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December 15, 2005

Recent books for the conservative child - selected by Harry Phibbs

Posted by Harry Phibbs

Harry Phibbs selects his favourite recently published children's books. He finds conservative values to be well represented.

Books make excellent Christmas presents for children as unlike chocolate or plastic toys it is impossible for them to have too many. For young children unable to read for themselves a small number of books do, however, go a long way. The same story will be demanded again and again, until parents and child know it off by heart. So by increasing the variety of such books the patience of the parent reading to their child will be increased - adults do not tend to have the same inexhaustible enthusiasm for repetition.

One of the reassuring things about small children is how old fashioned they are. The older they get the harder it is to generalise but it is probably true that teenagers usually become preoccupied with fads and resentments against the natural order. I have yet to meet a small child with left wing views. They all believe very strongly in property rights. Some may be more polite and generous about sharing their property than others but all have a keen sense of the importance of property. Another belief that comes through very strongly is their fascination with, and support for, kings and queens.

I think these and other beliefs have represented a powerful check on the politically correct tendencies of the children's book publishing industry.

While public libraries and schools might purchase books on the basis of inculcating some modern social message, the big market is of parents and others buying books for children to read, or have read to them, at home. Here traditionalism rules.

Not only does this mean that the old classics are continually being reprinted - nursery rhymes, fairy tales, Beatrix Potter, Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows, Jean de Brunhoff's Babar books, Ludwig Bemelman's Madeline books, etc, etc. But also kings and queens often pop up in the newly published books.

So does a clear message about good and evil. Morality comes in strong primary colours not shades of grey. The responsibility for wrongdoing rests with the perpetrator - society is not to blame. How strange that despite that clear perspective as young children by the time they become teenagers society is to blame for everything, that everything is "so unfair".

Roald Dahl is as popular as ever. A new collection of his work Songs and Verse has been produced (Random House, 14.99). His reliance on popularity by including references to things which children excitedly and fascinatedly find "yucky" - eating insects and so forth - one could do without. But the rhymes and imagery are outstandingly powerful.

Animals tend to dominate children's stories, at least the picture books for small children. Often the use of animals is connected to the fears children have and the need for courage to overcome them. Judith Kerr's The Tiger who Came to Tea is curiously made scarier by the impeccable manners of the tiger.

Julia Donaldson, who used to write children's songs for the television, has had a tremendous success with The Gruffalo, a monster that lives in the wood whom a mouse cites as an ally to secure protection. It was even made into a stage play.

Among the new stories available for the Christmas market this year is Up the Wooden Hill (Harper Collins Children's Books, 10.99). Written by Sam McBratney (best known as the author of Guess How Much I Love You) it is inspired by the nursery rhyme:

Up the wooden hill to Bedfordshire,
Down Sheet Lane to Blanket Fair.
It concerns a squirrel getting ready for bed and trying to guess what a "wooden hill" could be.

Melrose and Croc by Emma Chichester-Clark (also from Harper Collins Children's Books and at 10.99) has a specific Christmas theme. Croc, a small green crocodile, has come to the city to look for Father Christmas in a large department store but misses him. Melrose, a yellow dog, is also sad and lonely. Happily they meet and spend a convivial Christmas together.

Another seasonal offering is Wenceslas by Geraldine McCaughrean, illustrated by Christian Birmingham. (Random House, 10.99). This is a bold effort not merely mentioning Christmas but Christianity. It says at the end:

Duke Wenceslas of Bohemia was greatly loved by his people, though they knew nothing of any walk through the snow. He brought Christianity to his little corner of Germany; the grapes of his vineyard were crushed to make Communion wine.
Publishers, as well as small children, suffer some irrational fears. One subject that mainstream children's publishers seem terrified of touching is British history. Happily this didn't deter George Courtauld. After his dismay at encountering a young boy on a bus who had never heard of Nelson, Courtauld wrote The Pocket Book of Patriotism. He published it himself and it has been selling very well.

An even more dramatic publishing sensation was achieved by Civitas, the conservative minded think tank. They republished Our Island Story by Henrietta Marshall, a classic which had been inexplicably out of print for years. Robert Whelan of Civitas tells me that they have already sold 70,000 and are in the mildly embarrassing position of having raised funds for the project as a charitable endeavour that is running at a profit despite also sending out free copies to any primary school that asks for one - so far 1,700 have done so. I am encouraging Whelan to republish Maria Callcott's Little Arthur's History of England.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.


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