Mistress of the unmentionables;Interview;Babette Cole;Picture BooksEarly years

7th November 1997 at 00:00
4-7

She's done sex - now it's time for divorce. Babette Cole talks about tackling taboos to Elaine Williams

Comedy is the ultimate art of subversion, a fact understood by Babette Cole as no other when it comes to creating children's books. She uses humour to stunning effect to tackle the taboo subjects of children's literature: sex (Mummy Laid an Egg!, which earned her the British Book Award), death (Drop Dead), health, even worms and nits (Dr Dog) and, most recently, divorce in Two of Everything (Jonathan Cape pound;9.99).

One suspects that the creator of Princess Smartypants is not unlike her heroine - happy with her own company, her idiosyncratic lifestyle and her animals. On her farm in Lincolnshire she breeds show hunters and keeps dogs with ridiculous names.

Visitors to her farmhouse stand by as she cooks dog mush on the Aga and lavishes honeyed love words on her two Norfolk terriers, Wobble and Mr Wigglington, her elegant, grey, shoulder-high deerhound, Lady Lupin Longtail, and her puppies Lavender, Lily, Lobelia, Lochinvar, Luciano Pavarotti and the rest. But she insists on regular short fixes of London life and her humour is sharp and urban.

She spares no one: vegetarians, hamburger-guzzling couch potatoes, parents, adolescents, grandparents, the aristocracy, the middle and working classes; all fall victim to her acerbic illustrations and prose. Her editor is right. Underneath the wide, warm smile and bubbly, breathy voice there is a mind like a steel trap.

What right has a 47-year-old woman who has never been married and never had children to write a funny book for children about divorce? Two of Everything has already earned Babette abuse from commentators who think she is making light of a serious subject. She admits that shehad some regrets after taking on the latest in her Jonathan Cape series of unmentionable subjects, but felt duty bound not to abandon it.

"I wanted children to see that it's not their fault if their parents choose to behave like five-year-olds. Children think it is their fault; they think they are the only ones going through this and that they are helpless to do anything about it. I think this book helps them to see that they don't have to let silly adults screw up their lives."

In the story, Paula and Demetrius Oglebutt resolve their parents' vitriolic and spiteful disputes by organising an "un-wedding" (above) and an "un-honeymoon". The differences between a fusty, tweedy father and a racy raver of a mother make for a string of farcical incidents - he shrinks her knickers, she puts cowpats in his cap - enhanced by quick, fresh, linear, almost Gerald Scarfe-like illustrations. Under the sharp, spiky witticism the pictures are powerfully expressive of pain, hate and unhappiness.

Two of Everything is a no-messing scrutiny of divorce, with the bitterness transformed into something more manageable and less fearful for children.

Two of Everything by Babette Cole. Jonathan Cape pound;9.99

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