Spot the bias

17th October 1997 at 01:00

Political correctness in children's books is a contentious issue, beset with misunderstandings, simplistic criteria and occasionally downright bigotry. Pat Pinsent, entering this confused and confusing area, keeps a clear head. Children's Literature and the Politics of Equality provides a thorough, detailed and sensible account of the cultural background and a non-doctrinaire examination of a wide range of children's books.

It is significant that Pinsent's style relies heavily on conditional statements, often followed by a qualification: for example, "Books which emphasise female characters may run into the danger of making them indistinguishable from males, though it could be argued that even doing this achieves the object of making females visible (my italics)."

Such tentative language exemplifies Pinsent's faithfulness to the lack of certainties and the slippery nature of the issues. At times, though, it leads her into confusion: referring to the theory that young readers need stereotypical characters, Pinsent comments that this "intensifies the need for such stereotypes, particularly if they are black or female, not to echo some of the out-of-date prejudices of society". What, then, is a stereotype?

This book is informed by the educational conviction that lies at the heart of Pinsent's thinking - that, since texts are never ideologically neutral, what matters more than anything else is that children should become discriminating readers.

Her writing is unequivocal on this point. "Children cannot be protected from all expressions of intolerance in literature or in life; what is more important is that they have enough self-esteem, and enough understanding of literature and society to contextualise such expressions." That is well said.

Occasionally some giveaway remark about a writer's "opinions" seems to indicate that she secretly believes that teaching literature would be more manageable if writers had a clear "intention" and teachers could control what happened in a reader's mind.

But what happens when a reader reads a text is elusively private - which is why Pinsent believes that non-judgmental discussion is central to the development of interpretive readers.

There are a number of things I would take issue with. She is wrong to sustain the common misunderstanding that fairy stories are full of handsome princes rescuing weak damsels in distress; there are fewer stories of this kind than is generally thought. When she grumbles that the characters Alice meets are mostly male, she might have pointed out that they are also mostly mad or ridiculous.

But such lapses are more than compensated by the fact that Pinsent redresses the balance in connection with a number of major writers and texts recently treated with undue severity, in particular Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, and Hugh Lofting's Dr Dolittle books; and she neatly puts into its political context the notorious controversy over Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin.

This is a useful book on children's literature. The later chapters will be particularly helpful to students and teachers concerned to develop their understanding of bias in books and improve the way they deal with literature in schools. Here they will find analyses of a range of fiction for older readers, picture books and some poetry, as well as sensible reassurance about current series fiction and popular comics and magazines.

This book will annoy readers who believe that children's books should be written to a criteria checklist. There are no rules here, only a central principle - that children need to be taught how to read and understand bias.

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