When I was a child and was dragged along to church against my will, I would occasionally fight the boredom by reading the small picture books they had lying around. They told the stories of the saints of the Catholic Church. It wasn’t quite The X-Men, but reading about St Patrick banishing the snakes or Padre Pio’s powers of bilocation was better than nothing. Anything but the boredom of the Mass and sanctimony of the miserable people around us.
The stories were propaganda, in the most benevolent sense — designed to promote a system of values that should be imparted onto children. The Jesuit saying, “give me a child until seven and I will give you the man”, reflects the importance of shaping values at an early age.
I haven’t been so diligent in bringing my own children to church, and I’m pretty sure they couldn’t tell their St Catherine of Alexandria from their St Catherine of Sienna, but that’s not to say they aren’t being indoctrinated in the values of the ruling class’s faith.
When my daughters were around six and seven, they started French classes at a children’s library in our borough; I had been to our local library countless times but had mainly confined myself to the infant section, and older children’s books were something of a revelation. The entire front desk area was made up of hagiographies of Barack Obama and Nelson Mandela.
And hagiography is the most accurate term: these books were just like the ones I used to read in church. Here Blessed Nelson forgave his jailors, here St Barack healed America of its racial sins – and these are just a couple of examples.
It was a bit of a surprise — learning just how much the tone of kids’ books had changed since I was young and we wore onions on our belts. Nowadays, progressive politics is ever-present in children’s books. Which is fine, if you’re a believer; but if you’re a conservative, you’re faced with raising your children in a culture which is filled with messages you disagree with — sometimes misleading, sometimes anecdotally true but not representative, often just anti-wisdom, giving children the worst possible advice in life. And it’s becoming worse: since about 2016, children’s books have grown way more explicitly political.
Last month, a friend went to Tate Modern and took a picture of the young children’s section. Among the books on display are biographies of Greta Thunberg, something called Queer Heroes, another work called The Rainbow Flag, books about refugees, the bestselling Good Night Book for Rebel Girls — and its countless imitators. Whether you support it or not, this is propaganda; the aim is to raise a generation of progressives just as those Lives of the Saints were designed to bring forth young Christians.
And it works. Conservative ideas are very much in retreat, the subject of a brilliant new book I recently read (which, admittedly, I also wrote).
From a very young age, children are read books and shown films that teach them the core progressive messages: that we are all basically good and only behave badly because of circumstances; that borders and barriers are bad, stereotypes are wrong and girls ought to adopt traditional male gender roles if they want to be respected.
Stereotype inaccuracy is a popular idea — and a false one; in so many kids’ stories the unusual stranger or alien or wild animal who turns up in the neighbourhood will defy the small-minded pessimist who expects the worst. When it comes to gender politics, no self-respecting children’s book in the 21st century has girls aspiring towards being a princess and living happily ever after; to the post-ironic upper-middle-class parents who are the publishers’ main audience, that would just be lame.
There’s nothing wrong with all this, of course — and as a parent, it’s a relief when daughters move on from the pinky-princess-fairy stage of cartoons and onto the more thoughtful stuff that questions gender stereotypes. That questioning is a natural part of growing up and books open their minds to potentially endless possibilities — before they reach maturity and realise that gender identity matches biological sex in the vast majority of cases. Unfortunately, our culture has become stuck in this adolescent stage of late.
My in-laws kept dozens of books from the 1970s and early ’80s, which we read to our kids along with more recent ones. The general difference in tone was noticeable, progressive themes being almost totally absent in the older books. My Naughty Little Sister is naughty simply because she’s a bloody nuisance, and it’s not really celebrated either as some non-conforming, high-status trait; she’s not a ‘rebel girl’, she’s just annoying.
Of course, the Talmud of progressive children’s literature is the Harry Potter series, preaching of a boy born to freedom-fighter parents who has the bad luck to be brought up in a stultifying, conservative Surrey suburb by his dully conventional uncle and aunt.After the geeky, open-minded protagonist is allowed to go to wizard school, what follows is a battle between two worldviews: that of the snake-like Slytherin house, which favours the pure-blooded and aristocratic, and the inclusive Gryffindor house, kind-hearted and welcoming to people of all backgrounds.
The values in children’s books have changed over the past few decades because society has undergone a revolution in values. But as with previous revolutions, in France and Russia — and with the earlier Protestant Reformation, too — the process has sped up with its own momentum. The revolutions of 1789 and February 1917 are followed by more extreme jolts; Luther is followed by Calvin and Munster.
So after decades of accelerating social change, during the 2010s there was a marked and radical shift, especially among the English-speaking upper-middle-class, christened “the Great Awokening”. The term is a play on the Great Awakening, the 18th century religious revival in the United States — and the name is apt, since the movement has an obviously religious feel, sacralising victim groups and inspiring extreme hostility towards non-believers, heretics and apostates. Indeed poor old J.K. Rowling has herself been partly eaten by the revolution, after revealing herself to be a gender-critical feminist.
And so, with this great movement, there has been a proliferation of books for young children that aim to install progressive politics — and promote those most sacred of issues, women’s empowerment and racial equality, and to a lesser extent gay and trans rights.
There are now children’s books in the States with such names as A Is for Activists, D Is for Dreamers and W Is for Welcome: A Celebration of America’s Diversity, as well as large numbers pushing the gender-is-a-social-construct narrative, such as One of a Kind, Like Me/Unico Como Yo, about a boy who wants to dress up as a princess.
Britain is embroiled in the revolution, too. I remember two Christmas’s ago, almost every girl between 8 and 13 in my part of north London received a copy of that bestselling Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls from some well-meaning relative (my elder daughter received two). The publishing industry has since cashed in on telling stories of heroic (often overlooked) females.
Parents can feel good that they are raising their offspring to be firm believers, Woke Babies who will “raise their fists in the air… cry out for justice” and “grow up to change the world.” The book A is for Activist promises it is “written and illustrated for the next generation of progressives: families who want their kids to grow up in a space that is unapologetic about activism, environmental justice, civil rights, LGBTQ rights and everything else that activists believe in and fight for.”
There has also been a proliferation of political biographies for young children, including picture books about not only Obama or Mandela but Latino judge Sonia Sotomayor and even Elizabeth Warren. Likewise, over here there’s a book about Remainer pin-up Lady Hale, called Equal to Everything: Judge Brenda and the Supreme Court.
It’s not that I oppose children reading about Lady Hale or Elizabeth Warren; it’s more that I couldn’t even comprehend why anyone would wish for their children to do so. Unless they were true believers of a progressive new religion of kick-ass women, boys-who-want-to-be-girls and visionaries who heal people of their racism sickness.
I’m not, and seeing children’s books being turned into a sort of religion, I feel like a ten-year-old again, wishing I could be reading The X-Men rather than sat in church.