From Narnia to Harry Potter: The grown-up messages in children’s books
Many children’s books are written with conscious messages in mind, even if child readers don’t realise it
Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson in a scene from the first Harry Potter movie, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Photograph: Reuters/Warner Bros
In 1985, following riots in Brixton and Tottenham in London, the publishing house Collins decided that one novel on its forthcoming schedule was just too controversial. In a letter, a senior staff member wrote that in the book, “the battle between the law and lawlessness is glamorised and given a status, which we cannot appear to condone... now that Britain has entered a new era in which this battle is a daily reality”.
The dangerous volume in question was The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis, the third book in a trilogy of children’s novels by the British author Michael de Larrabeiti. While Collins didn’t publish the book, it was published in 1986 by Piccolo, the children’s imprint of Pan – which is around the time I read and loved it, aged 11.
The Borribles trilogy was set in a gritty but magical modern London that was a world away from my other childhood favourites such as Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Its heroes were the eponymous Borribles, runaway kids who develop pointed ears and stay young forever, forging their own tough and tender community in the squats and hidden places of London.
Their motto is “Don’t get caught”, and with good reason – if their enemies in the police find them, their ears are clipped and they grow up as “normal” children, shut off from their Borrible life forever.
In the third book, the Borribles are pursued by the Metropolitan Police’s Special Borrible Group, or SBG, led by the fanatical Inspector Sussworth. The SBG was a reference to the Met’s notorious Special Patrol Group or SPG, who had been implicated in the death of an anti-Nazi protestor in 1979, and Sussworth’s name came from the “sus laws” that allowed police to stop and search anyone they deemed suspicious.
I adored the brave, loyal Borribles and was instinctively on their side against the brutal and unjust law enforcers who pursued them. And at the time, the political allusions went totally over my head.
E Nesbit was a Fabian socialist, and her ideas were reflected and indeed at times explicitly stated in her stories for children
From the “improving” children’s books of the 19th century to the present day, many children’s books have reflected the political ideologies of their authors – whether the authors intend it or not. JK Rowling’s recent statements on transgender people have distressed many fans and been condemned by leading LGBTQ organisations, and while there are no LGBTQ characters in her children’s books, there’s also very little to challenge a conservative view of the world.
It’s not surprising that Harry Potter, who first appeared in 1997, was described by the British academic Jeremy Gilbert as “a representative figure of the Blairite age”. The Harry Potter books are set in a world where any attempt to radically change the system (such as Hermione’s attempts to liberate the disturbingly docile house elves) is futile. The fundamental structures of what is clearly a deeply conservative society remain intact after the evil Voldemort is vanquished – Harry and Hermione both go on to work for the wizarding world’s authorities.
A similar conservativism can be seen elsewhere in children’s books, even when the characters themselves seem to be extremely anti-authoritarian. Richmal Crompton’s William Brown is gloriously anarchic. But Crompton’s own Tory politics (she was an active party member) can frequently be seen in her work when she turns her attention to explicitly political matters, and anyone who believes in changing the political system is gently mocked. In one memorable story, 1921’s The Weak Spot, William’s brother Robert embraces communism – until William tries to redistribute Robert’s own wealth.
And then there’s Enid Blyton, most of whose characters are anything but anarchic. The deep conservativism of Blyton’s books have made her an object of criticism for years – she was being criticised for racism as far back as 1960, when Macmillan refused to publish her book The Mystery That Never Was because of the xenophobic depiction of a gang of thieves.
As well as the sometimes gobsmacking racism, Blyton’s books are pervaded by the sort of classism that enables Julian and Dick to talk to working class adults as if they were small children. Even as a kid who loved Blyton’s Mystery books, I found the way the privileged Five Find-Outers treated Ern, the gormless would-be poet nephew of their nemesis PC Goon, to be a bit much. In Blyton’s world, Ern should know his place, and deserves mockery for daring to write “pomes”.
Other authors have taken more subversive approaches, even within the most traditional genres. Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s Chalet School series, the first of which was published in 1925, begins in the Austrian Tirol, where the eponymous school is attended not just by English girls but by pupils from all over Europe and beyond. In the 1940s The Chalet School in Exile is set around the Anschluss, and at a time when many British writers ignored or downplayed Nazi anti-Semitism, Brent-Dyer shows the Chalet School girls intervening to help an old Jewish man who is attacked by a mob.
The girls sign a “peace pledge” committing themselves to international solidarity in the face of Nazi brutality, and eventually have to flee the country. It’s pretty hard hitting for a 1940 children’s book.
“The Peace Pledge offered a model of opposition with an activist, subversive edge that only very good children’s literature is able to achieve,” says author and critic Daisy Johnson. “In many senses, I think that it wouldn’t have been published were it adult literature; being in a children’s book enabled it to slide under the metaphorical radar. And so, because of this context but also because of the model of activism it offered readers, the Peace Pledge is ferociously significant.”
Plenty of children’s books have been written with conscious messages in mind, even if child readers don’t realise it. I was totally unaware when I devoured Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House books that her collaborator and editor, her journalist daughter Rose Wilder Lane, was a die-hard libertarian, eager to highlight her maternal relatives’ self-reliance.
But when a message dominates a story, it can be off putting. CS Lewis’s Narnia books are both fantasy masterpieces and extended Christian allegories. While this has alienated many readers, it didn’t impede my enjoyment until The Last Battle, in which the religious symbolism became impossible to ignore and which ended with all but one of the original children dying in order to live forever by Aslan’s side. And although I may have been politically closer to Philip Pullman, who has been described as the “anti-CS Lewis”, I found Pullman’s His Dark Materials books unbearably preaching in tone, with any magic drowned by the heavy-handed delivery.
Many children’s writers have been actively political in their private lives, though that hasn’t always filtered through to their fiction. Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons seem like the epitome of jolly English adventure, and in his later years Ransome would deny any suggestion that he was any sort of Bolshevik.
And yet, just a decade before he wrote the sailing adventures that would make him a beloved children’s author, he was in Russia where as well as working as a reporter for the Guardian, he married Trotsky’s former personal secretary, and became close friends with Karl Radek, the Bolshevik chief of propaganda.
E Nesbit was a Fabian socialist, and her ideas were reflected and indeed at times explicitly stated in her stories for children, from The Story of the Amulet to the story Justnowland, in which enchanted crows are turned back into men and declare that “in future we shall not be rich and poor, but fellow-workers, and each will do his best for his brothers”.
“Although her most overt expressions of socialism are found in her poetry, the literary form she loved best . . . socialist principles underpin her writing for children too,” says Irish writer Eleanor Fitzsimons, author of the 2019 biography The Life and Loves of E Nesbit. “The key to Nesbit’s popularity was that she was neither hectoring nor po-faced. The key characteristics of her children’s novels are fantasy and humour and she was not above poking fun at fellow socialists and utopian thinkers. Her strong message of social justice resonated with young readers who she regarded, with good reason, as far more open to reforming ideas than their parents.”
The fact that children’s literature can reflect so many different ideologies is a reminder how important it can be for children to ask questions about the books they read; to thoughtfully examine how an author depicts the world and, if necessary, challenge the ideas that the reader doesn’t agree with. To question authority, in fact.
I think I might have learned that concept from the Borribles.