Issue 190 of SOCIALIST REVIEW Published October 1995 Copyright © Socialist Review
Books about children have always roused fierce passions. Take this from 'a lady' in 1802: 'The story is perhaps one of the most exceptionable books that was ever written for children. It paints some of the worst passions that can enter the human breast--envy, jealousy, vanity, a love of dress.' The story in question is Cinderella!
One Mrs Sherwood, creator of The Fairchild Family, makes the point rather more bluntly: 'All children are by nature evil.' Nor are these statements mere antediluvian relics. William Golding in Lord of the Flies portrayed his group of children as essentially evil. Once stranded on a South Sea island and released from the fetters of society, they start brutalising and killing their fellows. If this was simply a comment on one particular sort of children--public schoolboys--it might be uncontentious, but Golding is trying to make the universal point that all children are like this.
There is now a concerted ideological attack on any liberal and radical ideas of childhood. It is commonly believed that our anarchic, untrained and insufficiently moral modern children need to be told right from wrong, and must be subjected to a daily act of Christian worship.
Children are seen as merely apprentice adults who need to be stratified and selected for their places in the labour market by tests at 7, 11 and 14. Scare after scare takes place about the nature of children's books and the images they present. Dear Nobody by Berlie Doherty, which deals with teenage pregnancy, and Robert Swindells' Stone Cold, about youth homelessness, whipped up storms of controversy when they won the major children's book award, the Carnegie Medal. Why, critics asked, can't kids' books be more cheerful and just forget about issues? To cap it all, the Department of Education tried to draw up an authorised canon of children's literature with its National Curriculum reading lists.
It should hardly be surprising that the field of children's literature is controversial. It is about ideas and their transmission. Artists find themselves working within conditions not wholly of their own choosing. Moreover, they are continually under pressure to put forward established ruling class views.
Love of empire and contempt for the lesser breeds are to be found in Dr Doolittle, Mary Poppins and Babar, all of which see the experience of colonialism as essentially positive. The necessity of good breeding dominates Tarzan. It is his innate lordliness which enables him to overcome the social conditioning of being brought up by apes. The need for the chastisement of children is there in Roald Dahl's most famous book, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where a series of pretty obnoxious kids get their comeuppance one by one.
Why children's literature is expected to perform a moulding role is obvious. Child rearing has in some way to be geared to the needs of industrial capitalism. In the first half of the last century, when working class children were little more than tools to oil the new machines, it was considered that they didn't need books. Meanwhile their 'betters' read of empire and prepared for rule. A century later children were prepared for their differing roles in mature capitalism in secondary modern and grammar schools and a major function of children's literature was to teach the 'failures' to be satisfied with their lot. During the late 1960s and early 1970s there was to a certain extent a progressive revolution in education and children's books.
Driven by a movement of teachers, librarians and intellectuals, positive images of girls and black children emerged. About 20 years ago writers like Gene Kemp began to feature working class children not just as exotic accessories to the middle class hero or heroine, but right at the very centre of their books. It is precisely this challenge to 'traditional' children's books, however, which is currently under attack.
So what should be a socialist approach to children's literature? There is no better place to start than with the pathbreaking author Geoffrey Trease. His Bows Against the Barons, written in 1934, retells the Robin Hood legend as a peasant revolt against the feudal landlords, with chapter headings like 'Comrades of the Forest'. Written when Trease was a fellow traveller of the Communist Party, it is an inspirational read. It's conclusion has a power to rival Howard Fast's adult novel Spartacus. Trease was also completely lucid about his aims as a writer. In 1935 he wrote:
As poet and broadcaster Michael Rosen notes, it is a manifesto for the political novel for children. But, as Michael also points out, the speech was delivered shortly after the notorious Congress of Soviet Writers, at which the doctrine of Socialist Realism was laid down as dogma. It took place against the background of the Gulag in which millions perished, Within a few years Trease had broken with the Communist Party and was producing disappointingly tame books.
A generation later, in the 1970s, college lecturer Bob Dixon took a similar approach to Trease, shorn of the Stalinist trappings. His two books, collectively entitled Catching Them Young, were polemical, robust and original. They set about the perceived prejudices of traditional children's books with gusto. And what prejudices they were. Enid Blyton's racism is legendary and Dixon's riposte is a delight to read. His approach was, however, limited.
To dismiss the classic children's books of Kenneth Grahame, Edith Nesbit, Arthur Ransome and Frances Hodgson Burnett as somehow mere representatives of middle class culture, and no more, misses the point. Of course the authors came from a middle class milieu. But in books like Swallows and Amazons, The Secret Garden and The Railway Children there is also an affirmation of children's experience. The stories are at their best when the children escape the direction of adults and make their own decisions.
Whereas much previous children's literature was about morally and spiritually directing children, the books these authors wrote showed a real affection and respect for children. They were able to construct their own rules, to positively change things and not just be passive objects in an adult world.
There is a second objection to the often sterile approach adopted by Trease and Dixon. An author's formal politics don't necessarily define the art he or she produces.
Both Roald Dahl and the Reverend W Awdry, creator of Thomas the Tank Engine, have come out with some pretty reactionary stuff. Dahl originally depicted Willy Wonka's helpers, the Oompa Loompas, as pygmies 'who couldn't survive on their own', and this at a time when racist stereotypes were being extensively challenged. He chose to swim against a strengthening stream.
The Reverend Awdry could be even more blatantly political. In one of the train stories a rebel bus, Bulgy (Dixon says this means 'Bolshie'), is brought low for daring to challenge the dominance of the trains and calling for their revolutionary overthrow and ends his life humiliatingly as a hen house. The whole tale is a crude anti-red fable.
Both men are, however, quite complex and contradictory writers and are read in a subversive way by many children. Dahl is seen as siding with children against adults. What he has to say about teachers in the wonderful Danny, the Champion of the World would probably still make many NUT members squirm!
Awdry too is a complex character. He holds many right wing ideas, but he was also a conscientious objector during the Second World War. Nor are all his stories as simplistically reactionary as Bulgy. His engines lord it over the carriages, but that isn't what appeals to children. Thomas, Edward, Percy and the rest also argue with their superiors. They can be seen as children continually resisting the worst efforts of the paternalistic bureaucrat, the Fat Controller.
An approach to works of imagination which seeks to wipe the slate clean and create new art hermetically sealed from the old is arid. It ignores the genuine battles between the radical and the liberal on the one hand and the outright reactionary on the other.
The relaxation of the ideological straitjacket of the 1950s ushered in an intellectual climate which is anti-racist, anti-sexist and at the very least liberal.
Many authors do not merely write radical fiction. They are willing to take on wider commitment. So Robert Swindells delivered a wide ranging and lacerating condemnation of the Tory government in his Carnegie acceptance speech, far more politically incisive than any Booker speech for years.
Mary Hoffman, author of the brilliant Amazing Grace, in which a black girl refuses to accept that she can't play Peter Pan in the school play because he is white and male, is coordinating a campaign to save the Schools Library Service from cuts. Michael Rosen coordinated the campaign against the government's prescribed reading list. Robert Westall's Gulf was the best artistic response to the Gulf War. The book is a powerful antidote to attempts to demonise Arabs.
American writer Robert Cormier in Tunes for Bears to Dance To produced a wonderful anti-Nazi book. A young boy is effectively blackmailed by his neo-Nazi employer to destroy a Holocaust survivor's record of the past. The boy finds his own way to resist. Anthony Browne creates brilliant fables for children on numerous social issues. In Piggybook, for example, mum walks out and the men are reduced to rooting for scraps around the house. Berlie Doherty evocatively captures working class life in the past in Street Child and Granny Was a Buffer Girl and writes excitingly about contemporary life in other novels.
Children's literature has never been richer, more challenging, or more political. The agenda now is radical and strongly influenced by the ideas of the left, but it is also an agenda under attack. We should defend it.
Alan Gibbons is the author of numerous children's books. His latest, about the battle of Cable Street, called The Street of Tall People, is published by Orion this month at £9.99