Wednesday 1 April 2015

A Corrupting Influence?

Tomorrow is International Children’s Book Day. A couple of years ago I wrote an article celebrating Tove Jansson, one of the winners of the biennial Hans Christian Andersen Award. When the next award is announced next year I’ll look at some of the other lgbt writers and illustrators who have either won that award or have been nominated for it.

Many children’s books have been written in recent years using lgbt issues as the main subject. Quite often these books have been banned from public libraries and denounced by some misguided, self-appointed guardians of children’s morals as being corrupting influences. These books are a subject deserving of an article on its own.

Today’s article is about general children’s fiction (novels, picture books, verse) which have no lgbt content but have been written by lgbt authors. Tove Jansson, and indeed Hans Christian Andersen, is a perfect example of what I mean. Other writers I’ve mentioned in this blog have been J.M. Barrie and Edward Lear. Two other lgbt writers I’ve mentioned before, Lionel Charlton and Dan Billany, wrote adventure books for boys.

Some of the greatest characters in children’s literature have come from the pens of lgbt writers. Of those created by the writers above there are the Moomins, the Little Mermaid, the Ugly Duckling, Peter Pan and the Owl and the Pussycat. I haven’t heard of any serious denunciation of any of them being a corrupting influence on children. On the contrary, most of them have been used to illustrate the issues that life brings to us all.

There is another addition to the pantheon of famous characters from children’s literature that have come from the pens of lgbt writers – Mary Poppins. Unfortunately, all that most people know about Mary Poppins, created by P. L. Travers, is what was created by Disney. P. L. Travers was never really happy with the musical comedy version that Walt Disney came up with. Had she lived to see the Disney studio’s recent film “Saving Mr. Banks”, a fictionalised version of the events surrounding the creation of the Mary Poppins film, Travers would probably be equally unhappy. But we’re not talking about the film today, but books.

What we can see is that lgbt writers have been writing for children since the genre’s evolution from folk tales and nursery stories. Hans Christian Andersen was a pioneer in this cross-over. The Victorian era has been seen as the Golden Age of children’s literature (though I’d argue that we’re in one now). Andersen’s classics were aimed at a younger audience, but most of Victorian literature was aimed at older children.

The Victorian era was very moralistic and optimistic. Classics such as “Oliver Twist” brought the plight of the poor working classes to the front of fictional writing. Philanthropists and politicians championed the rights of the poor and a rosy view of a society where people believed that everyone was capable of going from “rags to riches”.

One American writer who built a career on writing “rags to riches” stories for children was Horatio Alger jr. (1832-1899). Alger’s novels were incredibly popular in the late 1860s and early 1870s. He wrote many books telling essentially the same story, so you can imagine that after a while they became stale and “samey”. They did, however, contribute to the 19th century concept of the American Dream.

The Victorian era produced female lgbt writers as well. One of the most well-known in the USA was Katherine Lee Bates (1859-1929). Although better known as the writer of the words to the patriotic song “America the Beautiful”. Katherine wrote books of verse and edited several volumes on folk and fairy tales. One character she made popular was Mrs. Santa Claus. I’ll return to Katherine Lee Bates in my Advent series in December.

At the beginning of the 20th century there were very few lgbt writers of children’s literature. There was, however, an explosion of new illustration. Not all writers of literature are artist. For example, the bisexual author Margaret Wise Brown (1910-1952) wrote many picture books which were illustrated by other artist. Other writers emerged during the mid-20th century who illustrated their own work, such as Tove Jansson and Maurice Sendak.

In recent years the value of children’s literature has been highlighted, most recently in its success of the Harry Potter books and their contribution to literacy. Many children have started reading literature as a result. Each generation has provided influential children’s authors, both lgbt and straight, and their books have provided enjoyment to millions. How can anyone say any that books by lgbt authors corrupt children any more than those written by straight authors? Even though I’m in my 50s I still get great enjoyment out of reading children’s classic literature. I urge every adult to not abandon children’s books just because you are no longer a child. So pick up a kid’s book tomorrow.

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