After the controversy around changes made to Roald Dahl’s stories, Tortoise speaks to author Frank Cottrell-Boyce about whether children’s books are taken seriously enough.
When Roald Dahl’s stories were updated for modern readers everyone from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to author Salman Rushdie waded into the debate.
But for screenwriter and children’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce, much of the discussion about the edits missed the point.
“This is another example of how we are letting our children down,” he tells Tortoise.
Writers like Cottrell-Boyce, Julia Donaldson and Michael Rosen are concerned about the lack of attention given to children’s literature in the UK.
“So finally children’s books are being covered, but they’re being covered in a completely adult conversation around a culture war,” he explains.
“If you don’t like Roald Dahl, read another book, but you won’t know where those other books are because there is no national conversation about what is available for children to read.”
The result is that hugely popular, but sometimes controversial authors such as Dahl have an out-sized importance.
It is not just a question of sales: Cottrell-Boyce is emphatic about the benefit of reading for children.
He was inspired to become a children’s author after a meeting with the Swiss novelist Mariella Mehr, who was born to a Yenish family in the 1940s. Like hundreds of other Yenish children she was taken from her parents and brought up in institutions – as part of a programme of forced removals by the Swiss government that lasted until the 1970s.
By the time they met, Mehr was a successful writer and an advocate for Roma rights, and Cottrell-Boyce asked her how she knew that she deserved more than the system afforded her.
“She said, ‘I read Heidi. Heidi blew the walls down of all those prisons’.”
Cottrell-Boyce describes it as a “Damascene, epiphanic moment” for him about the power of books for children.
Earlier this week a parliamentary debate highlighted the importance of them having access to books.
According to recent data, one in five parents and carers say that the rising cost of living means they are buying fewer of them.
Nearly 800 libraries closed across the UK in the 2010s, and recent data shows that 14 per cent of primary schools do not have a library.
“That is the pressure behind this discussion”, says Cotterall-Boyce. “There is so much riding on Dahl because so little else is visible. He’s carrying the weight of all our children.”
That is unlikely to change until we treat children’s books with the same cultural reverence as adult’s books.