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Would the real Rebecca please stand up?

It is good to see the new Education Secretary promoting children's literature. His reference to a 1903 novel by Philadelphia-born Kate Douglas Wiggin on Radio 4's Today programme last week, provided fuel for diarists for days.

"The point about John Reid is that he is not Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm,"

said Alan Johnson, in response to a suggestion that his Home Secretary colleague was kowtowing to the tabloids. "He doesn't get pushed around by anyone."

Thing is, neither does Rebecca Rowena Randall. She is forthright, feisty, honourable, responsible, and above all, cheery. She is just naughty enough not to be nauseating. Not quite Pollyanna, another young turn-of-the-century American heroine who gamely goes off to live with a stern aunt.

"Politicians and journalists have a great deal to learn from them," says primary education consultant Dinah Starkey. "Thinking positive instead of leaping in and saying everyone's getting things wrong."

That said, Rebecca does do a rather good line in spin. For instance, in her determination to paint a positive picture, she decides to call her aunt's gloomy abode Sunnybrook Farm, although it has neither sunniness nor (as I recall) a brook.

A Department for Education and Skills spokeswoman could not clarify whether or not Mr Johnson had actually read Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, but confirmed he had bought the book for his now-grown daughters many years ago. In referring to Rebecca, he was not aiming to do a comparison of every characteristic of hers with those of John Reid, she pointed out.

Just as well, for this was not the first time the Labour stalwart has bandied the character's name about in public.

"We do not know whether we face an Opposition of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm or the Boston strangler on the minimum wage," he declared in a 2003 debate on low pay when he was an employment minister.

Then, as the new work and pensions secretary, Mr Johnson told a 2004 commons select committee hearing about a woman who had been on invalidity benefit for 25 years, but was able to return to work as a result of a government programme. "It is fair to say her life has been transformed by that. I do not want to be Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm about this...".

So many people who may or may not be Rebecca! John Reid, the entire Parliamentary Tory Party, and then Mr Johnson himself.

And he probably doesn't realise that Sunnybrook Farm's author Kate Douglas Wiggin was a notable educationist of her time. "Neither a rebel nor a radical, she was nevertheless a confident, forward-looking woman who was clearly expected to "do something" with her life and talents - as she did,"

says Anne Scott MacLeod in Twentieth Century Children's Writers. Mrs Wiggin joined the kindergarten movement, studied the child-centred methods of Froebel still popular today, taught children and teachers. She understood the state of Maine, where Rebecca is set, as well as the strengths and narrowness of its rural folk.

As to the heroine herself, MacLeod writes that she has a "warm heart, quick intelligence and free-flying spirit" - qualities any politician would want to aspire to.

Diane Hofkins

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