The joys, jolts and jingoism of old children’s books

Vintage Summer: Looking back on comics and books from the 1970s and earlier, the prejudice and sexism jump out at you, although annuals were not as gender-specific as they are now


One of the joys of my childhood was the purchase of a weekly comic. I read Jinty; Mandy; Whizzer and Chips; Topper; and the Beano. Not every week: my pocket money usually only stretched to one comic, a chocolate bar and Taytos.

There was, however, one glorious summer when we were on holiday in Derrynane, Co Kerry, for a month, and my Aunt Maine came up with an inspired idea. She went into her local newsagent and ordered issues of all the comics they stocked to be posted to me in Kerry for the four weeks of my holiday. It was one of the best presents I ever got as a child.

Then there were the annuals that appeared at Christmas. We swapped them around at school in January. I loved Girl’s Crystal, Bunty, Mandy and Judy, despite their improbable plots involving orphaned girls, boarding schools, ponies, ballet, skiing and extraterrestrial skills. I also avidly read my brothers’ old copies of Eagle and Hotspur, where all the stories seemed to be about soccer or war, worlds where someone was always battling someone else.

I have hung on to some of those annuals and books from childhood. I still have a Teddy Bear annual from 1972. I don’t know why I loved it so much, but obviously I loved it enough to keep it ever since. Today I look at the stories in that annual about sister and brother “Nurse Susan and Doctor David” and from my adult perspective am immediately cross with such gender stereotyping being stitched in to a child’s consciousness so early.


Put a sock in it, Teddy Bear

In the same annual, there is a page called “Teddy Bear Says”.

In the top half of the page, Teddy Bear says, “It’s nice to be helpful.” There are three drawings of a little girl with her mother, where she is washing up, helping in the garden and polishing. At the bottom of the page, we learn “it is naughty to be untidy”. There are three drawings of a little boy, messing up a newspaper, leaving his toys on the floor and untidying a pile of clothes.

“Boys were portrayed as naughty and girls as helpful,” says Tricia Lowther of the British-based Let Toys Be Toys campaign, which is “asking the toy and publishing industries to stop limiting children’s interests by promoting some toys and books as only suitable for girls and others only for boys.”

Lowther says that annuals as they existed in the 1970s no longer have the same exalted place in a child’s year. “Annuals now are usually linked to TV franchises, and they are very gender-specific, unlike something like the Beano, which appealed to both boys and girls. If it’s for a girl, it’s going to be pink and sparkly. For boys, it’s battles and robots. It’s definitely about selling twice as much: instead of buying one comic per household, and your son and daughter reading the same comic, the pressure is to buy one for each.”

I describe to Lowther my Look and Learn annual from 1970. It is clearly branded as being for both genders as there are images on the cover of a boy and a girl sitting beside a globe.

The illustrated articles inside – make your own museum; what next in space; strange creatures of long ago – have endured remarkably well. It’s clearly an educational book, rather than escapism, but it assumes that girls and boys have a similar curiosity about the world around them.

“You rarely see those kind of books now,” says Lowther. “It’s 2014, and while we have a lot more stuff, there is actually a lot less choice about what to buy for children.”


Empire and stereotypes

I have an “educational” children’s book of a different kind. Little Folk in Many Lands, published in 1910, is the kind of book I devoured as a child, desperate to know what life was like for people in other countries. At that stage of my life I had never been out of Ireland. I pored over the pictures of other places and tried to imagine myself looking at volcanoes, gorges, skyscrapers, steppes, dams; this other world other children were looking at, right that minute.

The Scottish publisher Blackie was in existence from 1890 to 1991. The kindest thing I can say about my copy of Little Folk in Many Lands, a textbook, is that it is an accurate historical reflection of how the British empire as it was then viewed the rest of the world in 1910, much of which it ruled. What remains constant is the urge to reduce entire countries and peoples to crude stereotypes.

Take Russia, then a mere seven years from the revolution of 1917. “Russia is very large, but not very pretty. Most of the country people are very poor and very few can read. They are often dirty and lazy.”

This is how the “big land of Australia” is described: “It stands there all by itself like a bad boy who has been put in a corner. Indeed, we used to send our bad men there, to get rid of them. It is so far off that steamers take six weeks to go there.” Children reading this in 1910 could never have imagined that a century later, that six-week journey could be compressed into 24 hours.

The children of Lapland get short, sharp, judgmental shrift. A boy is minding reindeer. “The boy who is minding them has stopped to chat with a little girl. They are not a pretty pair, for the Lapps are short and ugly.”

An entire continent is dismissed in the chapter on South America. The boys herd their cattle by horseback, “but when they are not riding, they are very lazy. Like many other folk in South America, they like the word ‘tomorrow’, for they always put off working as long as they can.” In the same chapter, Peru is damned as “poor and weak”.

Perhaps the wider world has always been exaggerated in children’s literature, but sometimes the books you read in childhood become a prism through which you view the world; for a time, at least, until you learn to trust your own observations.

I hadn’t thought of Nurse Susan and Doctor David for years – decades – until I fished out my Teddy Bear annual from 1972. I can’t help wondering about the messages I subliminally received in childhood about expectations of gender roles. Did it affect the way I thought and think about the world? How did the children who read and studied Little Folk in Many Lands in 1910 subsequently view the world? Did they think, even for a while, that all South Americans were lazy? That Russia was defined by dirt and laziness? That everyone from Lapland was ugly?


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