[Reader-list] Hartosh Singh Bal's article on children's books

Chintan Girish Modi chintan.backups at gmail.com
Tue Apr 26 09:52:13 IST 2011

*Kids Stuff*

*by Hartosh Singh Bal*
*April 25, 2011*Like so many others in India, I grew up on tales from the
Mahabharata and the Ramayana and the books of Enid Blyton. Well produced
children’s books with an Indian context were rare, and now looking back I’m
not sure as children we needed such a context. Most children’s books are
lived out in world of fantasy, where more things are possible than we ever
allow ourselves to imagine as an adult. The Mahabharata and the Ramayana,
related either as oral tales or in abridged and sanitized versions,
fulfilled such a role admirably and even today I find the flying
broomsticks, magic spells and talking animals of Harry Potter somewhat tame
compared to all that I took for granted as a child.

In this world Enid Blyton fitted in admirably, I’d say Enid Blyton was a
better children’s writer for those reading her in India than in England. For
us the world she described was a land of fantasy as unreal and magical as
Narnia or the Shires. Meals of tongue sandwich and lemonade at the bottom of
the garden had a magical quality, now rather sadly and blandly dispelled
after tasting tongue as an adult. In this magical world I now learn there
were undertones of racism, but these were lost on us, a golliwog was just
another inhabitant with no existence for us as a caricature. In the same way
it was only as an adult that I registered that the Narnia books were an
allegory, the Lion as a stand in for Christ was thankfully lost on us in

Now, several decades later as a parent I am encountering a set of books
whose equivalent I do not recall from my childhood – picture books, meant
for an even younger audience. The books I do recall are the cheap and
splendidly illustrated children’s books from the Progress Publishers of the
USSR that flooded the Indian market thanks to our decision to willingly ally
with the Soviets. These are no longer available, and in their stead has
appeared a literature I was largely unaware of, such as The Happy Lion,
Paddington – The original story of the bear from Peru, Tyrannosaurus Drip
and Tiddler – The storytelling fish.

Some of these are classics of the genre, The Happy Lion has been around from
1954. Thankfully, it has escaped the bowdlerization the Enid Blyton books
have recently undergone and can blissfully state that the happy lion’s
``home was not the hot and dangerous plains of Africa,/ where hunters lie in
wait with their guns./ It was a lovely French town with brown-tile roofs and
gray shutters./ The happy lion had a house in the town zoo, all for
himself…’’ Considering that a great many of the hunters who would have once
lain in wait would have been French, leave alone the relative merits of zoos
and open grassy plains, I can see how a case for certain changes could be
made out.

Paddington was published around the same time. The story of a stowaway bear
from Peru who finds his way to Paddington station has become well known
enough to have generated its own merchandising. Perhaps it is only my third
world sensibility but when Paddington insists on saying he is from `darkest
Peru” I cringe.  I cannot imagine someone saying `darkest India’ and I am
sure `darkest Africa’ would no longer find it to print in our times.  Yet, I
can’t quite imagine asking for the kind of `rectification’ we have seen with
the Enid Blyton books. This constant hankering to change the past to suit
our present seems to one of the necessities of our times, but this mania for
political correctness seems to ignore the fact that norms are under constant
change and we, with all our good intentions, are preparing books in our
times that may seem equally problematic when seen from another point of

Julia Donaldson, an author who should today rank as the Enid Blyton or J.K.
Rowlings of this genre, writes in verse and works with a number of
illustrators. As a parent her books have been a constant delight to read out
aloud, or were till I came across one rather appropriately named
Tyrannosaurus Drip.  ``In a swamp by the river, where the land was thick
with veg/ Lived a herd of duckbill dinosaurs who roamed the water’s edge/And
they hooted, ``Up with rivers!’’ and they hooted, ``Up with reeds!’’/ And
they hooted, ``Up with   bellyfuls of juicy water weeds!/ Now across the
rushy river, on a hill the other side, Lived a mean Tyrannosaurus with his
grim and grisly bride./ And they shouted, ``Up with war!’’/ And they
shouted, ``Up with bellyfuls of duckbill dinosaurs/ …’’

It isn’t difficult to see where this is going, even in its delightful verse
it is rather crude. People who are vegetarians out of conviction rather than
custom evoke the image of the early Christians, sanctimonious and
insufferable.  So it is no surprise the story conjures up a young male born
to the Tyrannosaurus family who discovers he is a vegetarian and literally
swims across to the other side.  A fallen trunk provides a chance for his
family to follow and make a meal of the veggie dinosaurs. Just when I found
myself hoping they would, the young turncoat tricks his non-vegetarian
parents and siblings and sends them tumbling down a waterfall out to sea.
With this, it seems to me, however lightheartedly, we are not very far from
the Soviets, who thought a young boy who betrayed his father in the name of
some abstract principle was the perfect example for young children to
follow. A writer, for children or adults, who forgets that we are creatures
whose appetites are governed by emotion rather than reason will end up
writing propaganda ,which is a shame because Julia Donaldson can be a
delightful writer.

A book I enjoy as much as my son is the tale of the storytelling fish
Tiddler, who blew ``small bubbles but told tall tales’’. Swept up by a
fishing net while dreaming up another of his tales, he is discarded far from
home. Lost and frightened he hides in the ocean till he hears a shoal of
anchovies relating a tale he had once told. He follows his own stories home,
stories that have spread because among his listeners there was one, little
Johnny Dory who *loved* hearing and relating them.  A few weeks ago I found
myself at restaurant ordering fish, and came across Johnny Dory on the menu.
Try as I might I could not bring myself to order the dish. My gut was
telling me something my mind never would, I was also being served up with a
reminder that whatever the genre there is always a difference between a good
book and a bad one.

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