Too much, too soon?
Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then Ill begin. Once upon
a time you could open a picture book for the under-fives and be
guaranteed to find nothing scarier than Fungus the Bogeyman or the
occasional Gruffalo. The sexism of Thomas the Tank Engine might
have raised a few eyebrows and all those wolves preying on young
girls in the woods didnt bear too much thinking about but,
on the whole, there was nothing on the nursery bookshelves which
was likely to frighten My Little Pony.
But innocence, it seems, is just so last century. Were living
in a post 9/11 world and childrens authors have decided it
is time for toddlers to get real. We should have known something
was up when Judith Kerr, the creator of the delightful Mog stories,
decided it was time to send the nations favourite feline through
the cat flap of eternity. In Goodbye Mog, published in 2002, Mog
Since then there have been a whole spate of books for very young
children dealing with the kind of issues more usually thrashed out
on the psychiatrists couch than in the story corner. This
month, picture books dealing with first love, sexual intercourse,
bodily functions and poor body image will hit the bookstores.
Cinderellas Bum (and other bottoms), Nicholas Allans
take on a big sister who is worried about the size of her bottom,
is published in a new edition by Red Fox. Jennifer Jones Wont
Leave Me Alone by Frieda Wishinsky and Neal Layton, the story of
a classroom crush, is published in a new edition by Picture Corgi.
The Sprog Owners Manual (or how kids work), a new book by
Babette Cole, is published by Cape. But most controversial of all
is Where Willy Went: The Big Story of a Little Sperm, a new offering
from the pen of Nicholas Allan, under the Hutchinson imprint.
These books are all, in format at least, designed for pre-school
children. The content, however, is considerably more sophisticated
than anything you might come across in Percy the Park Keeper or
In Nicholas Allans book, Willy is a little sperm who must
make his way down through Mr Browne and up inside Mrs Browne to
reach the prize: "a beautiful egg". Willy is given a map
showing inside Mr Brown and a map showing inside Mrs Browne. "That
very night Mr and Mrs Browne joined together. The teacher cried:
"Go!" and the great swimming race began". The book
does not feature erection or penetration but it is one of the most
explicit books about reproduction available for the under-fives.
Michael Morpurgo, the author and childrens laureate, believes
there is a trend in very young childrens literature towards
more realistic topics, but cautions against reading too much into
"These trends come and go. Babette Cole has been writing about
bodies for ages. In fact she probably started the whole thing off.
The great thing is to trust the readers. With younger children you
know very quickly whether something is working, whether it will
hold their attention. If they are smiling and engaged thats
great. The reason Babette Coles books work is because they
are witty and they make you giggle. They are full of integrity because
that is how she is herself. Writers must be themselves. Some are
wacky, some are serious, some are great fantasists, others do social
realism. That is what is great about childrens literature;
there is something for everyone at all ages."
But at a time of fierce competition in the childrens market,
authors may feel they have to attempt something more daring and
risqué to get noticed, or even published. And, as most parents
and teachers will testify, anything involving bottoms is likely
to be a surefire hit. But are these topics about which todays
children are genuinely worried or are such books all part of the
growing sexualisation of children?
Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent
in Canterbury and the author of numerous books on the breakdown
of boundaries between adult and childrens worlds, says: "Adults
cant get it into their head that children attach different
meanings to objects and relationships than they do. Adults who see
children fooling around with each other perceive it in sexual terms.
Children dont. The more difficulty we have in comprehending
what children are up to, the more we subject them to an adult-like
ethos. We think we need to give them this sort of worthy instruction.
Children learn about sex in their own way. I think these books are
quite intrusive. They suck children into their parents mindset."
Caroline Roberts, the publisher responsible for Where Willy Went,
says publishers are willing to take more of a risk these days. "There
are only so many stories you can do about monsters under the bed
or that new baby in the family. The reason Where Willy Went works
is because it is such a strong story. We werent planning to
publish a series of edgy books for five year-olds. Its just
that Nicholas Allan came in with a wonderful story and that was
what we went for. Weve had fantastic feedback and it has been
sold to 13 countries including Greece, Italy and Korea."
But what do the children think? Sophie, 10, Tom, 7, and Clara,
3 have agreed to test some of the latest literary offerings for
The Scotsman. They start with Cinderellas Bum. Tom and Clara
are familiar with Nicholas Allans book The Queens Knickers,
which they think is hilarious. Cinderellas Bum has more of
a moral to it. "Be proud of your bottom!" the heroine
Clara thinks it "really funny. Bums are funny," she says.
Tom says: "Its excellent. Its really rude. Its
my kind of thing. The book says you shouldnt be ashamed of
your body. You should be happy with what youve got."
Sophie thinks it a good book but possibly not appropriate for very
small children. "It would be OK for six or seven year olds,"
At what age do the children think people start to worry about their
body image? "In their 30s," says Tom confidently. "No
way," yells Sophie. "I worry about my butt now. I compare
it with other peoples and its huge." When did she
start worrying about her size? "When Katie joined the class.
Shes so skinny and she has the smallest bottom in the universe.
Im like an elephant compared with her." Does Cinderellas
Bum make her feel happier about her bottom? "A bit," she
Where Willy Went proves a big hit with Tom: "Its really
cool and funny," he says. Sophie is shocked at the content.
"I dont think children aged three or four should be looking
at this. Its too rude. Its a book for eight or nine-year-olds."
The subject matter is way over Claras head. "What is
that kind of creature called?" she asks, pointing to the picture
of the giant sperm on the cover. "Do worms like that live in
But the book which causes most revulsion is ostensibly the most
innocent. Jennifer Jones Wont Leave Me Alone is a rhyming
book about a little girl who develops a crush on a small boy. It
isnt until she moves away that the boy realises these feelings
are reciprocated. For Tom, it is all too much.
"Its sickable. Its yuck. Its not for boys.
I dont like it," he protests. At what age does he think
boys fall in love with girls? "Nine," he says. "Girls
start fancying boys in Junior 2 when they are six," says Sophie.
"Boys fancy girls too but they are more embarrassed about it.
They are not so good at telling girls. I dont know why. Maybe
they think people will snigger and laugh about it."
Clara wanders off to get her own books. She likes Cinderellas
Bum but the other two she deems "boring". They are not
funny or imaginative enough to hold her attention and the subject
matter is too complicated. Books dealing with boys emotional
relationships with girls, such as Jennifer Jones, trouble Tom but
he likes the "rude" subject matter of the other two and
although he has moved on from picture books, he settles easily back
into a younger format.
The subject matter of all three books engages Sophie but the format
is far too babyish for her. She would prefer to explore these subjects
in a more serious way through books by authors such as Jacqueline
Wilson or even Anne Franks Diary, which she has just finished
Michael Morpurgo says the main problem with books such as Where
Willy Went is choosing the right time to read them. "I have
a book called The Dancing Bear which ends in a very bleak tragedy
and it is for very young children," he says. "Its
a similar kind of issue. A lot of people think young children cant
deal with the subject matter and there is some truth in that, but
that is what the story is. If you dont like it, dont
"I think the oughts in childrens literature
are an absolute minefield. This idea of what children ought
to be reading. We all have to accept now that children are exposed
unbelievably young to all sorts of influences and the only thing
that matters to me is that a book treats its subject matter intelligently,
sensitively, wittily and with integrity."
But is it as simple as that? Taken individually it is easy to justify
each book. But taken collectively and set in a wider cultural context,
are they part of the trend which the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr
Rowan Williams describes as "children becoming prematurely
sexualised"? When high-street chains start stocking padded
bras and thongs for nine-year-olds and six-year-olds clamour to
watch the sexually explicit dances of their favourite pop stars,
its easy to feel that childhood gets thrown out with the disposable
Professor Furedi believes the sexual content of very young childrens
books is all part of that same trend. "Its one thing
for children to know that mummy and daddy are up to something or
that there are topics which mummy and daddy are sensitive to. It
is quite another matter to give them books which are infantilised
versions of adult issues.
"These books are regrettable because they are intrusive, patronising
and they unduly focus the mind on the sexual rather than the sensual.
They distract children from the creative act of discovery. They
short circuit that experience. Being open about sex means responding
to childrens questions and their problems, not imposing adult
perceptions on them. We need to trust children to learn for themselves."
Morpurgo makes the point that books are different from other media
because they depend upon the childs skills and imagination,
in a way in which film and television do not.
"The wonderful thing about books is that they are entirely
interactive, so a child will make what he or she wants of them,"
he says. "Books arent there to provide answers. They
are there to ensure we go on asking questions. Books can help us
sort things out. They dont answer the questions but they help
us not to worry about the questions quite as much. I would have
loved a book like Where Willy Went when I was four. I didnt
know about this stuff until I was God knows what age."
Sex in childrens literature is not a new phenomenon. Heavy
Words Lightly Thrown, a new book by Chris Roberts, examines the
sexual meaning behind nursery rhymes such as Goosey, Goosey Gander
(venereal disease) and Mary, Mary Quite Contrary (adultery in the
court of Mary Queen of Scots). From the virginal princesses of the
Grimm Brothers fairytales, to Hans Christian Andersens
The Red Shoes, sex is a common theme. But in the past, authors dealt
with it obliquely and allegorically. Todays authors leave
little to a four year-olds imagination.
Children have always asked questions about their origins. In the
past they were directed to look under cabbage leaves or keep an
eye open for passing storks, a phenomenon which led to a generation
unable to talk about sex. But we still confuse ignorance with innocence.
Literature does not rob children of their innocence; it is one of
the tools with which they make sense of the world.
The problem with the latest batch of childrens books is not
their subject matter but their banality. Where Willy Went is much
less engaging than Babette Coles pre-school sex manual Mummy
Laid an Egg. Few four year olds will reach for Jennifer Jones Wont
Leave Me Alone if Julia Donaldsons Room on the Broom is available.
Sex may be a six year-old issue but, in the great panoply of childrens
literature, it is still a pretty minor one.
published in the Scotsman, 10 March 2004