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English is . . . what exactly?;Briefing;Analysis

Children's fiction can help to determine how the young see themselves and others. Geraldine Brennan reports

What does it mean to be English? And why do the English assume that the rest of the world wants to know? Children's books may not have all the answers, but they have become a focus for a growing debate about who and what we are, how we see others - and how they see us.

Fiction plays a key role in citizenship education by helping children to develop a sense of national identity and the means of appreciating other cultures.

Educationists with an interest in children's reading have recently started to study how giving young readers a wider choice of fiction and picture books could alter their view of themselves and the world.

Alongside this debate runs a discussion in publishing that probably predates Caxton - about the import-export imbalance in the children's book trade which means that UK children's publishers supply cultural wallpaper to the rest of the world while only American series fiction makes a substantial impression on the mass market in return.

Books in translation from the rest of Europe have a particularly poor showing (although there are signs that this will change - the second Marsh award for UK translations of children's literature will be presented later this month). The IEDEP, a Europe-wide organisation of teachers, teacher educators and researchers, held a recent conference called Insiders and Outsiders with a central theme of how nationality and belonging are established in children's books.

What this boils down to, argues Margaret Meek, emeritus professor at the Institute of Education, London University, is: "How do children distinguish between the goodies and the baddies? How do you know who the villain is and who the hero is?

"Different cultures have different ways of speaking to and about children. Stories for children - novels especially - are little theories of culture. How will children reach into the unspoken assumptions of the text? How will children regard strangers? There are no innocent texts and learning to read means learning that, too."

The English have a fine tradition of producing books crammed with "do they mean us?" treatments of other nations. Emer O'Sullivan, of Frankfurt's Goethe University, has studied the portrayal of Germans in English children's books between 1870 (the year of the unification of Germany) and 1990. She uncovered an unsurprising array of stereotypes "many of which say very little about the Germans, but a lot about the English".

Pre-1914, the stereotype was a benign one - our German cousins appeared mainly in fairytales and stories of peasant life and were portrayed as pious, honest lovers of music and nature with occasional bursts of acceptable Prussian valour.

The nosedive of the German fictional image continued through two world wars into Allo, Allo territory. Even when positive treatments began to appear from the 1960s, wartime themes and settings predominated.

Some books, she has found, successfully show similarities between people rather than differences - in The Machine Gunners, the 1975 Carnegie Medal novel by Robert Westall, the German pilot befriended by English children "looked like somebody's dad" - or set out stereotypes,only to then demolish them.

"Every time you open a book as a German or a Russian or a French person you don't have a blank mind - you have a stack of images. The author can either play to these images or subtract from them."

In Hungary, a reclaimed sense of national identity is a relatively new concept in literature for young people. Anna Adamik Jaszo, of Oeutreus Lorand University in Budapest, referred to a need "to achieve a balance between patriotism and internationalism, creating a European reader".

With that European reader in mind, the University of Exeter School of Education has joined teacher-training institutions in Greece, Spain and France in Only Connect.

This is a project to foster understanding by creating a pool of books for eight to 10-year-olds reflecting each country's culture.

Cathie Holden, of Exeter, is currently looking for suitable titles between 4,000 and 6,000 words long, to be translated by modern languages students. The search for an "average" UK setting - contemporary, probably urban and multicultural, showing "typical" home and school life - has proved more difficult than expected.

"We have many good titles under consideration, but some of those that meet the other criteria are too long," says Dr Holden. "But we hope we will be able to disseminate books that will not otherwise be translated."

Meanwhile, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority is funding a project to examine how much cultural identity is being absorbed between the lines of picture books.

The QCA consultants, former early-years teacher Julia Hodgeon and Shropshire primary head Peter Traves, are studying picture books from France, New Zealand and the Caribbean alongside 10 English titles, and assessing what children are learning about their national values.

"The English love to talk about themselves and what it means to be English," Julia Hodgeon told the IEDEP conference, where they outlined their project. "If you look at a set of English picture books, you will get that idea even more strongly."

The English books (as opposed to Irish, Scottish or Welsh) included in the QCA study range from Beatrix Potter's turn-of-the-century Tale of Peter Rabbit to contemporary classics such as Burglar Bill by Janet and Allen Ahlberg, Grandpa by John Burningham, and Dogger by Shirley Hughes.

Hodgeon and Traves are not ready to release findings yet, but can point to some qualities that most of the English books have in common. Beatrix Potter's rural idyll is still prominent in the picture-book world, where the countryside is generally of a south-central England, "Cotswoldy", variety. There is also a recognisably English moral landscape, leaning away from abstractions and towards common-sense values. The reform of Burglar Bill in the Ahlberg book, Hodgeon and Traves argue, has a distinctly English Protestant ring to it - Bill repents after being burgled himself, and sins no more.

The QCA project is an exercise in cultural studies rather than literary criticism - Hodgeon and Traves are not arguing that the cultural slant in the books should not be there, simply that it should not be invisible. It's important that we know that the wallpaper's there but it might be necessary to paint over it.

"Books written for good intent are usually awful," said Traves. "What we want is powerful readers who will recognise the values in the books, some of which they will want to question."

Their report to the conference argued that: "To acknowledge the existence of a set of broad characteristics that can be identified with the dominant spirit of a nation is not the same as asserting the value of nationalism."

The pattern on the wallpaper may become clearer when the QCA study is completed this year.

In the meantime, Margaret Meek has identified one characteristic in the warm beer and village green category: "The most prevalent feature of the national identity is that curious stone wall between accepting foreign books and wanting to disseminate our own."

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