Children's books - Sniffing out the past


One field of publishing has to be run by inspired guesswork. Authors and publishers of literary fiction or biography can at least write and publish what they like themselves, and hope for the best. But the children's publisher must make the leap of imagination to enter the mind of a five year old. As every parent learns, what adults like is far from always what children like.

Sometimes adult and infantile taste coincide. To take a random example, the books of Janet and Allan Ahlberg are as entrancing for those who read them out loud as for those to whom they are read. On the other hand, there are books which small children enjoy but which are an ordeal for their parents - cute, tiresome, fey, or what I would call "kiddie", in a comparably derogatory sense to "blokey" or "laddish".

History books for the under-eights tend less towards kiddieness than to black humour, which children certainly enjoy, almost to a fault. In fact, I wish our domestic focus group hadn't enjoyed the Horrible Histories by Terry Deary quite so much. The Gorgeous Georgians (Scholastic, £3.99) "tells you all about the people who lived in those riotous times - from lords and ladies with a personal hygiene problem to the starving and pitiful poor". More alarming is the skittish emphasis on capital punishment: in 1820, there were at least 200 hanging offences, including "poaching fish (but a poached egg was fine)".

If anything, Bloody Scotland (Scholastic, £7.99) is even more rollickingly bloodthirsty. Politically correct, or merely sensitive, grown-ups may wince at this "history with the nasty things left in", but children lapped it up. The time will come to tell them that witch-hunting wasn't really funny; as it is they chuckled at witches "taken to the stake and strangled. Strangling was known as 'wirrying'," illustrated with a cartoon of a man at the stake gasping, as he is throttled, "I'm a bit wirried about this". Ho, ho.

But there are limits, and we were less keen on the Smelly Old History series, by Mary Dobson: Vile Vikings, Mouldy Mummies, Greek Grime, Roman Aromas, Medieval Muck, Victorian Vapours, Reeking Royals (Oxford University Press, of all people, £4.99 each). These text-and-picture books have the added refinement of scratch'n'sniff panels, the author presumably hav- ing noticed that small children have cloacal enthusiasms.

And so a mirthful text - "The Vikings . . . soon gained a vile reputation . . . and the things they left behind left quite a stink!" - is accompanied by a "vile Viking toilet" for olfactory delectation. I haven't asked an Oxford don I know who is an authority on the Vikings to judge its authenticity. But my six-year-old daughter, who has smelled a thing or two in her time, thought it was rather a nasty idea, and so did I. If you do scratch before sniffing, you should wash your hands immediately: don't inadvertently rub your eyes, as I did, unless you want a sharp sting as well as a pong.

Over the years, the publisher Dorling Kindersley has developed a clearly recognisable graphic style, from wine guides to children's books. Ann Kramer's Victorians (£9.99) is really for ten-pluses, who will learn some solid social history, but the pictures are so pretty that eight-minuses liked it, too. Likewise William Lindsay's On the Trail of Incredible Dinosaurs (£9.99) is another book that can be enjoyed for its pictures even by those who can't really take in its text.

And A Street Through Time by Dr Anne Millard, illustrated by Steve Noon (DK, £12.99) and designed for older readers, was lapped up by a boy of four. It shows a 12,000-year journey along the same street, from a pre-historic forest scene where the hunter-gatherers potter happily in a clearing, to the same site today, pullulating with solicitor's offices, banks, wine bars and heavy traffic, which is known as progress.

This article first appeared in the 04 December 1998 issue of the New Statesman, Just get out and have fun!