An interesting thing about children’s books – when compared to adults’ books – is the strange preoccupation people seem to have with the notion that children’s books should be educational. A child should learn from reading a particular book; it must enhance their reading skill, widen their vocabulary or teach them a moral lesson – enjoyment is not enough. At the Children’s Book Circle talk referred to in episode two of Kid You Not librarians and teachers talked of the responsibility that authors and publishers have. The implicit meaning was that this responsibility is of an educational and moral nature.
So, what I want to know is, why is it not ok for something to just be a good story? Even incredibly controversial books by authors like Melvin Burgess are almost overpoweringly didactic. No one finishes Junk and thinks ‘you know what, drugs might be ok’. This trend for ‘challenging but moral’ seems to be on the rise – a twenty-first century version of the repentant schoolgirls in the religious tracts that were the first examples of books for children. Maybe children’s literature never advanced from its beginnings as an educational tool in the first place – but then the anarchic books of the 1960s and 70s would contradict this. Texts such as the Beano and authors like Roald Dahl revelled in rebellion and the snubbing of authority, and can hardly be said to be useful for the moral education of a child – however brilliant they are. Scholar Dennis Butts observed this trend, and put forward the theory that a sense of moral responsibility in children’s literature has followed a pendulum pattern, swinging from wildly didactic in the first place, mellowing to the authority despising texts of the mid-twentieth century, and now moving back into a more veiled didacticism.
Clearly, even in Roald Dahl’s texts the bad get their comeuppance and the good prosper – but authority can be defeated as George’s Marvellous Medicine shows. Compare this to current books as diverse as Horrid Henry and Doing It. Whilst both may revel in youthful mischief (of varying kinds), adult sensibilities permeate the entire experience and conquer the narrative. The fun is not allowed to overpower the moral prerogative.
It is clear that books help shape a child’s life – indeed Francis Spufford was built by his. But so do a lot of things: television, parents, friends … I am not suggesting that children’s literature should be bereft of moral substance or educational worth, that it has no role at all in educating its readers. Just questioning why every book has to be concerned with this responsibility – could its responsibility not be to merely entertain? Does a challenging book have to come complete with the safety net of a strict moral code?
For I believe that this attitude forgets that, like adults, children read for different reasons. And sometimes they just want a good time.