Pubblichiamo in versione originale l’editoriale pubblicato su N. 3 – 2017 di Pagine. Giovani.
The Giant Rabbits in the Room
Whatever Happened to Freedom in Children’s Books?
At first sight, working with children and books seems both simple and delightful. We choose the best books, and help the children to enjoy them: books are good for children: reading opens their minds, enriches their lives, and gives them freedom! It’s obvious! And so we often find – in the pages of Pagine Giovani as much as anywhere – images of children with books growing wings (both the books and the children), or of books as balloons, or of children swept up in the pages of books, flying on the wings of literature.
Of course, there are occasional problems – issues of gender, or violence, or politics, for example – and we have to take them seriously. But looking at these problems often distracts us from the real difficulties: the elephants in the room that we don’t talk about.
A good example of this has recently arrived in Italy. On March 22, 2019 a new film about the English cultural icon, Peter Rabbit, was released by Sony Pictures. Peter Rabbit began life in 1904 as a character in small, ‘child-sized’ books, illustrated with delicate water-colours by the English author Beatrix Potter. They were soon translated – Il Coniglio Pierinio (1909) was the second of hundreds of translations (the first was into Japanese) – and became popular across the world: this new film, described in the studio publicity as ‘a CGI reboot of the franchise’ will be released in 38 countries.
It is – to judge from the trailers – colourful, skilful, and witty, and comes to an adult-friendly happy and moral ending. But a lot of adults – especially in England – have been shocked by the fact that their naughty but innocent little rabbit, who looks, in the original books, rather like a small child, has been converted into a street-wise teenage wide boy [ragazzo largo?], full of precocious repartee. Surely these books are cultural treasures, not part of a ‘franchise’! This is just another case of cultural and commercial corruption – look what happened to Winnie-the-Pooh!
Some American critics were especially unhappy about two scenes. The first is one in which old Mr McGregor – the gardener from whose garden Peter steals lettuces in the original version – dies of a heart-attack, and Peter pokes him in the eye to make sure he’s dead. In the second, as part of a war between Peter and the new gardener, young Mr McGregor, the rabbits pelt him with blackberries – and, knowing that he is allergic to the fruit, they deliberately throw a blackberry into his mouth. Mr McGregor goes into anaphylactic shock, and has to inject himself with an EpiPen. There have been several protests about this, from organisations concerned with children and food allergies: this is not a subject, they say, that should be joked about – children with allergies could be bullied. One organisation wrote: ‘Parents should be aware of this … so you can talk with your child about it.’ Sony apologised, so the scene may not have survived to the film’s Italian release. But, as The New Yorker objected, Sony were wrong to apologise: if Peter isn’t shown to be doing something bad, he will have nothing to be sorry for at the end of the film, when he becomes a good rabbit.
Those adults who object to Peter Rabbit being no more than a ‘franchise’ overlook the fact that it always was a franchise; Beatrix Potter was a very shrewd merchandiser. The franchise has been amazingly successful: there are toys and clothes and (very English) tea sets, and, films, a ballet, and dozens of counting books, and colouring books, and new stories – but up to now they have retained the idea of the rabbit as young child, rather than as teenager.
So maybe it is the kind of childhood that is being portrayed that is the problem. Many adults read Peter Rabbit – and children’s books as a whole – as nostalgic and innocent things. They are creating, or recommending, or trying to preserve, a kind of childhood that existed in a golden age of freedom and happiness, where there were games of hide-and-seek, not games of kill your enemy with an allergic weapon. For a century, adults like this were in charge of children’s publishing, and the books they produced led their readers into uncomplicated spaces – no problems of sex, or gender, or problematic moral choices – or messy violence. And yet… In the original, pastel-coloured Peter Rabbit, there is a death joke on the second page. ‘Do not,’ says Mrs Rabbit, ‘go into Mr McGregor’s garden. Your father had an accident there: he was put in a pie by Mrs McGregor.’ Beatrix Potter was writing for a childhood that could cope with violence, even if it is offstage. And whereas the film version ends ‘conservatively’ with good behaviour being rewarded, the book ends with Peter in bed and in pain – and he is certainly not a reformed character.
In both book and film, then, the adult creators are writing different childhoods: not simply writing for different childhoods, but implying and creating different childhoods, childhoods that the reader must accept in order to make sense of the texts. Readers buy into what books sell them: rural children in Potter’s day had a real freedom, even if death by pie and much else was around them; today, the freedom of the fields is only a nostalgic dream for adults – and what has nostalgia to do with children’s books? Today children have to be streetwise; they have to know about anaphylactic shock and heart attacks.
Now, the thinking behind this will be very familiar to anyone who has taken an interest in children’s literature – and the thinking is very confused: most of all, it hides the elephants in the room – or in this case, perhaps, two giant rabbits. The first problem, the first rabbit, is not that the film-makers are trying to control the audience as to what childhood is: it is that all portrayals of childhood are equally controlling and manipulative. The second is not that children will be influenced directly by what they see: it is that we do not really know what they see, and what they understand.
It may be a happy thought that my five-year-old grand-daughter, voraciously absorbing stories read to her, and beginning to read herself, is a free creature: but, in fact, she is being controlled by the well-meaning parents and teachers and authors – and the perhaps not quite so well-meaning commercial producers. The adults may be hiding, but they are there. Children can only like what they are given, and what they are given is very often adult visions of what they are, or what they should be, rather than what they could be. Half an hour in a shop that sells children’s clothing shows clearly what adults want children to be: childhood is style, childhood is product placement. It may not be quite so obvious with books, but in a world where the vast majority of texts for children are produced by large conglomerates, and are commissioned rather than spontaneously generated, everything is blown by the winds of commerce: the one thing that is lacking in childhood is freedom. Perhaps it was always so, but the very efficiency of the process today, the way in which we are all complicit, suggests that nobody in the children and text matrix is free. Freedom is a warm illusion.
This might seem to be depressing, but there is another giant rabbit in the room that provides hope! We all ignore the obvious fact that we do not really know what developing readers (or any readers, in fact) understand when we give them a text. Children are, obviously, manipulated – although they can be very obliging at providing the reaction that the adults want – but what a reader takes from a text is ultimately unknowable. Cognitive psychology tells us that children’s brains are constructed so differently from adults’ that it is impossible for adults to ‘go back’ to understand what a child understands – however observant, or empathetic, or endowed with a good memory they may be. The good news is that true freedom lies not in what we can give the children, but in what they can take.
And so, even if we look directly at these giant rabbits, we adults who are concerned with children’s books, can never make them go away. However much we value freedom, we are always attempting to control the child readers. Equally, however clever we are, we will never know what our readers think. But the solution is not to ignore these rabbits: if we do, we become dictators (however benevolent) and become arrogant (however sympathetic we may seem). We have to accept at every stage the ambiguities and confusions that really motivate our judgements, and to accept that those judgements are more than likely to be wrong. We have to proceed by faith – there is no other way – but that doesn’t need to be blind faith.
Professore Emerito di Children’s Literature, Università di Cardiff, UK.