Children’s books in the literary marketplace

Many illustrated books for children are packed with stereotypes. From ‘naughty’ Spot who won’t eat his dinner, to mummies dressed in pink aprons, and daddies who read the paper and go on adventures, the children’s literary marketplace seems to be dominated by conditional parenting and conservative narratives. Although there are fantastic children’s illustrators and writers, we also need to ask what is not published. Where are the breastfeeding Mums, full-time Dads and examples of unconditional parenting? Ashley Wolff reports the difficulties she had trying to convince her publishers to include certain pictures in the fantastic Only the Cat Saw. She writes: ‘this book has two scenes that I had to fight for. One shows the little girl, Amy, sleepily visiting the bathroom in the middle of the night. The other shows Amy’s mother breastfeeding baby Sam.’

Although there is an excellent Research and Teaching Centre for Children’s Literature at the University of Cambridge, which hosted the international  The Child and the Book conference earlier this month, all too often we assume that children’s books are politically neutral and ideologically innocent. We are encouraged ‘not to read too much’ into these books, and the study of children’s literature remains a marginal strand of literary theory within most university Literature Departments.

So, this is an attempt to champion a few books that go against the grain. Some of these books have pictures of breastfeeding, slings and affectionate fathers, whilst others show child-led parenting and princesses who like being ‘Ms’. Others are plain funny, and simply lack the tentative Mums, frilly girls and naughty boys.

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