Frank Furedi

Professor of Sociology at University of Kent, and author of Politics of Fear, Where Have All the Intellectuals Gone?, Therapy Culture, Paranoid Parenting and Culture of Fear.

Too much, too soon?
Gillian Bowditch

Are you sitting uncomfortably? Then I’ll 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 didn’t 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. We’re living in a post 9/11 world and children’s 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 nation’s favourite feline through the cat flap of eternity. In Goodbye Mog, published in 2002, Mog dies.

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 psychiatrist’s 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.

Cinderella’s Bum (and other bottoms), Nicholas Allan’s 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 Won’t 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 Owner’s 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 Postman Pat.

In Nicholas Allan’s 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 children’s laureate, believes there is a trend in very young children’s literature towards more realistic topics, but cautions against reading too much into it.

"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 that’s great. The reason Babette Cole’s 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 children’s literature; there is something for everyone at all ages."

But at a time of fierce competition in the children’s 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 today’s 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 children’s worlds, says: "Adults can’t 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 don’t. 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 weren’t planning to publish a series of edgy books for five year-olds. It’s just that Nicholas Allan came in with a wonderful story and that was what we went for. We’ve 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 Cinderella’s Bum. Tom and Clara are familiar with Nicholas Allan’s book The Queen’s Knickers, which they think is hilarious. Cinderella’s Bum has more of a moral to it. "Be proud of your bottom!" the heroine says.

Clara thinks it "really funny. Bums are funny," she says. Tom says: "It’s excellent. It’s really rude. It’s my kind of thing. The book says you shouldn’t be ashamed of your body. You should be happy with what you’ve 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," she says.

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 people’s and it’s huge." When did she start worrying about her size? "When Katie joined the class. She’s so skinny and she has the smallest bottom in the universe. I’m like an elephant compared with her." Does Cinderella’s Bum make her feel happier about her bottom? "A bit," she concedes.

Where Willy Went proves a big hit with Tom: "It’s really cool and funny," he says. Sophie is shocked at the content. "I don’t think children aged three or four should be looking at this. It’s too rude. It’s a book for eight or nine-year-olds." The subject matter is way over Clara’s 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 people’s bodies?"

But the book which causes most revulsion is ostensibly the most innocent. Jennifer Jones Won’t Leave Me Alone is a rhyming book about a little girl who develops a crush on a small boy. It isn’t until she moves away that the boy realises these feelings are reciprocated. For Tom, it is all too much.

"It’s sickable. It’s yuck. It’s not for boys. I don’t 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 don’t know why. Maybe they think people will snigger and laugh about it."

Clara wanders off to get her own books. She likes Cinderella’s 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 Frank’s Diary, which she has just finished reading.

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. "It’s a similar kind of issue. A lot of people think young children can’t deal with the subject matter and there is some truth in that, but that is what the story is. If you don’t like it, don’t read it.

"I think the ‘oughts’ in children’s 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, it’s easy to feel that childhood gets thrown out with the disposable nappies.

Professor Furedi believes the sexual content of very young children’s books is all part of that same trend. "It’s 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 children’s 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 child’s 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 aren’t there to provide answers. They are there to ensure we go on asking questions. Books can help us sort things out. They don’t 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 didn’t know about this stuff until I was God knows what age."

Sex in children’s 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 Andersen’s The Red Shoes, sex is a common theme. But in the past, authors dealt with it obliquely and allegorically. Today’s authors leave little to a four year-old’s 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 children’s books is not their subject matter but their banality. Where Willy Went is much less engaging than Babette Cole’s pre-school sex manual Mummy Laid an Egg. Few four year olds will reach for Jennifer Jones Won’t Leave Me Alone if Julia Donaldson’s Room on the Broom is available. Sex may be a six year-old issue but, in the great panoply of children’s literature, it is still a pretty minor one.

First published in the Scotsman, 10 March 2004