Quote marks: an open and shut case

18th July 1997 at 01:00
It was a bargain: three of Dick Bruna's Miffy books in a charming little Miffy bag my three-year-old would kill for, and all for a fiver. Of course, the books were instantly torn from my hands by colleagues in the staffroom who grew up with Miffy and wanted a little nostalgic wallow. Even we Janet and John graduates can recognise the charm of Dick Bruna's highly characteristic illustrations: deceptively simple, even minimalist if you want to be posh, and instantly appealing to children. I gather that Dick Bruna is rather out of fashion in the early years world. But what the hell.

Miffy is a little white rabbit who rides her bike, has a nice birthday (she gets a pair of scissors, a whistle and some crayons. "Hooray!" shouts Miffy in a moment of stark narrative realism) and, rather daringly, goes on a bus to visit her friend. (An element of suspense: will she fall asleep and miss her stop? No such luck.) Clearly, we are not talking Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, but the stories are inoffensive and have a simple charm, and the children love them. What more do you want?

Well, for a start, how about a comma or two? Or quotation marks when someone is speaking? For the books' new publisher has changed the text and taken out nearly all the punctuation. Here's the start of Miffy's Birthday in the original translation:

One morning Miffy woke up early.

She took a bar of soap, and her soft yellow sponge.

She washed from top to toe.

And in the new version:

Little Miffy one fine day

was early out of bed

she washed herself from top to toe

there now, that's done, she said.

I make that one full stop after "bed" with a capital letter to follow (though there is an arguable case for a semicolon), a full stop after "toe" and quotation marks for the direct speech. Where there is more than one speaker, the lack of quotation marks actually makes it hard for the children to work out who is speaking. The older books are grammatically correct throughout, so what's happened with the new versions?

My children's education was in the balance here, not to mention my fiver. I rang the publisher, World International, in Cheshire. Leaving aside the point that the new translation has lost all the charm of the old, why had they taken the punctuation out of a perfectly good text? They pointed out that the new text rhymes. Well, yes, though not always very successfully, nor always very rhythmically either. But even if it was written in Alexandrine couplets, why could it not be punctuated properly? Can very young children not cope with punctuation?

At the local primary school I phoned they were horrified. "If you take away the punctuation," they asked, "how will the children learn to write?" The National Association of Teachers of English was as nonplussed as me.

An old chum who trains English teachers in Devon pointed out, fairly enough, that good poetry to some extent carries its own punctuation in the metre. There is something in this. Some of the Ahlberg titles for young children carry no punctuation, but they are written in little verses for chanting, and in Each Peach Pear Plum there are only two lines to a double page. But once the verse starts to tell a story, as in Cops and Robbers or the crazy world of Dr Seuss or even - whisper who dares! - the Christopher Robin poems, it is properly punctuated. So why not Miffy?

Janet and John may have been bourgeois, reactionary, homophobic unreconstructed imperialists, but at least they spoke in quotation marks.

Sean Lang is head of history at Hills Road Sixth Form College, Cambridge

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