Episode 11: Mothers in Children’s Literature

In Lauren’s words, ‘mothers are the scariest thing in children’s literature’. Find out why in this episode! You can download it HERE (28 min), subscribe to us on iTunes, or play it in the sidebar of the website.

In this episode you’ll hear about:

  • Different traditions of motherhood in children’s literature: from the saintly mother to the evil mother.
  • The absent mother, or rather, the presence of the absence of the mother.
  • Motherly sacrifices, literal and figurative.
  • Dysfunctional, bipolar, depressed, teenage mothers… and how they still love their children in spite of all.

Comment on this post, send us an email at kidyounotpodcast@gmail.com and share the podcast if you liked it. And if you have any suggestions for topics, or any questions, get in touch – we’re on Twitter too.

And yes, this is the 11th episode, coming after the 12th episode. This is because we’re highly postmodern (and a bit confused)
Here are some of the books we’re discussing in this episode – a full list can be found on our Books page.

Ideology in children’s books

‘What? Ideology? But children’s books aren’t ideological – that would be propaganda, it would be sacrilegious, it would be brainwashing!’

Literary criticism has shown us in the past century that no text can ever be devoid of ideological content, that is to say of a system of values, beliefs, fears, worldviews, which are closely linked to certain conceptions of power and order. Ideology is embedded in language.

And children’s literature is no exception to the rule.

Children’s books are made of words, and they are created in specific historical, political, social and cultural contexts. When David McKee writes Tusk Tusk, a political fable on racial war, he is talking from the viewpoint of a second-half-of-the-twentieth-century-man with the heritage of post-war pacifism and awareness of racial conflicts. It would make no sense to Enid Blyton. It would make no sense to White American supremacists.

Actively ideological children’s literature

Tusk Tusk is actively ideological – that is to say, it is actively denouncing the issues of racism and violence. Other books that try to promote certain behaviours, values or beliefs are, for instance, Babette Cole’s picturebook Princess Smartypants – an anti-fairytale which attacks the ideal of marriage for girls – Anthony Browne’s Zoo – which begs the reader to consider the condition of animals imprisoned for our entertainment – or Armin Greder’s The Island – which denounces the situation of immigrants.

These children’s books, of a very high quality, exist partly for the purpose of instructing readers – not only children! – about the realities of our world, and, sometimes, about how to change them. They are political, because their very existence threatens the existing distribution of power by showing that it is flawed and unfair.

Passively ideological children’s literature

But don’t huff and puff if you’re against giving children ideological children’s literature. Because then you might as well take away all their books.

The most dangerous ideological content in children’s literature is the hidden one – the assumptions about the world that author, illustrator and/or publisher make when they release one book, and that the child reader is led to accept as fact.

Feminists have long denounced children’s books that represent doleful, obliging mothers, not because they are actively promoting male domination, but because they are normalising male domination. And that’s a much more insidious issue to get rid of. Because it’s inscribed, unquestioningly, everywhere the child looks to.

Passively ideological children’s literature represents 90% of all children’s literature (don’t quote me on this, it’s a rough estimate). And most often its ideology is conservative. Because conservative ideology, logically, tends to preserve itself. Passively ideological children’s books will normalise values and beliefs that have made their existence possible.

Next time you open a children’s book, ask yourself what worldviews, what conceptions of power, what ideals of education it conceals. It is not obvious – because the creators of the books themselves are unaware of it, and because it’s likely that they think more or less like you. But it is there. It cannot not be there.

And if you really can’t notice these assumptions, it means you’re so bathed in them that you take them for fact. It’s in your bones, in your brains, in your identity.

It’s ok, don’t freak out. We’re all like that.

by Clementine

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Mickey Mouse subject? Why study children’s literature

This could be the subject of a whole book, but I’ll spare you the conceptual and definitional jargon. Here are five concise reasons why studying children’s literature is important, fascinating, and challenging.

A children’s book is an adult’s book

Adults write, select, publish, sell and buy children’s books. And they do so wanting them to benefit children – to entertain them, to teach them, to bring them up – to bring them up to become just like them, or perhaps a little different. In other words, children’s books are chock-full of adult desires and needs and fears – and by expressing them towards their children, they are expressing them towards themselves and their own society and culture. Studying children’s literature unpacks these desires and needs and fears.

Paraliterature: a parallel world we must explore

Children’s books belong to a non-canonical form of literature which literary snobs and the academic intelligentsia tend to neglect: paraliterature. Formed of an eclectic hodgepodge of genres and mediums – from detective stories to science fiction and comics – paraliterature is often thought to be formulaic, simple and commercial. But it is in the highly popular discourse of paraliterature that timely concerns about the world are crystallised and transformed to narrative. In its success we read the success of some ideas and the decline of others. Paraliterature is the barometre of human ideas in the world.

Children’s literature is actually good

Too many people don’t know that children’s books are good. They see the simplicity and the cuteness of a few remembered titles. Studying children’s literature helps raise the profile of children’s books – of the immensely diverse, extraordinarily complex world of children’s books. All of them. The challenging, the funny, the controversial, the edgy, the poetic, the outrageous, the revolutionary, the cosy, the erudite, the sad, the contemplative. Children’s literature critics explore and categorise this vibrant planet.

Children’s literature is an experimental platform

Many writers and illustrators, not least of which Philip Pullman, have established the need to write for children – the reason why they do so. And this reason has nothing to do with not being able to write for adults, or wanting an easy ride into publication. Children’s literature provides a platform for experimenting with form and content – for tackling themes from new and daring angles. The power of allegory, the infinite possibilities of text-and-image relationships, the ability to catch the imaginations of thousands of future citizens: here are the real reasons for the need to write for children.

Children’s literature fashions the future

Children’s literature, like all cultural productions for children, is a parallel educational universe in which we can see glimpses of the future. It constructs and impacts children’s developments, senses of identity, and visions of the world. It creates ambitions and aspirations, models taste and values. It is the only potentially world-changing form of literature. Studying children’s literature means studying both our heritage and our legacies.

by Clementine

Review: ‘Billionaire Boy’, by David Walliams

David Walliams’s latest children’s novel is an easy-going, fun book, clearly geared to appeal to boys (and we do need boys’ books), and even more clearly designed by its publisher (Harper Collins) to fill the un-fillable gap left by Roald Dahl’s death. Being un-fillable, this gap is left unfilled, but it was a worthy attempt.

Billionaire Boy tells the story of Joe Spud, 12-year-old son of a self-made-multibillionaire who would have wowed Lord Sugar with his clever invention of a half-moist, half-dry loo paper roll. Little Joe has everything he wants, except for one thing: a friend.

Walliams’s stroke of genius is to get rid of all sense of measure in the description of this nouveau riche family – the more outrageous, the better, and after just a few pages we find ourselves very willing to suspend disbelief when Joe is given a cheque for two million pounds for his birthday, or is seen driving a Formula One car especially designed to accomodate his overweight figure.

The storyline is an overly predictable fable which can be summed up in one yawn: money doesn’t make you happy and you shouldn’t buy your way into friendship. But it doesn’t matter too much that the whole plot is telegraphed from the first few pages. With Walliams, it’s form, not content, that’s appealing – and counterbalancing the shallowness of the ‘message’ is an often hilarious treatment of Joe’s misfortunes.

Billionaire Boy does have some extremely funny moments. I found myself failing (because I was laughing so much) to read out loud to my boyfriend the timetable of the posh private school that Joe attends – here’s a taster:


Ancient Greek; Croquet; Pheasant Shooting; Being beastly to servants class; Mandolin level 3; History of Tweed; Nose in the air hour; Learning to step over the homeless person as you leave the opera; Finding your way out of a Maze.

Sometimes, though, Walliams’s humour – perhaps because of his background as a comedian – is completely incomprehensible to children, playing on cultural or social references that young teens can’t know. Thankfully, this doesn’t happen too often and doesn’t hinder the reading, but I’m always wary of books that speak to the adult above the child’s head.

Tony Ross’s illustrations are of course excellent, and the Ross/Walliams duo immediately calls to mind Blake/Dahl books, as I mentioned earlier. But Billionaire Boy, whatever Julia Eccleshare might say on the back cover, is too well-behaved and lacks the linguistic playfulness to be truly described as being ‘in the best spirit of Dahl’. Not that it matters at all – I wouldn’t even mention it if it wasn’t written all over the book and inside it that it was the publisher’s intention to present Walliams as Dahl’s heir.

One fascinating thing about Billionaire Boy is the OCD emphasis on food, especially comfort food. Food rules Walliams’s world, arranging weddings, reconciling friends, and creating social bonds. The importance of food in children’s books has been explored thoroughly by children’s literature critics, and we find in Walliams’s novel a perfect example of a bulimic approach to chocolate and candy as the satisfaction of immediate, primitive desires in children – an easy and potent way to entrance the child reader by appealing to one of the most pressing cravings in a child’s life.

The outrageous display of money in the novel plays on the same instinctive craving in children. Children are the economically deprived class – however rich their parents are, they have no access to the bank accounts and have to rely on their parents for all spendings. Billionaire Boy effectively gets rid of this tough law of childhood to present a kid who can have as much money as he wants, to do whatever he wants with it. Once again, this is the ultimate dream for a child reader, and the attraction of the novel depends heavily on it.

The editorial work on the book is generally very good, with a nice play on fonts and layouts. However, the novel is stangely riddled with tiny editorial mistakes, especially regarding punctuation.

To sum up, this is a charmingly silly novel which will please young teenagers to no end, and will definitely make adults laugh. Like the chocolate bars that abound in the novel, it is a sweet, indulgent, predictable novel, which does exactly what it says on the cover.

Harry Potter and the So-Called End

The most significant Harry-Potter-premiere-related tweet of the week was no doubt Barry Cunningham’s (@barrychicken) heart-wrenching (for the Pottermaniacal amongst us) remembrance of things past:

Off to last Harry Potter premiere tomorrow with son Alfie, aren’t we lucky! Seems like only yesterday when I read first MS – life changing!

Barry Cunningham was an editor at Bloomsbury when Christopher Little, JK Rowling’s agent, sent him the first manuscript of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. According to the legend (and I have a second-hand account that it is true), Barry gave his daughter the manuscript and she loved it. The first Harry Potter book came out, so to speak, confidentially, until word of mouth made the series what they are now: the biggest international publishing phenomenon in human history.

Tonight the premiere of the seventh – sorry, the eighth – Harry Potter film will herald, according to some, the ‘end of Harry Potter‘. Tearful fans on the radio and on TV are bemoaning the ‘twilight of their childhood’. For those, like me, who quite literally grew up with Harry Potter from 1997 to 2007, this last film is the apocalypse. The last sigh of our adolescence! The dying words of a voice that brought us up! The epitaph of the first quarter of our lives!

Or not. The wonderful Harry Potter book series, as I see it, deserve to be critically set apart from their on-screen derivative.

Children’s literature critic Jack Zipes is a fierce detractor of the Harry Potter series, seeing them as supporting cultural homogeneisation and conservative values worldwide, and turning their readers into willing squaddies of the capitalist system. Where Zipes is wrong, according to me, is that he asserts that the Harry Potter books were marketed and designed to this specific end – real-life evidence contradicts him by showing that its success was, to start with, entirely reader-led and a big surprise to the publishing industry. But Zipes’s critique of the phenomenon, although it doesn’t apply to the books, works well to describe the Harry Potter film franchise.

Action-driven and Hollywoodised, the Harry Potter films and their countless derived products are a flashy, entertaining, unambiguous interpretation of the books. They flourished at a time when the power of the child and teenage customer was becoming, more than ever, a mouth-watering reality for advertising companies. Regardless of what one thinks of these films – I do think they are sometimes good, imaginative and funny – it is vital to consider them as an entirely separate phenomenon to the books: a product of the 2000’s, a displacement of the Harry Potter stories into the visual world of their time.

But they are in no way final.

In 2076 we will be flocking to cinemas (if they still exist) to watch the new filmic interpretation of the Harry Potter books. The director, productors and actors are yet to be born. They will not have grown up with the books. They will consider them as ‘classics’, not as a craze to be exploited before it expires. They will bring their fresh outlook to it. They will use new technologies to say new things.

In 3020, a new team will take over for a third version of Harry Potter.

And in 3100.

The books live on: there is one version and one only, it is JK Rowling’s; it is Barry Cunningham’s. The films are just one interpretation of these books. They are marked by their time, responding to the needs of their decade. The eighth installment of the Warner Brothers’s Harry Potter does not signal the end of anything else than itself.

If no one said that Orson Welles’s version of Jane Eyre was the end of Jane Eyre, then the Warner Bros’s version of Harry Potter is certainly not the end of Harry Potter.

by Clementine

Patrick Ness is the Somewhat Unsurprising Winner of the Carnegie Medal

Patrick Ness winning the Carnegie Medal was somewhat lost in the hype surrounding Pottermore (including on Kid You Not!). Author of the Chaos Walking trilogy, the Medal was won by the final book in the series Monsters of Men. Focusing on a dystopian future in which men can hear each other’s thoughts and women are outlawed, it is the story of teenagers Todd and Viola as they find themselves first lovers and then on different sides of a war. The books explore the nature and the price of war; its complexities and ambiguities; its moral dilemmas and dehumanisation. Although (still) suffering from dystopian overload, I have been a fan of these books since I first read The Knife of Never Letting Go. Original and brilliantly written, this is an uncontroversial choice for the Carnegie.

It is a shame that Ness’ voice was diminished by Potter mania, as he used his acceptance speech to lambast the government for its library closures, highlighting the importance they had played in his upbringing and childhood reading. Describing himself as ‘a child that libraries built’, he singled out Education Minister Michael Gove for his failure to oppose the closure of libraries.

As the latest in a long line of prestigious authors to protest against the closure of so many libraries it will be interesting to see whether in fact the Government – or the media – take any notice of the campaigns to prevent the policy from happening.

By Lauren

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