Children relish books that tackle unhappiness, unconventional lifestyles and death, so why do we insist they consume a diet of saccharine stories?
During a week of turmoil and grief at home and abroad, news outlets have been draped in a pall of black. So one small, colourful story stood out. The cartoon Peppa Pig, now a modern British institution, will feature, we are told, its first lesbian couple.
Diversity of representation is a dominant concern of contemporary children’s entertainment, both on screen and in books. And for good reason. We live in an increasingly heterogeneous society. Fair representation of minority groups is crucial to promoting inclusion and cohesion.
For some time it has been the Disney Corporation that has led the charge — Doc McStuffins stars a black girl who’s an aspiring doctor; Ducktales features a gay couple; and, most recently, The Owl House has a non-binary character, Raine.
But the Peppa Pig announcement has attracted special attention, partly because of the show’s huge reach but also because it’s unexpected. It’s no surprise that Boris Johnson is a Peppa fan. For the Pig family — Daddy Pig, Mummy Pig, Peppa and George and their plummy-voiced grandparents — are readily coded as Tories.
Their lives are a fable of traditional, staunchly middle-class and pastoral. While Daddy Pig commutes to work at the office and then comes home to read the newspaper, Mummy Pig’s role is mostly taken up with baking cookies and serving juice to the children, although in a nod to modernity she does sometimes shoo the children away so she can do “very important work” on her computer.
So the new addition of a polar bear character, Penny, who introduces Peppa to her two mummies, is a significant step toward programming that positively reflects a diverse world. Or at least represents how we might desperately hope, for our children’s sake, that a diverse world might look. A world where everyone is upwardly mobile and warmly accepted by their community and grows up in a loving home with affluence, never having to worry about how to pay the gas bill.
A lot of children’s programming today seems to be a projection of parental wishful thinking. The most popular stories that are addressed to children — such as Peppa Pig, Bluey, Daniel Tiger’s Neighbourhood, much of Netflix’s output, as well as modern classics by the likes of Julia Donaldson — shy away from any representation of the world that isn’t essentially happy and benign. The dramas they contain focus instead on foregrounding children’s own internal emotional dramas such as jealousy, friendship problems and sibling rivalry.
This is a result of our rush to promote laudable values of social justice in storytelling, combined with a modern reflex to shelter children from real-world worries. And it’s potentially problematic. There’s a risk that literature and films for children today are failing, or forgetting, to prepare them for adversity.
It’s a hard time for children, who live at the coal face of the big issues of the real world: financial struggle, family strife, separation, bereavement. They’re no more spared from the dark realities of the human experience, such as grief, poverty, mental illness and suffering, than adults are. They’re party to and affected by the same worries that preoccupy grown-ups. So why do the stories we tell them fix a saccharine smile on the world and insist, despite what they can see all around them, that everything is great?
My own kids are six and almost three. Until recently, they had been raised on a carefully selected, cheery and upbeat diet of modern classics heavy on positive messaging: authors such as Dr Seuss, Oliver Jeffers and Donaldson. A fictional universe of small mishaps and minor misadventures, usually reliably solved with the help of one of the many benevolent adults on hand.
The television programmes children enjoy might aim to teach valuable lessons of inclusion and promote emotional regulation, but they’re a roll-call of happy, nuclear families entirely sheltered from real hardship.
Compare this with the fairytales of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen we have started reading, which are full of death, abandonment, destitution and abuse. Where adults are untrustworthy and even malign, and where the endings aren’t always happy: the Tin Soldier falls in love, but perishes in the kitchen fireplace, leaving nothing but a glowing red ember-heart. The Little Mermaid watches her dreams dissolve before her eyes, before slipping back into the sea. These stories acknowledge the world as a dark and troubled place, but allow children to imaginatively make sense of that.
We recently came across Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. Published in 2004, it’s a raw and candid exploration of the writer’s grief at losing his young son to meningitis. It’s illustrated by Quentin Blake and addressed to children. Reading it felt radical and a bit transgressive. For a second, I hesitated before presenting such an unvarnished version of life to my kids. There’s no redemption or happy ending as the book ends, but a tentative offering of the small but meaningful consolations the world offers to those in pain. (“I love birthdays, not just mine, other people’s as well. Happy Birthday to you, and all that. And candles. There must be candles.”) But my six-year-old was completely fascinated. He wanted to read it again and again. Children, I realised, have a radar for the truth.
Escapism is good — it can be a coping strategy in itself. But I think many contemporary stories for children are an act of collective denial, which even children can see through.