‘Shag the Pony’ would cause too much hi­lar­ity to­day for a chil­dren’s book ti­tle while men­tions of wee, poo, farts and wil­lies abound. What’s go­ing on? asks NI­CHOLAS TUCKER

The Oldie - - NEWS -

The new lan­guage in chil­dren's books

TEACH­ING English dur­ing the 1960s in a tough Lon­don com­pre­hen­sive, I was search­ing the stock cup­board one lunch hour for some­thing to read to my first-year class that af­ter­noon. One book I looked at in­volved birds, but some­one had been there be­fore me: ev­ery men­tion of the blue tit, a lead­ing char­ac­ter, had been amended in ink to ‘blue­bird’. I took the point. My class would have pounced on any men­tion of ‘tit’ like tigers on a wounded prey. To­day, there are still a few works, such as Christo­pher Per­rins’ au­thor­i­ta­tive study Bri­tish Tits, that proudly stand out as if re­fus­ing to be cowed by mock­ing laugh­ter. But apart from the odd chil­dren’s pic­ture book re­count­ing the ad­ven­tures of the marginally more ac­cept­able Tom or bearded tit, this lit­tle bird has long dis­ap­peared from re­spectable books’ ti­tles.

Other chil­dren’s books whose ti­tles could sub­se­quently have seemed ques­tion­able in­clude C Bernard Rut­ley’s Shag the Cari­bou (1943), part of a wildlife se­ries, and Pe­ter Crabbe’s Shag the Pony (1952), pub­lished by the Catholic Truth So­ci­ety. The Girl Guide’s 1961 guide to dif­fer­ent knots, Whip­pings & Lash­ings; Knots for Ev­ery­one still ap­pears in print but with the sub­ti­tle now re­versed to the less alarm­ing Knots for Ev­ery­body: With Whip­pings and Lash­ings.

As times changed, only a few brave ti­tles con­tin­ued to cling on to the once in­no­cent mean­ing of the word ‘pussy’, with the Amer­i­can author Ira Al­ter­man lead­ing this di­min­ish­ing band with two pic­ture books, So, You’ve Got a Fat Pussy! (1981) and Games You Can Play with Your Pussy (1982). Charles A Pem­ber­ton’s il­lus­trated My Big Book of Pretty Pussies (1965) is an­other ex­am­ple. ‘Pussy’ ac­quired its ex­tra anatom­i­cal mean­ing around 1879. Al­ways more cur­rent in Amer­ica, it is sur­pris­ing to see pub­lish­ers over there still as­sum­ing wide­spread au­di­ence in­no­cence with ti­tles like th­ese over a hun­dred years later. The same might be said for Macmil­lan’s de­ci­sion to re-is­sue Rich­mal Crompton’s 1924 clas­sic Wil­liam the Fourth as late as 2005, with a Miss Cliff in one story still telling the fa­mous eleven-year-old anti-hero that ‘You must call and see my pussy again, lit­tle boy.’

The most fer­tile ground for tex­tual dou­ble en­ten­dres in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture has al­ways been the school story, once so pop­u­lar be­tween the wars but now shad­ows of their former selves. Sharpeyed crit­ics on the look-out for their lit­er­ary gaffes dur­ing that time were in short sup­ply. One no­table ex­cep­tion was Arthur Mar­shall, a school­mas­ter turned gifted hu­morist and pop­u­lar broad­caster. Start­ing out with short sketches on the BBC in­volv­ing im­i­ta­tions of schoolmistresses and their pupils, he went on for many years to write a racy sur­vey of cur­rent girls’ school sto­ries for the Christ­mas edi­tion of the New States­man, some of which were later an­thol­o­gised in col­lec­tions of comic writ­ing.

The writer Elsie Ox­en­ham was one of his par­tic­u­lar favourites, ca­pa­ble of com­ing up with a char­ac­ter like Lavinia

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