Burden of being big brother

4th July 1997 at 01:00
Political correctness, right or wrong? Sian Griffiths reports on a series of children's books produced in a spirit of compromise between the writers and academics

It's Wednesday night and Mum is fed up with cooking. She's sick of the slicing and chopping, the steaming and simmering. This is all well and good - but what, then, is everyone going to have for tea? "Easy," says Mum. "We'll go and get a pizza and Dad can pay."

It's a promising start to Jack and Me and the Pizza - a counting book that builds in a colourful way to a pizza laden with toppings - from two pineapple rings to 10 pieces of sweetcorn. But the opening caused "ructions" between Mick Gowar, the book's author, and his editor, Paula Borton, following advice from two academic consultants.

Sue Robson and Alison Kelly, senior lecturers in education at the Early Childhood Centre, Roehampton Institute, London, were hired as consultants on Early Worms, a new series of concept books for three to six-year-olds, published by Franklin Watts.

They gave advice on early drafts, picking up on issues ranging from appropriate vocabulary to the conceptual knowledge expected of a young child (the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority's desirable outcomes). They checked the illustrations and suggested subjects for future books (children's painting, a new schoolchild's anxiety about going to the toilet, buying new shoes). More controversially, they kept an eye out for stereotypical characters - too many dads washing cars, or stay-at-home mums.

It was on the last point that Jack and Me and the Pizza was hauled up. The academics, says Borton, suggested opening the book with a dad, rather than a mum, who is sick of cooking. Mum could then take on the financial role of paying for the takeaway. "They were very keen," explains Borton, "on filtering the books' multi-ethnic characters and gender roles."

Gowar was unimpressed. "They were in search of an ideal that does not exist. This was a book about counting. My concern was less with the sociology than with getting the counting going," he says. "Most feminists would agree one of the problems is that cooking is usually done by mother, whether she is working or not."

Gowar's view prevailed and Paula Borton managed to persuade the consultants that the general format of the four Jack and Me books - in which the feistiness of a big brother counterpoints the passive common sense of his younger sister - was also acceptable.

But Gowar's doubts about "writing by committee" remain. "In the end the success of a book comes down to the quality of the story and the illustrations," he says. "It doesn't matter how politically progressive it is. You can have all the advice you like - but a good committee is not going to turn a weak story into a better one by engaging with as many sociological issues as possible."

Despite the spat, Gowar says some of the academics' advice was valuable. In Jack and Me at the Seaside, for instance - an introduction to shapes - they suggested replacing the word "rectangle" with "oblong" (a rectangle is any four-sided shape, including a square). They intervened too on Jack and Me and the Snowman, which is about size - replacing the snowman sequence "big, bigger, biggest" with "smallest, bigger, biggest" - because, Alison Kelly says: "From a teaching point of view things seem to be small or big in relation to something else."

In Jack and Me and the Ball, which introduces positional words - "up", "down", "over" - the two sides compromised. The academics said the objects Jack was throwing at the tree in a bid to dislodge the ball were too middle-class. Out went the hat-stand - replaced with Mum's umbrella - but the golf clubs stayed.

In the four other books published to launch the series - Morning Time, Play Time, Shopping Time and Bed Time - they focused on lopping off bits of text to allow Britta Granstrom's illustrations to do more of the work.

"One of the aims of the series is to encourage interaction between the adult reader and the listening child," says Alison Kelly. "It's nice to have gaps in the text to allow the child and reader to discuss what's going on." It's an aim encouraged by a page for teachers and parents reproduced at the end of each book which explains current thinking about the first stages of reading awareness and development.

Both teacher trainers considered the consultation valuable and were anxious to dispel the suggestion that their role was to criticise the writer's or illustrator's work. But what of the charge that they were participating in producing "books by committee"?

"There is a point in that. But if you're putting together a series there has to be some sort of continuity. I am not sure within that I would say the books particularly have their own individuality and distinctiveness. But that would be for the authors to reflect on," says Kelly.

Gowar, however, has already reflected and come to this conclusion: "If you have this writing by committee there is a real danger that the books you produce will be bland, boring and correct -and no one will want to read them."

Early Worms series. Published by Franklin Watts, Pounds 4.99 each. Another eight Early Worms will be published in the autumn - on the weather and first experiences - and a further 16 next year

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