in one as soon as she was born. But as I now know, Jacqueline Wilson’s oeuvre is of almost prelapsarian innocence compared with some of the new stuff being published. ‘The point about Jacqueline Wilson,’ my daughter explained to me patiently, ‘is she always writes the same story, OK?’ Take Doing It by Melvin Burgess, about three boys learning about sex, and I quote from the blurb:

‘Dino really fancies fit, sexy Jackie but she just won’t give him what he wants.
Jonathan likes Deborah, but she’s a bit fat — what will his mates say?
Ben’s been secretly shagging his teacher for ages. He used to love it, but what if he wants to stop?’

OK, I realise that the above sounds like a pretty average day in the gracious Georgian offices of your steamy Spectator (if you’ve been reading your Mail, you’ll know what I mean), but the truth is this. These days, children’s books are a hell of a lot more explicit about sex, and expressive of hard-core social issues, than they were. And less funny, frankly.

I don’t know about you, but I thoroughly enjoyed my gigglesome years of reading Richmal Crompton, Anthony Buckeridge, Enid Blyton, my Hardy Boys and my Nancy Drew. There was a smidgen of anti-Semitism, racism and rampant snobbery in Enid Blyton, and all the books evoked the white upper-middle classes’ neglect of their children, but apart from that they were pretty wholesome fare. And some passages of Just William can make me laugh aloud. My childhood (pause for reverie) was illuminated by these books and their authors.


I cannot say the same for the current crop. It is a well-documented fact that even in stable, loving, smacking households, children live in terror of their parents divorcing or becoming alcoholics or shacking up with a same-sex partner, simply because that is all that seems to happen in many of the books they read. ‘So when are you and Daddy getting divorced?’ is a question that mothers whose daughters are hooked on Jacqueline Wilson have become accustomed to hearing.

But why are some children’s books (pace Potter) so grim? (And I do mean grim rather than dark.) Philip Pullman and Lemony Snicket are dark in the way that C.S. Lewis or Roald Dahl are dark, in an inventive, fantastical, even anarchical way that takes root and sprouts in the child’s imagination. Whereas Doing It and the forthcoming Julie Burchill book, Sugar Rush, which I am told is a joyful exploration of the sunlit teenage world of drugs and lezzies, sound unquestionably grim and narrowly grotty.

But according to Professor Nicholas Tucker, author of the Rough Guide to Children’s Literature, books have to be grim to explain difficult issues to children that parents shirk from discussing, especially with their pre-teens or tweenagers, and to compete with the grabby, pixillated storylines and images available onscreen.

‘Look at adoption,’ he says. ‘It’s better to have two books about it in the house than having a chat about it once a year at Christmas. Books provide some of this function and they probably do a lot of good. The only time to get scared is when fiction exists only as a way to teach social messages, but at the moment there are masses and masses of books that don’t deal with social issues at all. And with TV it’s too late to put the genie back into the bottle now. Books have got to be in some ways ahead of TV in terms of sophistication as a way of surviving.’

Which brings us neatly to the part of the national curriculum that children most dread — the non-statutory PSHE (personal and social health education) classes. As a result of its introduction to the curriculum, school libraries are packed with books about drugs and divorce, gay parenting and anorexia. Now, we have nothing against a little bit of reality, and children have always enjoyed a spot of death and disaster in their reading matter, that’s not new; but surely this all adds to the overwhelming sense of Too Much Information, much too young.

‘When you are seven years old, you should feel safe. When you’re nine years old, you should feel safe, and 10 and 11 and 12. Maybe by the time you’re 16 it’s time to start facing the realities of the world, but I don’t think there’s any point in teaching a seven-year-old that life sucks and then you die,’ said Michael Hoeye, the Oregon-based author of Time Stops for No Mouse, in a recent interview. ‘How are they supposed to muster the skills to cope with that?’

Like Hoeye, I simply don’t buy the argument that children’s books are no more hard-core than they ever were, it’s just that adults have suddenly cottoned on to it. Don’t tell me that Peter Pan (published 1904) is as depressing as most new titles because the evergreen hero announces that ‘death will be an awfully big adventure’, and that he ‘forgets’ pirates after he’s killed them. Or that Charlotte’s Web, the best-selling children’s book ever, is as traumatic as an explicit Judy Blume novel (still banned in some US districts) because it’s a story about a motherly spider who saves a dumb pig from the slaughterhouse and dies alone on a rafter in a State Fair pigpen. There is a world of difference between these books, written by adults for children, and the crossover titles of books written by adults for both children and adults and for the new hot market of ‘kidults’.

I don’t believe that adults are suddenly waking up to the sophistication of children’s titles; I believe that authors and publishers are waking up to the commercial potential of having books being bought by lots more people of all age groups, which explains why the Carnegie Medal shortlist was dominated by books like The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (boy with Asperger’s) and The Fire-Eaters (which doesn’t sound like my children’s idea of a bedtime story, going by the coverline — ‘A story of a northeastern childhood during the Cuban Missile Crisis’). With so many adult tourists in the candy-coloured world of kid-lit, is it any won
der that books for children have become so angled towards the adult reader?

‘Some people say that children don’t live in a cosy world and don’t want to see it portrayed,’ says Amanda Craig, the novelist and children’s books editor of the Times. ‘But children need fantasy, and there is a danger that these hard-core-type books are becoming the norm and that as a result today’s children are losing the childhood we had.’

It’s well known that Philip Pullman, like Tolkien, did not intend his books to be children’s books, but they have been successfully marketed as such. And the growing crossover phenomenon means that children’s books have earned a much bigger place on the books pages than before, so authors are writing them not with an eye to their exclusive audience of children, librarians and teachers but to the hardened reviewers and to adults. So they put in all this stuff about sex, death, child abuse, substance abuse, family breakdown, global warming and the Gulf war as a crowd-pleaser.

In my day, when the threats to mankind were the Russians and the Bomb, we had properly escapist literature (as well as a smattering of anti-Nazi titles). The closest I got to reading a dark text — apart from Anne Frank’s Diary — was Six Bad Boys by Enid Blyton. Now there is no escape from eschatological fiction, even in Key Stage One.

It’s too late to stop now, as Van Morrison would say. Time really does stop for no mouse. I just find it such a crying shame that my children are not reading the classic children’s books that I did. They’re like whores. You can lead them to literature, but you can’t make them think they might like to read it, although Amanda Craig has had some success with her own daughter. ‘When she became terribly addicted to pink books [i.e. tweenage books with high sexual content] we had to have a bargain whereby she would alternate pink books with the Bront


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