November 6th 2004

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Why Bush is better for Australia ...

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor in shock after its disastrous rout

QUARANTINE: Citrus canker: Biosecurity Australia must be held accountable

ENVIRONMENT: How Howard can neutralise green vote

INTEREST RATES: Myth and reality of Reserve Bank independence

INDONESIA: Yudhoyono's new deal for Australia

TAIWAN: Cross-strait issue a delicate balance

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Not so noble a prize / Wickedness / Demonology / Indonesia

IRAQ WAR: Did Saddam Hussein back al-Qa'ida?

MEDIA: Mark Latham's wrong turns

ABORTION: Facts banish the myth of the 'backyard butcher'

OPINION: How I would tackle poverty

CULTURE: Children's author plumbs new depths

End the shame of ACT pornography (letter)

Unborn child treated as 'a malignant tumour' (letter)

BOOKS: Catholicism, Protestantism And Capitalism, by Amintore Fanfani

Books promotion page

Children's author plumbs new depths

by Dr Kevin Donnelly

News Weekly, November 6, 2004
With titles like The Day My Bum Went Psycho, Zombie Bums from Uranus and, more recently, Bad Book, it's easy to work out what Andy Griffiths thinks is the best way to make sure his books sell.

Based on the world of toilet humour, the belief is that rhymes like "There was an old lady who swallowed a poo, I don't know why she swallowed a poo, Perhaps she'll spew" and "If you're bad and you know it, pull down your pants" will excite children's interest.

In fact, as far as Griffiths is concerned, the only important thing is to get kids, especially boys, to read; even if that means writing a story centred on a runaway bum with extracts like:

"... on its last outing it had joined a pack of five hundred feral bums who had lined the emergency stopping lane of the South Eastern Freeway and mooned all the people driving to work. This stunt had caused many accidents, which the bums had thought was a great laugh."


Thankfully, not all adults agree. Recently, a number of schools and booksellers refused to stock Griffiths' books. Critics argue that not only are the books poorly written, but they contain offensive language and the values promoted celebrate a smutty, juvenile sense of the world.

Are such critics correct? As parents know, part of the enjoyment of rhymes like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and The Owl and the Pussycat is the music of language and the power of rich imagery. Rhymes like One Two Buckle My Shoe are also important in developing rote learning.

Compare the poetry of such rhymes with lines like "He swore at his mum, kicked his dad in the bum and said, 'Oh, what a bad boy am I!'" and "I don't know why she swallowed that poo, Perhaps she'll spew", and it isn't hard to work out which has a better chance of developing a love of language.

The American psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, also mounts a case against giving children vulgar and uninspiring literature. Instead of children reading about farting, burping and vomiting, the argument is that they need to read and listen to traditional fables and rhymes.

Such literature is a vital part of our cultural heritage and the values and morals it teaches are important in helping to preserve a culture that we often take for granted.

Aesop's fables like The Goose with the Golden Eggs teach children that greed is wrong. Tales like Jack and the Beanstalk and Hansel and Gretel teach children about values such as love, trust, betrayal and how to overcome life's challenges and obstacles.

Not only does Bettelheim argue that fairy-tales and fables are essential reading for children, he also argues that the trend to make stories contemporary, dealing with drugs, family breakdown and teenage sex, is counterproductive.

He says: "The deep inner conflicts originating in our primitive drives and our violent emotions are all denied in much of modern children's literature, and so the child is not helped in coping with them ..."

In a world where many children are confronted with broken homes, violent computer games and offensive rap lyrics, it is often the case that the world of the imagination sparked by good literature is one place where solace can be found.

Emotional strength and understanding right from wrong are not the only things that children learn from traditional fables and tales. Stories like the Iliad and the Odyssey teach young boys, in particular, about manly virtues such as strength, perseverance and loyalty.

Fatuous argument

Some will argue that is does not matter what children read, as long as they are reading. The argument is also put that censorship is wrong and that children should be free to read whatever they like.

Forgotten, for parents and teachers, is that there is no greater responsibility than sheltering children from what is coarse and vulgar.

Also ignored is that censorship is perfectly reasonable if it helps to safeguard children and preserve a world of joy, excitement and beauty created by worthwhile literature.

  • Dr Kevin Donnelly is author of Why Our Schools are Failing and is a former director of Education Strategies.

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