There was a spat the other week about a children’s book, Equal to Everything: Judge Brenda and the Supreme Court, which is about an encounter between a little girl called Ama and the nation’s pin-up, Brenda Hale. The book’s author is the Guardian columnist Afua Hirsch. It’s written in vague rhyming couplets with the worst illustrations I’ve ever seen in a book for children.
In a newspaper report about the book, Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, was quoted saying ‘This looks like deliberate propaganda to bend the minds of children’, while MP Andrew Rosindell said that ‘she is being painted into some kind of hero in this book aimed at children’.
Ye-es, Mr R. That’s the idea. That’s what an awful lot of children’s literature is about now: generating role models for woke children. For anyone who reviews, publishes, sells, buys or reads children’s books, the move to children’s lit as consciousness-forming propaganda has been evident in Britain since at least 2017, when Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls took off. This was a collection of inspirational mini biographies with pictures, about Malala, Maya Angelou et al. At the time it struck me as identical to the saint stories I read as a child, modern hagiography, only with Frieda Kahlo and Michelle Obama instead of Joan of Arc and St Agnes. The impulse is precisely the same: forming young minds.
The next Rebel Girls spin-off is immigrant women who changed the world. There now exists an entire family of spin-offs, from Stories for Boys Who Dare to be Different to Kate Pankhurst’s Fantastically Great Women. They lifted sales of non-fiction books for children by 30 per cent last year.
You can see it in every bookshop: a woke children’s lit section. At the front display of the bookshop at the National Theatre, there’s My Heroes and Me (fronted by Malala); What Would Boudicca Do? (burn Colchester? An interesting take on the self-help guide); Little People, Big Dreams: Girl Activist (Winning Strategies from Women who Made a Difference); Feminism, a Graphic Guide. Look up feminist children’s books on Amazon, and you’ll find a bewildering range of titles: Little Feminist Board Books; Girls Resist! A Guide to Activism; and — this one I really hate — The Little Girl Who Gave Zero Fucks.
Feminist rewriting of fairy stories has been the other big thing. Usborne’s Forgotten Fairy Tales of Brave and Brilliant Girls begins with ‘The Daring Princess’, who rescues a prince whom a witch has trapped in a stove: our heroine takes a knife from her tool belt and gets him out. Eight Princesses and a Magic Mirror (Zephyr) is about a magic mirror that travels through time and place and ‘reflects princesses who refuse to be pretty, polite or obedient’. Power to the Princess from Quarto is: ‘Fifteen Favourite Fairytales retold with Girl Power’. So Beauty tells the Beast: ‘Don’t you threaten me!’
But now environmentalism is where it’s at. For the young XR reader — or rather, their gatekeepers as they’re known in the trade, viz. parents or school librarians — the front of house displays in Waterstones bring together titles like Little Book for Big Changes: Activities and tips to make the world a better place; Be Green and Kids Fight Plastic. There’s the hagiography there too — Earth Heroes: 20 Inspiring Stories of People Saving Our World. Fronting the genre inevitably is young Greta Thunberg: as in, We Are All Greta; and Greta’s Story — The Schoolgirl Who Went on Strike to Save the Planet, with a cover illustration that makes her look a bit like Little My from the Moomintrolls.
There’s more to come; the International Publishers Association is joining forces with the UN to publish more books to promote its Sustainable Development Goals. Can you wait?
Ethnic representation is a big thing too: the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education has undertaken a survey of the depiction of non-white characters in children’s fiction which it’ll publish every year and is urging publishers to make this a priority. These things can feel natural — Chris Riddell, a brilliant illustrator, has three protagonists in his new book; two of them are non-white and they’re all beautifully drawn. At other times, it really does feel like authors tick boxes as they go: strong female lead, tick, ethnic minority interest, tick.
This move from boys to girls isn’t, I think, unrelated to the trend away from pure adventure stories of the Rider Haggard sort — which is why books like Katherine Rundell’s lost-in-the-jungle yarn The Explorer are such a relief. Julia Eccleshare, the Guardian’s former children’s book editor, writing in the Bookseller last year about book award submissions, observed: ‘It was striking just how many were stories with domestic settings where the drama depended on the internal conflicts … family breakdown, deaths, mental health problems from depression and addiction to borderline personality disorders.’ As a result, she finds, ‘outdoor adventures … have been dwindling as a fictional form, except where the outdoors is either fantastical or historical, but this year it seemed almost to have disappeared.’
US publishers, meanwhile, have signed up for the We Need Diversity campaign, which very much includes disability and sexuality. British publishers are following their direction of travel. The young adult genre for older teenagers is dominated by identity issues, except now, the trans/bi/lesbian identities are part of the story. Publishers Weekly notes that ‘there’s a bumper crop of novels where nobody comes out — rather, the sexuality of the characters is treated like a given’. It mentions Shatter the Sky from Simon and Schuster, by Rebecca Kim Wells, whose heroine sets out to rescue her kidnapped girlfriend by stealing a dragon. The zombies in Out of Salem, a murder mystery, are ‘genderqueer’. Popular series such as Rick Riordan’s subversive takes on the Greek and Norse myths feature gay and trans characters (one of the latter is, for good measure, Muslim).
Then there’s the other new big issue in children’s books: mental health. That took off last year with Matthew Syed’s You Are Awesome, which is meant to teach children self-worth. Mental health is now an entire section, with titles like: Be Kind and The Teenage Guide to Stress; It’s Not OK to Feel Blue.
If you think this is getting us quite a long way from actually readable children’s books, fiction and non-fiction, I’m right with you. Because what we’re talking about is that killer of reading pleasure, books as propaganda. C.S. Lewis warned that you must never make children’s stories a vehicle for a moral message. Philip Pullman is very much an author with an agenda — anti-Christian, anti-clerical — but he’s an excellent storyteller; his world view is embedded in a cracking narrative.
I met Michelle Paver the other day, the author of the ace Wolf Brother series, set in prehistoric times, who says that one of her cardinal rules of writing for children is that you mustn’t preach. That series happens to have a female character who is very handy with her bow, but she came with the story, as these things have always done. There is a no more feisty female character in children’s literature than Maria with her pistols in The Box of Delights (perhaps the most perfect children’s book), but John Masefield wasn’t ticking boxes; there weren’t any to tick in 1935.
Which isn’t at all to say that books must be amoral or value-free; quite the contrary. You carry into your writing your moral sensibility. C.S. Lewis was a Christian and a medievalist and that’s the world his characters inhabit, just as all the stories in the Arabian Nights are set in an Islamic world. E. Nesbit was a socialist (who later became a Catholic), but although her children are subconscious Fabians they don’t parrot the pamphlets.
Actually, I rather enjoyed the propaganda I grew up with: saints’ stories, which combined sensationalism and good morals. Joan Wyndham’s can still be read with pleasure now. Which is more than you’ll be able to say for Judge Brenda and the Supreme Court in a couple of generations’ time.