Children’s literature needs to be less about getting cheap laughs out of bodily functions and more about appealing to the imagination and senses – even allowing a little fear. By Elizabeth Farrelly.

What’s missing in children’s literature

The Pauline Gandel Children’s Quarter at the State Library Victoria, Melbourne.
The Pauline Gandel Children’s Quarter at the State Library Victoria, Melbourne.
Credit: Shuang Li / Alamy

The five-year-old in my life is under strict instruction, come library day, to bring home no fart books. “Fart book” is an umbrella term. It covers not only the genre of contemporary crowd-pleasers that rely on farts, poo, skidmarks, underpants and vomit to cut through the clamour of hyperchoice in the children’s book market, but also all those tomes of dreary didacticism that pretend moral instruction while actually teaching both child and adult that reading is an impossible bore. The common factor is the almost complete absence of plot, character, nuance, depth, wit or imaginative stretch. Which is why a fart book is a thing I decline to read.

Ideally, a good children’s book will please the adult as well as the child – not because the adult’s pleasure is primary, but because layeredness is an essential quality of literature. Layeredness, which is not a word but should be, is a simple story’s ability to double, at a slightly deeper level, as gentle satire, rewarding plot structure or persuasive parable; perhaps all three. This gives both depth and deliciousness, an appeal much like that of layered foods – think lasagne, trifle, club sandwiches, licorice allsorts – that reward the bite with a synchronous multiplicity of flavour, texture and pace.

Such stories still offer moral education – just not the sort that is so common now, delivered in facts and politically acceptable propaganda. You don’t teach someone to be kind or generous by telling them everyone will be happier if they are – much as that might be true – especially not in a culture that unashamedly rewards the opposite qualities. So books with names like Be You! and I Am Me are unlikely to have that effect, any more than Daddy Farty Pants and Peekaboo Poo! will make a child love reading. Rather, a moral sense starts with imagination, the wellspring of curiosity, driver of understanding and origin of empathy.

Maurice Sendak’s wonderful adage should be a universal yardstick: “I don’t believe in childhood. I don’t believe that there’s a demarcation … You tell them anything you want. Just tell them if it’s true.” Never talk down, never sanitise, patronise or facilitate dreary moralistic claptrap. Good children’s literature must be good literature, period.

In overlooking this maxim we have unwittingly policed imagination out of our children’s mental diet. So much so that a concerned primary teacher told me recently the kids in her class no longer did imaginative play. They cannot make someone the aeroplane and someone else the goanna. They wait to be entertained.

Two impulses have fed our accidental war on imagination: one good, one bad. The honourable urge is to guard childhood’s innocence against the big bad wolves, including almost all negative emotions, especially fear and prejudices such as sexism, racism, elitism and monoculturalism. The less honourable urge is moral laziness. It’s the fast-food impulse to pacify a child with those high-GI-low-fibre books they already want to read: to offer vocab they already know, worlds they already see, relationships that are already familiar and jokes at which they already laugh. Farts, say.

Together, these impulses mean contemporary children’s books are more finely sieved than ever through a collated tut-tuttery of publishers, editors, parents and librarians. The result, naturally, is mush. And mush is ineffectual.

Above all, literature needs to be interesting. Elmore Leonard’s advice about writing is simple enough, and I paraphrase: write the book, then take out the boring bits. If we applied this to most of today’s books, there wouldn’t be a lot left between the covers.

Children’s tales used to be emotionally stormy, linguistically demanding and intellectually multidimensional. The wonderful, perhaps ninth century collection of African, Middle Eastern and Asian stories known as 1001 Nights was first published in English as Arabian Nights’ Entertainments in 1706-21, giving us the fabulous tales of Sinbad, Aladdin and Scheherazade. In 1937, Hans Christian Andersen, who grew up on Arabian Nights, published such tales as “The Emperor’s New Clothesand “The Little Mermaid”. The Wind in the Willows, written by Kenneth Grahame in 1908, is the pugnacious tale of the narcissistic Toad. The original Peter Pan, written by J. M. Barrie in 1911, contains unimagined insights: “Mrs. Darling first heard of Peter when she was tidying up her children’s minds. It is the nightly custom of every good mother after her children are asleep to rummage in their minds and put things straight for the next morning…”

To teach courage, say, read your child Sinbad’s flight with the roc, bound to a huge piece of diamond-studded meat. To teach humility, fly with Icarus too close to the sun and suffer the heart-plummeting consequences. To teach perseverance and self-sacrifice, suffer the nettle-stung hands of Hans Christian Andersen’s Elisa in “The Wild Swans” and share her joy when at last she can speak. The lessons aren’t really the point, though. These stories should be read because they are wonderful literature: soaring narrative arcs that choreograph sentences to create complex characters within imagined worlds of intense physical, visual and emotional experience. Plus, for an adult reading to a child, there’s the extra delight of experiencing those worlds together.

Most children now know only the faded and sanitised Disney versions of these stories. Few know there are even originals. The racism and sexism that threads some of these narratives would rightly never be reproduced today, but sadly it seems their complexity has also become an anachronism – too sophisticated and too vivid to be what we consider “relatable” or “safe”.

Yet the benefits of experiencing fear in a safe situation – as with adventure playgrounds – are now widely recognised and the world into which we will send our children has never been more different from the vanilla world of contemporary kid-lit. As to relatable, we wouldn’t think of limiting a physical skill to what the child could already do. We wouldn’t feed them constant junk food.

As Anthony Esolen writes in Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, “Fairy tales and folk tales are for children and childlike people, not because they are little and inconsequential, but because they are as enormous as life itself.”

We don’t have to reach back to the classics for good material, either. Many fine books written in the past century deservedly remain international favourites. Maurice Sendak’s unsurpassable Where the Wild Things Are is now 60 years old, and the same decade produced Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar and Margaret Mahy’s wonderful A Lion in the Meadow. Her even more wonderful The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate was published a few years later. From the 1990s there’s Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, Nick Denchfield’s Charlie the Chicken and Nina Bawden’s marvellous Granny the Pag. And any books by Emily Rodda or Alison Lester (but especially Magic Beach) are world-enriching.

In the end, it goes to what we think education is for. What we think life is for, maybe. Is a cultivated mind merely a collection of facts and figures, morality mere etiquette and success measured in career terms? Or is the moral universe only properly apprehended via strenuous inquiry as to the human condition? If you think this stretch for the soul is our duty as citizens, begin as you mean to continue. Bring home no fart books.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 7, 2023 as "Less wind, more willows".

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