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Tag: Roald Dahl

Sluts and Revolting Rhymes

The 1980s cover

The 1980s cover

I have clear memories of this book.

  • First, I remember my father buying it for me in Paper Plus. I was in attendance. He thought I wouldn’t notice, then snuck it into my santa sack.
  • Second, it was very unusual for my father to buy any books at all.
  • Third, this was a whole-family read and I remember reciting it theatrically with my parents laughing and laughing. For some reason I’m under the dining-room table as I’m doing this and it’s a fine summer’s day.

 

I hadn’t opened the book since about 1986, even though I still own my original copy and even though I have carried it from house to house throughout my nomadic years.

It’s funny how things age, isn’t it? This week Aldi seems to have scored a swag of Roald Dahl books and is selling them slightly cheaper than you’d expect as a Special Buy. Someone who has better memories of Revolting Rhymes than I do — or perhaps someone who has picked this book up for the first time ever — subsequently commented on Aldi’s Facebook page that this book contains the word ‘slut’. And now the book has been pulled from Aldi’s shelves. Next follows journalistic descriptions of consumer ‘outrage’, because this is children’s literature we’re talking about here, and this is how things go.

This debacle reminds me of the companion volume to Revolting Rhymes, Dirty Beasts, which I took to school one day for my (very conservative, vest-wearing, monk-living Christian teacher) to read after lunch. If I’m honest, my 9-year-old self had been looking forward to Mr Bayley saying the phrase, ‘And dropped a cow pat on his head!’ as the conclusion to The Cow. Instead, my teacher slammed the book shut and returned it to me with a grim and disappointed expression on his face. I’d been expecting the entire class to laugh at the final line, to pat me on the back and tell me what a wonderful book I’d chosen. I’d been expecting Mr Bayley to read many more poems from Dirty Beasts during our after lunch calming session, but instead he launched us straight into arithmetic, and I remember the disgusted look on Paul Hamlyn’s face as he said, ‘Why did you choose such a short one?’

I wasn’t allowed to pick the after lunch reading material again that year, and it wasn’t just a teacher-enforced thing.

I wonder what Mr Bayley would have done if I’d instead brought my copy of Revolting Rhymes and asked him to read the story with the ‘slut’? The sorts of people who are accusing the world of going PC mad!! are keen to point out that the original meaning of ‘slut’ is of an unkempt, untidy, slovenly woman, and that Roald Dahl did not intend the other more modern meaning which refers to a woman who has too much sex, according to some culturally defined standard. Being old-fashioned if not old, it’s likely my Mr Bayley would have been quite happy to read that one, being ignorant (perhaps) of its other meaning. I’ll never know.

Others chuckle and point out that any Scandinavian translation of a children’s book will end with the word ‘Slut’, since in Danish and Norwegian ‘Slut’ means simply ‘The End’. Our story app Midnight Feast has been translated into Danish, and until I received the translation I hadn’t realised this. I’ll admit enjoying a cheap chuckle. As an argument for the wanton usage of ‘slut’ in children’s literature, though, this oddity of language doesn’t stand up, since when Danish people read Midnight Feast, they read ‘The End’. They’re not encouraged to think of women in a sexual and disparaging way.

 

ALDI’S DECISION IS NOT ACTUALLY CENSORSHIP

One thing I’d like to point out amid all this discussion of ‘censorship’ — Aldi pulled Revolting Rhymes from its stores upon receiving a complaint — is that this is not ‘censorship’ at all. Censorship comes from government, and when Aldi, or any other company decides not to sell something, that company is simply making a ‘business decision’.

 

‘POLITICALLY CORRECT’ DOES NOT EQUAL ‘CONSERVATIVE’.

I’m surprised at Aldi’s decision, but perhaps I shouldn’t be. Aldi continues to demonstrate ultra conservative attitudes. When pink dolls and dollhouses are on special at Aldi, there is a big sign up saying ‘Girls’ Toys’. Trucks and aeroplanes are labelled ‘Boys’ Toys’. Mothers’ Day each year is preceded with sales of cosmetics and scrapbooking equipment. Right now we’re heading full-throttle towards Father’s Day, and this week you’ll find garage tools and leather work gloves on the Special Buys table. None of this is coincidental. Despites exclamations to the contrary, Aldi cares not one jot about political correctness. Hell, Aldi calls all manner of different green unidentifiable-by-white-people vegetables ‘Asian greens’, like Asians are likewise one big indistinguishable conglomerate of leaf-eating people. Aldi care only about customers buying as many products from Aldi as possible, cashing in on impulse purchases if at all possible, in which case the customer needn’t do any more thinking than absolutely necessary. When Aldi accidentally stocks a children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ in a derogatory fashion and then receives a single complaint, it really only takes a single complaint, because if the  movers and shakers at Aldi knew that word was in the book then they wouldn’t have bought a truckload of them in the first place. A children’s book containing the word ‘slut’ goes against Aldi’s conservative principles.

 

ETYMOLOGY ISN’T AN ARGUMENT, EITHER

Here’s the thing: whether you do or don’t read this collection to your own children or to your own class of students, it’s kind of irrelevant to talk about the ‘original use’ of a word, because language changes, and I’m going to go out on a limb and say that here in Australia, in 2014, the word ‘slut’ no longer refers to an unkempt, slovenly woman, but is instead a cringe-inducing, violent word which is used to try and keep women, especially young women wearing low-cut fashions, in line.

 

CULTURE, AS WELL AS CHILDREN’S LITERATURE, EVOLVES, AND THAT’S A GOOD THING

I have a liberal attitude towards use of taboo language, partly because I think that liberal use of bad words saps them of their power, which is actually a good thing. When I’m ready to have a discussion with my daughter about the meaning of ‘slut’, then I might be happy to read her Revolting Rhymes. Roald Dahl, along with Enid Blyton, was my favourite author when I was in primary school. But honestly, that’s because I wasn’t exposed to much else. My own six-year-old has access to a far wider range of reading material, not only because children’s publishing has flourished in the last 30 years but also because I’m an enthusiastic curator of literature myself. For some strange reason, my daughter isn’t interested in Enid Blyton or Roald Dahl, at least, not yet. Without looking at the colophon, she is always drawn to the newer stories. But this isn’t strange at all.

Roald Dahl’s use of the word ‘slut’ may indeed have been innocent (I doubt it). I’m going to let this one word stand as a symbol for the entire body of Dahl’s work. I’m  happy we’re having this cultural conversation. I’m not writing all of Dahl’s work off, not by any means, but let’s not forget that Roald Dahl was a man of his time, and though his personal ideologies died with him, his work lives on.

Should Aldi have pulled these books from its shelves? Probably not. The book has just received a big shot of publicity, like it needs it. Should Aldi still be stocking the work of Dahl and Richard Scarry (with Scarry’s outdated, heavily gendered division of labour) to the exclusion of newer bulk purchases of children’s books with modern, less problematic ideologies?

No.

Good riddance to Revolting Rhymes; bring us instead Zita the Spacegirl. Bring us bulk-purchased award- winning modern classics less then 10 years old. Bring us box sets of the Lunchlady series and Diary of a Wimpy Kid. Let’s support the publishing industry instead of reminiscing about times of yore, before the world had Gone PC Mad.

 

VAGUELY RELATED STORY

Speaking of pulling products from shelves, and Scandinavians, a Norwegian brewery has pulled its fart-smelling beer.

Humour In Children’s Literature

The following are notes from Episode 7 of the Kid You Not podcast about children’s literature.

First, Clem and Lauren read an excerpt from Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging which was a teenage favourite for both of them. [I have an issue with the amount of ‘body critique’ which goes on in books aimed at teenage girls, because I think it not only reflects it but promotes it. Though I don’t doubt the extent to which teenage girls identify with characters who are worried about the size of their breasts etc.]

This book is one of a series, collectively referred to as Confessions of Georgia Nicholson.

Notice the difference in titles in the two versions below. ‘Perfect Snogging’ seemed better for the movie version, apparently.

Geraldine Brennan describes this book as:

Louise Rennison’s Confessions of Georgia Nicolson series – all 10 laugh-out-loud volumes – is firmly in the my-so-called-life tradition of teenage diary fiction. The tales are for and about girls who are trying to beat puberty into submission, and Rennison understands the need for stimulation, fun and comfort in this age group. Georgia is self-obsessed, melodramatic and boy-crazy but also funny, loyal, and deft with language. She has sensible friends who curb her excesses with kindness, like fun teachers or adventurous aunties. The books are much more substantial than the covers make them appear. Above all, they teach non-acceptance of the adults’ design for living, with laughter the best weapon in the battle for teenage identity.

Ten Of The Best Books For Young Feminists

Humorous books do sell well, though it’s not the case that a kids’ book has to be funny in order to sell. Twilight and Harry Potter are not humorous.

From The Guardian:

Louise Rennison’s teen novel Angus, Thongs and Full Frontal Snogging was turned into a smash hit film that made everyone in the whole world cry with laughter. Apart from Americans. But why?

Diary of a Wimpy Kid is a best-selling humorous book for kids. This series contains all the characteristics that make it a good funny book for children:

  1. everyday high school life
  2. cartoons (funny by definition)
  3. language
  4. situational humour
  5. good-natured kids who are not the top-dog

The protagonist of DoaWK is deeply flawed — he tries to humiliate his friends to climb higher up the popularity ladder

There’s a fair bit of femme phobia and other undesirable reflections of school life in these books, which is exactly what makes them funny.

Kinney says that the reason the books are immensely popular is because everyone’s been to high school and felt the peer pressure. These stories manage to dedramatise this misery. He’s picked a time of life in which characters are deeply self-conscious, wondering what their peers are thinking of them.

A common characteristic of humour: About everyday life and what makes human beings appear less than their best.

Twilight/HP/His Dark Materials are all books about heroic characters, but funny books are all about the human faults. Children can relate to this quite easily.

The humour in kidlit is common to sitcoms for adults. The same rules apply. Characters feel awkward or humiliated. It’s difficult to think of comic heroes who don’t have significant flaws. Georgia Nicholson is obsessed about her looks, a little bit selfish, mean to her friends. Greg is that as well. You would think this is a reason not to like these heroes but in fact children relish these portrayals. They like finding their own weaknesses in comic heroes. [Do these flawed heroes really remind adolescents of themselves? I suspect that would feel too cringe-worthy to enjoy. I suspect they see their friends and school enemies in these characters.]

 

Age Sensitivities In Children’s Books

You often hear adults say that the jokes are too ‘old’ or too clever — above the comprehension of children. This says more about adults than children, but when a book appeals to both children and adults, the adults tend to say that ‘it’s more for adults really’. Adults appropriate kids’ stuff if they find it appeals to them. [The same thing happened with Harry Potter and the ‘adult’ book covers.] Lauren says that when her father took her younger sister to see Fantastic Mr Fox he said that it was much more of an adults’ film than a kids’ film. He didn’t understand how she got the jokes even though she was laughing along.

[Regarding Fantastic Mr Fox (Wes Anderson), I also think it’s for adults, not kids, but not because the kids won’t enjoy it, but because its ironic sexism is sexism nonetheless, and may be taken literally by people who haven’t yet learned irony — whatever age that is. (Some say that’s around age eight.) I explain in full here.]

 

Types of Humour In Children’s Literature

  1. Verbal Humour is the one that adults generally think children don’t understand.
  2. Children are expected to like Gross-out Humour, but not all children (if many) like this. (Poo, toilet humour, underwear, farting, The Mole Who Knew That It Was None Of His Business). It’s assumed that children will laugh at the most basic functions of the human body, and obviously a lot of children do. These are subjects that make people uncomfortable. They’re a little bit taboo (not like sex or anything) but it does have a bit of a cathartic effect. Children seem to enjoy the transgression of it. This humour performs a very specific function. The transgressive nature of this humour is empowering. [The word ‘subversive’ is used here, but I prefer transgressive. Are poo jokes truly ‘subversive’? If so, what do they subvert?]
  3. Other types of humour can be more problematic in kidlit, from an adult’s point of view. Irony is one example. [I’m one such adult, especially when an unironic interpretation is flatout sexist, or racist (which is far less common these days, though sexism is strangely tolerated.)] One example of a book that plays on irony is Haunted House, which is a very popular pop-up picture book published in the 70s. On every page you find the most terrifying monsters but the verbal text tells a completely different story, about a lovely cozy, safe house. Will young children understand that there can be a gap between the pictures in a book and its text? [No, probably not, though there’s an argument that they’ll need to learn if they’re to become visually literate, which is more and more important in a heavily image based society, full of advertising images everywhere.]
  4. It’s often said that Parody falls flat unless the audience understands what’s being parodied in the first place. This is not limited to children — it’s true for adults as well, who won’t understand parody unless they know the background. The Willoughbys is a parody of earlier children’s literature, making fun of works such as Little Women and the books by Frances Hodgson Burnett (The Secret Garden, A Little Princess). There is enough humour in the rest of the book for children who haven’t been exposed to this literature. Not everyone gets every joke that a comedian says. It’s never expected that the audience will get every joke.

 

Can Adult Jokes and Children’s Jokes Co-exist In The Same Work?

David Walliam’s books are about 50/50 adult humour/kid jokes. David Walliams is a British comedian — one half of Little Britain [which most people wouldn’t expose their young kids to]. Clemente remembers not understanding all the jokes in Asterix, a childhood favourite, until she was an adult and realised that the Brits are in the habit of starting sentences with ‘I say’ (which was an oddity in the French translation).

 

Humour and Translation

Humour doesn’t always transcend cultures. Humour can be harder to sell the foreign rights to, because humour is often so culturally specific. Angus, Thongs and Full-frontal Snogging is very English. It’s hilarious that the American edition has to have a glossary with it. A ‘fag’ in England is very different from a fag in America, for example. It’s odd to pick up something light and require a glossary. If a joke needs explaining it’s not as funny. This cultural difference explains why many of the titles of this series had to change.

Clemente read ATaFFS in French and points out that it still worked in translation because of imperialism. While everyone understands British and American humour, the Brits and Americans don’t understand the rest of the world’s humour. [Having grown up in NZ and living in Australia I would agree that the Down Under humour is a bit different from the English and sometimes significantly different from the American, but we do generally really enjoy TV shows and humourous movies from both parts of the world. Did the Americans understand the humour behind Kath and Kim when it was redone for the American audience? No. It fell flat and had poor ratings. It’s safe to say they didn’t get it.]

In successful translations of humour, the humour is not really ‘translated’; it is ‘transposed’. It’s particularly difficult to transpose humour for children and requires much skill.

There are probably books which cannot be successfully translated, for example funny books which relies on rhyme. The Gruffalo doesn’t really take off outside its English language version [because what makes it so good is its rhyme and rhythm.]

 

Are Funny Books Taken As Seriously?

In 2008 Michael Rosen set up the Roald Dahl Funny Prize to reward authors and books which otherwise get looked over in the major awards.

Funny books are easier to read, garner a wider audience and by definition are not ‘serious’ books, so not ‘taken seriously’. They don’t challenge readers in the same way. This isn’t true, but a common view. The body of scholarship on Pippi Longstocking (very light and funny) in Scandinavian is astonishing. The body of academic work shows that it is taken seriously. It’s one of the few books that challenges authority. This is an example of a classic which, despite its status as a funny book, garners a lot of respect. So maybe things aren’t as bad as they look, and that after a book has acquired status as a classic makes people wonder what is being said about bigger things.

 

RELATED

A list of funny kids’ books suggested by M. Jerry Weiss

 

 

One of the best kept secrets for adults is if you want to learn something new, read a kid’s book on the subject.

Vicki Cobb, on reading  non-fiction

 

What narks me tremendously is people who pretend they’re writing for young children and they’re really writing to get laughs from adults. There are too many of those about. I refuse to believe that Carroll wrote Alice for that little girl. It’s much too complex for that.

– Roald Dahl, writer

 

I think there’s a horrendous movement of people who think there’s a formula: “let’s draw everyboyd in party hats”, but really they’re appealing to adults while the children are actually bored.

– John Burningham, illustrator

Likable Characters In Children’s Literature

The assumption that as readers we necessarily must identify with some character in the story we are reading has been seriously questioned by contemporary literary theory. Children’s writers have successfully subverted identification by creating a variety of repulsive, unpleasant characters with whom no normal human being would want to identify.

– Maria Nikolajeva in The Rhetoric Of Character In Children’s Literature

There’s been quite a bit in the press this month about expectations of likability in novels for adults:

WOULD YOU WANT TO BE FRIENDS WITH HUMBERT HUMBERT?: A FORUM ON “LIKEABILITY” from The New Yorker

Claire Messud to Publishers Weekly: “What kind of question is that?” Do you like Jonathan Franzen’s characters? David Foster Wallace’s? Roth? Then stop asking Claire Messud about hers, from Salon

And I do like the word ‘subversion’ in reference to some of the most popular fiction for children. I had two favourite authors as a child: One was Enid Blyton (for the fantasy) and the other was Roald Dahl. I have to admit, that was probably partly for the subversion of likable characters.

Wicked And Delicious: Devouring Roald Dahl from NPR

 

 

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