Before I start, I have a confession to make … I’m pretty certain that I have never read a book by Lauren Child. “Why is this important?” I hear you cry (or at least I like to think that you are bothered enough to make a “Huh?” sound in my general direction). The reason is thus: to date, my three-year-old daughter owns (or has grown out of) a Lola sweater, a Lola t-shirt, a pair of Lola slippers, a Lauren Child inspired umbrella, some Charlie and Lola rings, a Lola headband, and an assortment of Lola hairgrips. Oh, and she is also addicted to pink milk (a Charlie and Lola brand of which is currently available at Sainsburys). Last Tuesday, quite umprompted, she announced to us all that she “loves Lola!”. When I asked her why, the response was simply “because she’s beautiful”. So, it has happened at last – my daughter has started to make the tentative steps towards identifying her first ‘super-egos’ drawn from popular culture. But she has never read (or been read to, or even held or seen, to my knowledge) any of Lauren Child’s books featuring the infamous brother and sister. What she has been an avid consumer of, on the other hand, is the merchandising inspired by the characters, largely as a result of their immense success in televised animation form.
For the very same reasons, I was one of those who was actually quite glad with the appointment of the new Children’s Laureate. There are those who might argue that my daughter was bound to be interested in books anyway, but I have to admit that Julia Donaldson (along with her co-collaborator, the illustrator Axel Scheffler) has made the job a little easier. Many years spent as a primary school teacher have afforded me the valuable opportunity to be able to look beyond the criticisms of quality surrounding many popular texts and to enjoy them for what they are and what they are able to achieve. In short, anything that brings pleasure to its intended readers (in whatever form the pleasure or readers might take) and gets children excited about books and reading is a good thing. (Although I am aware that there are probably just as many adults out there who can give, very academically sound, grounds for disagreement with my position.) ‘The Gruffalo’ was one of the first books that I chose to read to my daughter, and is one which she still chooses to hear at bedtimes. She is not as keen on ‘The Gruffalo’s Child’, mainly because the mouse is the character she most closely identifies with, although she has great fun creating her own ‘texts’ using ‘The Gruffalo Magnet Book’ and has recently started exploring other Julia Donaldson books, chosen entirely by her. Last summer she also attended a wonderful Gruffalo weekend hosted by Heffers, where she had the chance to meet Axel Scheffler who drew a mouse, to her request and delight, in her bedtime copy of the Gruffalo. She also owns two Gruffalo related soft toys and a rucksack. And when my son moves into his own bedroom later this year, he will find the walls decorated by freezes from the book.
Yes, I have helped support some of the merchandising frenzy which has been hinted at in some of the criticisms surrounding the new Children’s Laureate; but I am not ashamed to have done so. This is not a new phenomenon, and is also not restricted to the authors or books mentioned here – I myself owned a Fungus the Bogeyman pencil case as an eleven year old. In fact Giles Hargreaves, the son of the creator of the Mr Men, Roger Hargreaves, was quoted in The Times last Monday as having fond memories of having a wound covered with a Mr Bump plaster as a child. Like many others, I buy the products because my children love the characters. I love the fact they love the books. And, as for Lauren Child…I promise to read one of her books as soon as I can.