The most underrated parenting skill? Live-editing children's books | Emma Brockes

Kids’ classics can need a lot of updating to remove dated gender dynamics and casual imperialism. But you can only go so far

There are a lot of upsides to being a humourless lefty parent, mainly to do with the pleasures of indoctrinating one’s young. My children, at five, have a range of opinions about President Trump (“a dummy”), popular protest (“if the police do something wrong they should still go to jail”) and the importance of exercising the franchise (“vote!”) that gratifyingly mirror my own.

The trigger for these lessons is generally National Public Radio – which, by the time my kids get up in the morning, I’ve had on for an hour and am already raving. This is the easy bit; extending, in moderated form, the conversation I’m having with other adults to my children. The trickier side is figuring out what to withhold, and where to tweak their expectations with judiciously placed lies. This can take the form of glossing the news – there’s never been a female president but there surely will be one soon – or downplaying just how unjust the world is. But it mostly involves the underrated parental skill of live-editing my kids’ books as I read them.

Let’s start with Curious George, the charming series by Margaret and HA Rey, published in 1941 and a staple of American children’s literature. In the first book, we meet George, “a good little monkey”, swinging from a tree “in Africa” while eating a banana. “Guys,” – all eyes swivel up from the page – “you know Africa’s not a country, right?” Over the page we go, to meet the Man in the Yellow Hat, who after jumping out from behind a tree, throws George in a sack and transports him back to New York. “George was sad,” we are informed, but he very soon cheers up. “OK, do we think it’s OK to take someone from one place and drop them down into another?” No, we don’t.

These are the tangents and asides, but there is a swifter set of interventions executed at the level of reflex. In Curious George, all the nurses are female and the doctors are male, gender allocations which I instinctively reverse. In Snow White, it’s a question of how we indicate value. “Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is the fairest – and smartest! – of them all”, while in Charlotte’s Web, some fancy footwork is required to get around the fact that 8-year-old Fern puts on a dress for the fair because boys might be there.

The motherlode, of course, is Roald Dahl, whose brilliance at engaging young kids is in proportion to the amount of work you have to do on the fly to update him. I don’t mind violence in children’s books; the sudden deaths please the crowd and are bracingly uncondescending. He hates fat people, however – particularly fat women, or perhaps women in general; the aunts in James and the Giant Peach are a pair of “ghastly hags” (in my version “terrible people”). In the Twits, which I love, Mrs Twit is said to have started out in life pretty, but as her rotten character revealed itself, so the “the ugliness had grown upon her, year by year”. There’s an argument that Dahl is referring to the inchoate detection of spiritual ugliness, but for the avoidance of doubt, I kill the line.

Everyone I know does this. A friend reports turning Cinderella into an architect who helped the prince with design renovations at his castle. Another mentions redacting those bits in Enid Blyton where the girls wash up and pack while the boys kick around waiting for the adventure to start. On a reading of Rapunzel, I remark that, while it is wonderful that the heroine sticks by the prince after he falls into a thorn bush and loses his sight, it is worth pointing out she hardly knows the guy and it’s a bit early to be declaring true love. And of course, this entire landscape is deeply heteronormative.

It can get a little wearying, I know. My children have a keen sense, after years of practice, of when I’m meddling with the text and follow me beadily on the page, pointing to a picture of a professional – a paleontologist; the head of the army – who I have identified as female, to flatly state, “Look, it’s a boy”. The lectures don’t always land, either. I thought the kidnap and transportation of Curious George to America was a good jumping-off point for a chat about colonialism. Two seconds into my interesting discussion about the Elgin marbles, however, one of my children interrupts. “STOP!” she screams. Then very calmly, like someone soothing the unnerved, says “Just read the book”.

• Emma Brockes is a Guardian columnist


Emma Brockes

The GuardianTramp

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