Children’s books

Why does the Beano want to cancel itself?

Let’s hear it for the Beano, 85 years old this week. Lucky readers can get a commemorative issue featuring Charles and Camilla, Dua Lipa and Lewis Hamilton. It’s also a chance for those who haven’t read it for decades to register how much it has changed. Lately, the Bash Street Kids welcomed five classmates: Harsha, Mandi, Khadija, Mahira and Stevie Starr. There’s a hijab alongside the stripy shirts and school caps, plus a scientist in a wheelchair. Fatty, the boy who ate all the pies, and Spotty, who had pustules and a long tie, have been renamed Freddy and Scotty to ensure young people who have freckles, weight problems or

Don’t cancel Beatrix Potter

I spoke too soon. Beatrix Potter, I suggested in an afterword to my 2016 biography of the author and illustrator, had escaped the distortions of sexual and racial revisionism that now blight so many eminent and long-dead British writers. But no longer. Last week a specialist in postcolonial literature at a northern university accused Potter of failing to acknowledge her indebtedness to an oral storytelling tradition of enslaved Africans working on American plantations. Welcome, please, a new Potter for the 21st century: exploitative, colonialist, dishonest. Potter’s concealment, claims Dr Emily Zobel Marshall, ‘[feeds] into a damaging and recurring appropriation of Black cultural forms that continues today’. Blimey. Zobel Marshall’s hypothesis

I know how AI will bring us down

On the smooth marble concourse by the exit doors at Heathrow Airport I met my first cleaning robot. It was purple, made by a company called Mitie and about waist-height – the size and shape of a park bin. It ran on wheels, dragging a grubby mop behind it, and it was polite. As my small son and I stumbled into its path, it backed off smoothly like a well-trained butler. I apologised to it instinctively, after which it appeared to follow us. My son said: ‘Mum, it likes us!’ Then, when we reached the door: ‘Mum, can we take it home?’ Then: ‘Mum, wait! I don’t think it wants

Were old children’s history books racist?

If Brighton and Hove Council has its way, children as young as seven are to be taught about the ‘white privilege’ supposedly derived from 500 years of colonialism. But is it true that the history we have been learning from childhood has been infused with the great isms of our day – colonialism, imperialism and racism? I thought I would test this on a small scale by going back to the first history books I read. H.E. Marshall, who wrote Our Island Story, was also the author of the knockabout book Kings and Things. She knew all about trigger warnings: ‘The story of England,’ she proclaimed, ‘is thought to be

Children’s books for all ages: the best of 2021

She’s done it again: J.K. Rowling has written a captivating children’s book. The Christmas Pig (Little Brown, £20) is about a toy pig, Dur Pig (DP for short), a boy called Jack and what happens when DP gets chucked out of a car and is replaced with an unwelcome Christmas Pig. It’s also about how horrible divorce is for children, what happens to lost things and how the least prepossessing creatures can show courage and self-sacrifice. It’s also a rattling adventure story about Jack and the Christmas Pig’s progress across the Land of the Lost, pursued by a scary ogre called the Loser. It takes place on Christmas Eve, ‘a

Animal magic: children’s books for Christmas

J.K. Rowling has written a book for children — and you know what? It’s a charmer. The Ickabod (Hachette, £20) was created for her own children between the Harry Potter books (how does she do it?) and was stashed away until the arrival of Covid, when she found that children were stuck indoors without much to do. So she published it online initially and invited illustrations from her young readers. Now it’s a proper book, with some of those pictures. It’s not a bit like HP. It has some of the elements, including fabulous eatables, but it’s more of a fairy story. Think A.A. Milne’s Once Upon a Time crossed

The gentle genius of Mervyn Peake

To be a good illustrator, said Mervyn Peake, it is necessary to do two things. The first is to subordinate yourself entirely to the book. The second is ‘to slide into another man’s soul’. In 1933, at the age of 22, Peake did precisely that. Relinquishing his studies at the Royal Academy Schools to move to Sark, in the Channel Islands, he co-founded an artists’ colony and took to sketching fishermen and romantic, ripple-lapped coves. He put a gold hoop in his right ear, a red-lined cape over his shoulders, and grew his hair long, like Israel Hands or Long John Silver. The incredible thing was that he had yet

Children’s books provide the perfect escape from coronovirus

The lockdown we have been enduring has at times felt drawn from the pages of a children’s book. The eerie quiet of the deserted public square has had something of the earliest fairy tale about it, as if we were all slumbering in Sleeping Beauty’s castle. At the same time, the apocalyptic media landscape of death graphs will have been familiar to fans of the latest young adult dystopias. Either way, for the healthy at home the action is still happening elsewhere, so this might be a good time for confident younger readers to tackle those enduring classics which have seen more than one generation through a crisis. Kidnapped by