We’re just coming out of a period of dystopia. Publishers are saying they never want to read another grim world because they’ve read too much of it. Now, that’ll partly be because they’re living in one. So I predict a return to hygge. To the comforting and cosy — genuine utopias rather than apparent utopias.
Publishers of young adult literature probably won’t have as much patience with the anti-hero either, unless that anti-hero is a girl. (We’ve not seen many of those, and she wouldn’t remind everyone of Trump.)
That’s because around the world, writers, especially children’s book writers and illustrators, are left-leaning people. So a Trump Presidency won’t change the overwhelmingly left-leaning ideology which shines through in children’s books these days.
However, another way of depicting hygge is to create nuclear families in which the apron-wearing mother stays home and the father goes out to work — men saving the world, in other words. We’ll see those, too. Mad Men for toddlers.
Trump’s racism and sexism may actually lead to better representation in children’s books, because Trump’s leadership will lead to the widespread use of language we all understand to talk about these things. Trump will make sure we all know the true meaning of misogyny, backlash, sexual assault, false equivalence, and what racism really looks like.
In short, no thinking person looking at America can plausibly deny that racism and sexism isn’t a thing, and those who wonder how we got to here might start taking a closer look at the influence of children’s media.
Fantasy vs Realism
Traditionally Britain has been the home of the most excellent children’s fantasy, but we’re about to see that matched well-and-truly by America, who has always been better at realism. We may see a lot of science fiction too, because it’s somewhat comforting to be transported off the Earth even if it is only by book.
We’ll also see surrealism, with quiet digs at the state of the world which only the adults in a dual audience readership will fully appreciate. Bully cats with hair like Donald Trump, that kind of thing. Trump will create a brand new literary trope. He may even cause a comeback of aptronyms(symbolic names).
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?
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.
Writing for a young audience has always been fraught, because children are thought to be more highly impressionable than adults. Tobacco, junk food, bad behaviour that goes without punishment… any and all of these things in children’s literature can be enough to stop the story finding a wide audience.
But would a contemporary children’s book opening that way ever get published today?
I broadly agree with Philip Womack in his recent article defending the latest Julia Donaldson picture book, in which a scarecrow lights a cigar. I’m not among the picture book enthusiasts who believes that smoking should be banned in children’s literature, or that it would even make a difference. Womack summarises this week’s furore:
In Julia Donaldson’s new picture book, The Scarecrows’ Wedding, Reginald Rake, a scarecrow, lights a cigar, and is immediately admonished; he then manages to set on fire the female scarecrow that he’s courting. Cause and effect are clear: smoking harms you and those around you (although Rake gets off with only a cough). What could be more obvious, and less controversial?
Sure enough, I’ve been considering the possibility of having a character smoke in the picture book app (for older readers) which we’re planning to release later this year. The art has already been done. One of the characters seems like the sort of person who you’d see with one of those lady cigarettes, the kind with the holder, like you’d see on a noir film of yesteryear. In completing the artwork I pussied out a bit, and instead I have a small stream of smoke coming out of an ashtray, which may or may not be noticed by a reader, and wouldn’t be interpreted as cigarette smoke by any young readers who are lucky enough to have been sheltered from the practice of smoking over the course of their entire life:
1. FANTASY OR REALISM: WHEN IT COMES TO CAUSE AND INFLUENCE, THE DISTINCTION IS IRRELEVANT
This [furore] misunderstands something fundamental about picture books. They are, first and foremost, fantasies. I don’t see anyone complaining about the fact that the scarecrows can talk; nor that they are brought a necklace of shells by a handy crab when they are nowhere near the sea. A fantasy can be used to make a moral point, as Donaldson does, patently; and since children respond much more easily to ordered, made-up worlds than they do to the baffling real world, it is often the best way to get something across.
And so Womack contradicts himself. He seems to be saying that fantasies are disconnected from the real world of the child while at the same time admitting that fantasies are actually the best way to influence young children. I am very wary about using the ‘it’s only make-believe’ as an argument either for or against anything in the world of literature and other media. But here’s something I’m not seeing come out of this debate. In fact, it’s taken as a given, and is instead being used in the book’s defence:
2. SMOKING IS NOT ACTUALLY A SHORTCUT TO SIGNAL VILLAINY
My main issue with tobacco use in story is when the reader is encouraged to make some moral judgement about their (bad) character.
One of the most important things I hope to teach my daughter is that you can’t tell much about a person by looking at them. Goodies and baddies cannot be identified on the street simply by their clothing, physical appearance and accoutrements. If they could, the ‘Keeping Ourselves Safe’ unit they’re learning at school right now might take a different tone altogether. In fact, by conflating smoking with evil, we’re possibly creating two unintended lessons for young readers:
1. People who smoke are evil; ergo discrimination of people who are addicted to tobacco (often disenfranchised) are not deserving of help, or of Champax subsidies, come to think of it.
2. People who smoke cool because they have a touch of evil, or subversive, or against the grain; ergo, if you want to identify as alternative in your post-adolescent years, taking up smoking is one way to do it. More ominously, perhaps, children may absorb the message via common tropes that people with bad intentions can be identified by their appearance, in which case, real world people who look ‘normal’ may get away with things they should not. My decision to avoid the more overt smoking scene in Hilda Bewildered and instead have the character pick up a pair of knitting needles was actually down to my reluctance to promote tropes which, unexamined, may be doing more harm than good. If children’s book writers and illustrators are going to avoid depictions of tobacco use in their picture books, then I’d prefer it were for this reason.
The advertisement below is not necessarily aimed at a young audience, but if it involves Santa, the illustration inevitably links smoking to childhood pleasure.
Even for adults, cigarette companies have traditionally linked their products to popular fictional characters in order to sell their product.
Moving on to the depiction of tobacco use in classic art, I was surprised to learn the extent to which smoking has gone in and out of fashion. I had imagined that once tobacco caught on, it remained fashionable on a continuously upward trajectory until its ill-effect on health could no longer be ignored. But this is not the case, as explained by Witold Rybczynski:
There is plenty of evidence that people’s sensitivity to smell was more highly developed in the Victorian period. They had a horror of cooking smells, for example, and so they located the kitchen as far as possible from the main parts of the house … The smell of tobacco was similarly affronting. During the first part of the eighteenth century, people stopped smoking almost entirely, and when, later, cigars started to come back into fashion, they were still forbidden indoors. Queen Victoria banned smoking in her homes, and many followed her example. In some country houses visitors who insisted on smoking were archly directed to the kitchen, and then only after the servants had left. …. When smoking became more common, a special room — the smoking room — was added to contain this activity.
Home, Witold Rybczynski
Will we ever see a comeback of tobacco smoking? What about vaping? Will that ever be depicted in stories for children?