What are they on about?

23rd June 2000 at 01:00
David Newnham on the slippery slope to Beano land

However I say this, it will be misconstrued, so I'd better spit it out and be done with it.

I feel uneasy about Letterland.

Do I worry that Lyn Wendon's ubiquitous pictograms hinder rather than help children with their reading? Not in the least. Am I concerned that a few will never cope with letters that are not attached to some cheeky character? Absolutely not.

Do I think, then, that the whole business of kings and queens and bouncing bunnies is too twee for words? I'm happy with twee, since you ask.

But tell me something. What is it, exactly, that Ticking Tess does? Who is Lucy Lamp Lady and what is the relationship between Max and Maxine? For there is something about these surreal characters, forever smiling as they bear the burden of their monstrous letters, that I find disquieting.

Where is Letterland? I spy snow-covered peaks and an Amish farmstead.I see a baseball bat and a yo-yo man. Are we stranded in mid-Atlantic?

And when is Letterland? Quarrelsome Queen wears ermine and a crown, yet her Kicking King sports Kevin Keegan boots. Robber Red stillhides behind a mask, yet I've seen his shed down at the garden centre.

Hang on, you say. Letterland is a dream world and things aren't meant to add up. What's more, it's for children, and since when have four-year-olds sat around discussing the pros and cons of anachronism as a dramatic device?

You're right. And, to be honest, I felt perfectly relaxed in Tellytubby land, where only the toaster made any sense at all. So what's the real reason for my unease?

All right, I admit it. I just don't like the look of the place. Call me a snob, but I've been pampered by a generation of children's books that are nicely done in watercolours with middle-class parents in mind, and I'm just not ready to revisit the 1960s comic.

That's right. There's something about these badly drawn sandcastles and naive, arthritic figures - the carrot-topped Naughty Nick and Golden Girl with her retro ponytail - that puts me in mind of Dandy and Beano.

I didn't like them then, so why should I like them now? Faced with Hairy Hat Man, I am suddenly reminded of Desperate Dan. And I know that those Bash Street Kids cannot be far behind.


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