Unless you’re an avid reader of the Guardian, you’re probably blissfully unaware that Britain has a new Children’s Laureate. His name is Chris Riddell, he’s an illustrator and a cartoonist for the Observer, and according to one who has interviewed him he is a delightful man: ‘Giggly, childlike, doodled book illustrations on his napkin throughout.’
I’m glad about this. One of the roles of the Waterstones Children’s Laureate — in return for his £15,000 bursary and his ‘specially designed and inscribed silver medal’ — is to tour Britain’s schools and festivals acting as an ambassador for children’s literature. Clearly, it would be a disadvantage were the incumbent to prove, say, a filthy old perv, a cantankerous git, or a total illiterate. But for me, almost worse than any of those flaws, would be this: if Riddell — despite his evident drawing skills and general loveliness — turns out to be as infuriatingly, tediously, proselytisingly lefty as at least two of his predecessors.
The one just gone was bad enough. Never having got beyond page one of a Malorie Blackman novel — though my daughter speaks highly of Noughts and Crosses — I can offer no views on her authorial talent. What I do know is that, immensely tiresomely, she would insist on using the laureate’s platform to bore on about identity politics.
Here she is (in the Guardian, inevitably) on multiculturalism: ‘I don’t think we’ve gone far enough with it in terms of making sure children know about different cultures and ways of living.’ Really, Malorie? Really? Did you ever actually pay attention when you visited all those primary schools with their Mary Seacole posters and their projects celebrating Eid and Diwali? (Though, to be fair, probably not so much Easter or Yom Kippur….) And here she is, ibid, sounding off on history: ‘History should belong to all of us and it needs to include people from different cultural backgrounds.’ (Sorry to bring this one up again, Malorie, but: Mary Seacole?) And on her specialist subject: ‘We need more books that are specifically about the BME [black and minority ethnic] British experience, and that’s why I bang the drum for getting more diverse books out there…’.
Yeah, those barriers to entry to children of colour, Malorie. There is just no way on earth that any kid without the requisite wriggling green body could ever get into the head of The Very Hungry Caterpillar. No child of West Indian heritage has ever had an Aunt Spiker or an Aunt Sponge. And J.K. Rowling’s frankly shaming failure to include a single character of ethnic persuasion (unless you count redheads) into the magic Harry-Ron-Hermione circle explains why her series only had global sales in excess of 450 million and was translated into such stubbornly Anglo-Saxon tongues as Bengali, Khmer, Urdu, Persian, Hindi and Arabic.
Mind you, compared with the 2007 to 2009 incumbent, Blackman comes across like David Starkey addressing a Ukip rally after a Jeroboam of Cheval Blanc ’47. I’m talking, of course, about the poet and author Michael Rosen — on whose best-known book I am more than qualified to pass judgment, having read it several times and found it to be possibly the most mind-numbingly tedious work in the entire canon of children’s literature.
I forget the book’s name but basically it’s about these kids whose parents take them on a bear hunt. Possibly because they inhabit some fluffy liberal fantasyland where actions have no consequences — it’s never explained — the parents seem to have no idea how dangerous the enterprise is. Nor does the author. Or, if he does, he cops out completely in his dismal pay-off. (Spoiler alert.) The bear comes out of his cave but doesn’t rip any of the family’s faces off, as bears are wont to do with their razor-sharp, salmon-stripping paws. Instead, it just stumbles after them endearingly. And they all live happily ever after. (Now imagine having to re-read that every night for up to five years. As I didn’t, luckily. We were much more Goodnight Moon, Oh, The Places You’ll Go! and The Rats by James Herbert, thank goodness.)
Anyway, if I’d written a book as unbelievably dull as that, I think the last thing I’d be doing is going round the country pontificating on the cultural needs of Britain’s kiddies. But it hasn’t put off Rosen.
Rosen’s main bugbear — as riffed on endlessly in his Guardian column — seems to be that the vile, constrictive Tory establishment is hellbent on imposing on the nation’s kids the kind of rigorous, disciplined education he suffered at Watford Grammar School for Boys in the early 1960s, which meant that despite his ordinary background he could only get into Wadham College, Oxford, to read English.
Perhaps he’s right. Maybe the very last thing kids need in the 21st century is to be taught to read quickly and efficiently using the tried-and-tested phonics method; maybe memorising poetry and absorbing facts really does damage children’s vital creativity; maybe all classes should be remodelled on Alan Bennett’s History Boys, whereby fabulous, freewheeling, inspirational teachers spend every lesson digressing on anything but the subject they’re supposed actually to be teaching.
Problem is — and of course, I wouldn’t expect Rosen to be aware of this, the children’s sector being almost entirely composed of doctrinaire progressives — that not everyone who has kids is left-wing. Some of us have different views as to how our children should best be educated. And it would be nice, one day, to hear these views being expressed by a Children’s Laureate. Not this one, necessarily: he does after all draw for the Observer. But the next one, maybe, who might turn out to be someone proper along the lines of Susan Hill or Anthony Horowitz. And, please God, anyone but Terry Deary.
From the Spectator