The Book of Beasts: Animal & Human Nature in Children’s Literature

The fol­low­ing speech was deliv­ered online in Eng­lish and Kore­an on the 5th of Decem­ber 2020. The event was enti­tled: ‘Build­ing Up Cross-Cul­tur­al Under­stand­ing Through Chil­dren’s Lit­er­a­ture Between Aus­tralia and Korea: 2020’, con­vened by Dr Hyung-joo Judy Park. Dr Park has a PhD in Aus­tralian chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture from Mac­quar­ie Uni­ver­si­ty and is a lead­ing Kore­an schol­ar of chil­dren’s literature. 

Thank you for the invi­ta­tion to join you for this spe­cial event explor­ing Aus­tralian children’s lit­er­a­ture. Thank you to Ambas­sador James Choi for the warm intro­duc­tion and to my fel­low author, Tania McCart­ney. My heart­felt thanks Dr Park Hyung-joo. Dr Park is a remark­able schol­ar and it is won­der­ful to know that Aus­tralian children’s lit­er­a­ture has such a strong and pas­sion­ate advo­cate in Korea. Thanks also to the Nation­al Library for Chil­dren and Young Adults in Korea, the Bang Jung Hwan Research Insti­tute, the KCICA at Sook­myung Women’s Uni­ver­si­ty, the Aus­tralian Embassy in Seoul, Lim Bo-Young of the Aus­tralia-Korea Foun­da­tion and Kim Hyelin of the Korea-Aus­tralia Foun­da­tion. I was look­ing for­ward to meet­ing you in Seoul, but am glad we can still meet here elec­tron­i­cal­ly. I hope that we will meet soon face-to-face.

Aus­tralian Ambas­sador to the Repub­lic of Korea, James Choi

My name is Christo­pher Richard­son. I am the author of sev­en books for chil­dren, as well as an aca­d­e­m­ic with a back­ground in lit­er­a­ture and secu­ri­ty stud­ies. In 2016, I grad­u­at­ed from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Syd­ney with a PhD enti­tled Child­hood Poli­cies and Prac­tices in the DPRK: A Chal­lenge to Kore­an Uni­fi­ca­tion, explor­ing the children’s cul­ture of North Korea. 

Bang Jung Hwan

Dur­ing the Japan­ese colo­nial era Kore­an authors – whether con­ser­v­a­tive or pro­gres­sive, col­lab­o­ra­tors or resisters – under­stood that children’s lit­er­a­ture was a space where the future of Korea would be con­test­ed. The very sur­vival of Kore­an lan­guage and cul­ture were at stake. My own research is focused on the decades post-lib­er­a­tion, as Kim Il Sung brought North Kore­an lit­er­a­ture under the con­trol of the Kore­an Work­ers’ Par­ty via the Fed­er­a­tion of Lit­er­a­ture and Arts. In 1951, at the height of the Kore­an War, Kim Il Sung famous­ly called for North Kore­an writ­ers to become “engi­neers of the human soul” and children’s lit­er­a­ture would prove cen­tral to this project.

Illus­tra­tion of Kim Il Sung from ‘The Ardu­ous March’ (Pyongyang: Arts and Lit­er­a­ture Pub­lish­ing House, 1997)

In his trea­tise On Juche Lit­er­a­ture, Kim Jong Il ordered North Kore­an writ­ers to “devel­op children’s lit­er­a­ture into our style of lit­er­a­ture that con­forms with our Party’s pol­i­cy and our children’s char­ac­ter­is­tics,” adding that expo­sure to for­eign children’s sto­ries risks “mak­ing [North Kore­an chil­dren] incom­pe­tent beings for the times and rev­o­lu­tion and pris­on­ers of reac­tionary fatalism.” 

Lead­ing by exam­ple, both Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il wrote children’s sto­ries of their own, or – as is more like­ly – employed ghost writ­ers to pen tales in their names. And so it is that North Kore­an chil­dren grow up, for exam­ple, with The But­ter­fly and Roost­er, a rev­o­lu­tion­ary tale that pits a plucky anti-impe­ri­al­ist but­ter­fly against a maraud­ing Yan­kee roost­er. To ham­mer the unsub­tle mes­sage home, the wicked roost­er is bedecked in red, white, and blue, and smokes a corn­cob pipe like Gen­er­al Dou­glas MacArthur, whilst the North Kore­an but­ter­fly is dressed in hum­ble worker’s garb. Ani­mals and nature are abid­ing fea­tures in children’s lit­er­a­ture in North Korea, as else­where in the world.

‘The But­ter­fly and the Roost­er’ by Kim Il Sung

The DPRK is, above all, a cul­tur­al and psy­cho­log­i­cal dic­ta­tor­ship, most clear­ly exem­pli­fied through the myth and hagiog­ra­phy of the lead­ers them­selves. These tales are embed­ded deeply in North Korea’s children’s lit­er­a­ture and edu­ca­tion­al culture. 

“We Are The Hap­pi­est Chil­dren in the World” by Kim Song Min (1995)

Yet this is far from a new idea. In Plato’s Repub­lic, as Socrates says to Adeimantus:

… our first busi­ness is to super­vise the pro­duc­tion of sto­ries, and choose only those we think suit­able, and reject the rest. We shall per­suade moth­ers and nurs­es to tell our cho­sen sto­ries to their chil­dren, and by means of them to mould their minds and char­ac­ters which are more impor­tant than their bodies.

Even now, North Korea chil­dren are called to be pre­pared to die for their Supreme Leader. The Chosun Children’s Union rit­u­al­ly pledges to “turn out as human bul­lets and bombs” to pro­tect North Korea from its foes, whilst those chil­dren who die res­cu­ing por­traits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il from flood or fire are said to “live forever”. 

Kore­an Chil­dren’s Union, 2013

The Chosun Children’s Union, like the Sovi­et Young Pio­neers and Hitler Youth, was mod­eled on the British scout­ing move­ment of Robert Baden-Pow­ell. They even share the same mot­to: “Be Pre­pared!” And who do you think wrote the fol­low­ing inspir­ing words for children?

Peace can­not be cer­tain unless we show that we are always ful­ly pre­pared to defend our­selves … [A]n invad­er would only find him­self ram­ming his head against bay­o­nets and well-aimed bul­lets if he tried land­ing on our shores.

The answer is not Kim Il Sung or Stal­in, but Baden-Pow­ell. It was only after the hor­rors of the First World War that Baden-Powell’s exhor­ta­tion that the chil­dren of the British Empire “be pre­pared to die for the coun­try” was excised from the offi­cial scout­ing manual. 

I was a proud cub in Aus­tralia, but let us not kid our­selves if we think our own children’s cul­ture is divorced from pol­i­tics, even the pol­i­tics of states. Children’s sto­ries mat­ter. Children’s cul­ture mat­ters. That’s why we’re here today. The fact that children’s books are sel­dom reviewed in Aus­tralian news­pa­pers, and children’s authors – unless they are celebri­ties or pan­el show come­di­ans – receive almost no media atten­tion what­so­ev­er, is a tremen­dous fail­ure of the moral and intel­lec­tu­al imagination. 

Edward Lear

I first began explor­ing the inter­sec­tions between children’s cul­ture and the nation­al imag­i­na­tion in 2004. For my Hon­ours the­sis, I researched Edward Lear’s assault on the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al assump­tions of the Vic­to­ri­an Age. Through his lim­er­icks and songs, Lear waged a nurs­ery war against the pieties of empire and the scold­ing moral­ism of writ­ers like the Rev­erend Isaac Watts or Charles and Mary Lamb. 

Illus­tra­tion by Edward Lear

Lewis Car­roll soon joined the bat­tle, famous­ly lam­poon­ing the Rev. Watts’ “How doth the lit­tle busy bee?” in his deli­cious poem “How doth the lit­tle croc­o­dile?” in Alice’s Adven­tures in Won­der­land. The top­sy-turvy jus­tice of Lewis Carroll’s tyran­ni­cal Queen of Hearts, “sen­tence first – ver­dict after­wards,” satir­i­cal­ly skew­ered the hypocrisy of Vic­to­ri­an legal­ism, whilst antic­i­pat­ing the absur­di­ties of Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry total­i­tar­i­an­ism and the show tri­als of the Sovi­et Union and North Korea, McCarthy­ism in the USA, or – for that mat­ter – our cur­rent cul­ture of online sham­ing and abuse.

Illus­tra­tion by John Tenniel

Ani­mal imagery is cen­tral in the works of Lear. Before he was an author, Lear was the pre-emi­nent ornitho­log­i­cal draughts­man of his day. I have a copy of Lear’s exquis­ite Lead­beat­er’s Cock­a­too on my study wall. 

Lear’s avian affin­i­ty explains why so many of his humans look like birds. 

Illus­tra­tion by Edward Lear

Whether through the vio­lent and preda­to­ry beasts of Lear’s lim­er­icks, or the star-crossed – some­times same sex – lovers of his exquis­ite non­sense songs, such as “The Owl and the Pussy-cat” and “The Duck and the Kan­ga­roo,” Lear ush­ered in mod­ern Eng­lish lan­guage children’s lit­er­a­ture. Children’s poet­ry and fic­tion now assailed the sta­tus quo, instead of always rein­forc­ing it. 

Befit­ting the scope of his rev­o­lu­tion­ary genius, Lear soon drew the eye of John Ruskin, Wilkie Collins, the Ten­nysons, and Queen Vic­to­ria her­self. A cen­tu­ry lat­er, W.H. Auden would write a poem com­mem­o­rat­ing Edward Lear, remark­ing how “chil­dren swarmed to him like set­tlers. He became a land.” 

North Kore­an chil­dren are still wait­ing for their Lear. 

In 2004 and 2005, my own first work for chil­dren was pub­lished – six non-fic­tion books from Scholas­tic in the X‑Zone series – but my true pas­sion lay with poet­ry and fiction. 

X‑Zone Series (Scholas­tic)

In 2015, after ten years’ writ­ing and many set­backs, my debut nov­el was pub­lished by Pen­guin Aus­tralia. Since then it has been my great joy to vis­it count­less schools, libraries, book­stores, and lit­er­ary fes­ti­vals to talk about my work and to meet thou­sands of read­ers and fel­low writers.

An epic mar­itime fan­ta­sy, Empire of the Waves tells the sto­ry of two chil­dren, Anni Tidechild – daugh­ter of the librar­i­an of the float­ing city of Pel Nar­ine – and Duck Knife­tooth – the son of the great­est sea cap­tain and explor­er in the his­to­ry of the impe­r­i­al city. Set in the flood­ed world of Salila, Empire of the Waves is a tale of love and war, of pirates and mon­sters and a bound­less sea that teems with life. Super­fi­cial­ly, my the­sis and nov­el appear to be rad­i­cal­ly dif­fer­ent projects – one a work of schol­ar­ship, the oth­er fic­tion – yet they took shape at the same time and share a com­mon pur­pose. Both are med­i­ta­tions on the pow­er of tales to shape the world. And both are med­i­ta­tions on the lives of chil­dren in times of tyran­ny and war.

Illus­tra­tion by Allen Dou­glas (Pen­guin)

Salila is a world of moral ambi­gu­i­ties. I com­menced writ­ing the nov­el in 2003, Aus­tralia still reel­ing from the Bali Bomb­ing ter­ror­ist attacks the year before, and just weeks after the start of the Iraq War, in which Aus­tralia joined George W. Bush’s “Coali­tion of the Will­ing” to remove Sad­dam Hus­sein from pow­er. Empire of the Waves is no more a sim­ple alle­go­ry of the post‑9/11 world than The Lord of the Rings was a mere alle­go­ry of the world wars. Yet Empire of the Waves is very much a prod­uct of its decade of cre­ation. It was a decade when North Korea was nev­er far from head­lines either. Like Kim Jong Il, the tyrant Fil­ip Able is the play­boy heir of a beloved nation­al leader, a dic­ta­tor who would have pre­ferred to carouse and make art than lead a nation, yet proves unable to resist the lure of pow­er and so seeks to build Weapons of Mass Destruc­tion (not a nuclear weapon, in Fil­ip Able’s case, but rather access to the cos­mic pow­ers of the Shad­ow Realm through an alliance with mon­strous crea­tures called the felmane).

Illus­tra­tion by Allen Dou­glas (Pen­guin)

Mean­while, I want­ed to process my post-Iraq War hor­ror at the Manichean myths of my own child­hood that had con­tributed to so many of us think­ing that the West must be on the “right side of his­to­ry” in every war. Wavelord Able’s desire to elim­i­nate the scourge of pira­cy in Salila mir­rored George Bush’s cru­sade against glob­al ter­ror­ism, whilst the ten­sion between his float­ing city of Pel Narine’s hege­mon­ic mil­i­tary, polit­i­cal, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al ambi­tions was jux­ta­posed against the virtues of founder Gor­go Narine’s more enlight­ened found­ing documents.

Of course, the post‑9/11 world inspired a lot of mediocre art and com­men­tary that iden­ti­fied the hypocrisies of the War on Ter­ror, whilst com­mit­ting what Bertrand Rus­sell termed the fal­la­cy of the “supe­ri­or virtue of the oppressed”, thus jus­ti­fy­ing the most grotesque of crimes, at times roman­ti­ciz­ing even ter­ror­ists and tyrants. I made cer­tain, there­fore, that the pirate clans in Empire of the Waves were no less moral­ly ambigu­ous than the float­ing cities they are fight­ing. Even the hero­ic pirate Cap­tain Blood­hook – who turns out to have close fam­i­ly ties with Anni Tidechild – is depict­ed as a man of com­pro­mised moral­i­ty and great vio­lence. I want­ed my heroes to make the read­er squirm, much as the heroes of the Old Tes­ta­ment or The Ili­ad and The Odyssey take our breath away at their capac­i­ty for cru­el­ty and vice.

Black­beard (Pirate and Proto-terrorist?) 

In most super­hero movies – the dom­i­nant genre of sto­ry­telling this cen­tu­ry, for adults and for chil­dren – the col­lat­er­al dam­age of inter­ven­tion is lim­it­ed to a few smashed cars and build­ings that spare those trapped inside, whilst cre­at­ing audi­ence-delight­ing tableaux of destruc­tion. If only our bombs and drones oper­at­ed with such exquis­ite aes­thet­ic and eth­i­cal dis­cern­ment. As Alek­san­dr Solzhen­it­syn wrote, “the line divid­ing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is will­ing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” In far too many children’s sto­ries – whether from North Korea or the demo­c­ra­t­ic West – one only needs to find the evil foe to exor­cise our demons. George Lucas has insist­ed that he intend­ed Star Wars as an alle­go­ry of the War in Viet­nam, pre­sum­ably with Obi-Wan Keno­bi as a galac­tic Ho Chi Minh, and the US as the repub­lic that became an Empire. If so, then Lucas failed, not only because his mes­sage was lost in a storm of plas­tic mer­chan­dise and lucra­tive spin-off oppor­tu­ni­ties, but also because his movies failed to depict the Rebels with the nec­es­sary com­plex­i­ty to war­rant such lofty moral aspi­ra­tions in the first place. 

As a child, the most inter­est­ing thing for me about Star Wars was the mys­ti­cism of the Force. One of the most depress­ing aspects of the recent movies in the fran­chise – fac­sim­i­les of fac­sim­i­les – is their loss of inter­est in the numi­nous. One can at least admire the scope of George Lucas’ Camp­bel­lian ambi­tion. Much like our own world, Lucas’ galac­tic habi­tats teem with life and spir­it, both at the cen­tre and periph­ery of the tale. There is always some­thing hap­pen­ing in the cor­ner of the screen, even if it is just an odd-look­ing crea­ture lum­ber­ing or fly­ing by. 

J.R.R. Tolkien

In that respect, there are echoes in Star Wars of The Lord of the Rings, the great­est of the Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry fan­tasies. J.R.R. Tolkien delight­ed in what the devout Catholic writer termed “sub-cre­ation”, the act of build­ing and pop­u­lat­ing a new world with new life. C.S. Lewis does the same in Nar­nia, and both Inklings took the time – in The Sil­mar­il­lion and The Magician’s Nephew respec­tive­ly – to com­pose their own cre­ation myths. An act of sub-sub creation!

Map of Salila by Bet­ti­na Guthridge (Pen­guin)

In Empire of the Waves as well, physics and meta­physics are inex­tri­ca­bly bound. There is a pre-Coper­ni­can cos­mol­o­gy of spheres, presided over by an ancient Owl who cre­ates all things, as Aslan the Lion sings new worlds into being in The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia. The Sis­ters of Rhea, embod­ied in the char­ac­ter of Sis­ter Igna­tia Antares – Anni Tidechild’s men­tor and close friend – leads an order of nuns ded­i­cat­ed to the teach­ing of the Prophet­ess. These nuns pre­serve mem­o­ries of a time when the world was green. Above all, we see a uni­ty between God and nature in the cul­ture and reli­gion of stout sea-far­ing gnomes called wibbens. These wibbens wor­ship three care­tak­er gods: Bool, the giant ray and Keep­er of Wis­dom, Zalo­ra, the white horned whale and Keep­er of Starlight, and Nasp, the giant squid and Keep­er of Shad­ows. What we deem “super­nat­ur­al” is instead encom­passed in an expand­ed vision of the natural.


When I was an under­grad­u­ate, I was obsessed with The Book of Beasts,a medieval bes­tiary trans­lat­ed from Latin by T.H. White, author of The Once and Future King, and anoth­er key fig­ure in Twen­ti­eth Cen­tu­ry children’s lit­er­a­ture. The Book of Beasts is, essen­tial­ly, a Twelfth Cen­tu­ry zoo­log­i­cal text, yet not in ways that we would rec­og­nize. In The Dis­card­ed Image, C.S. Lewis com­pared our post-Enlight­en­ment approach to nature with that of the Mid­dle Ages and Renais­sance. He observed that, “to us, an account of ani­mal behav­ior would seem improb­a­ble if it sug­gest­ed too obvi­ous a moral. Not so to [the medieval mind].” The Book of Beasts con­tains delight­ful rumi­na­tions on the the­o­log­i­cal and moral val­ue of the nat­ur­al world. Take, for instance, this medieval descrip­tion of the whale:

The [whale] lifts its back out of the open sea above the watery waves, and then anchors itself in the one place … Sail­ing ships that hap­pen to be going that way take it to be an island, and land on it. Then they make them­selves a fire­place. But the Whale, feel­ing the hot­ness of the fire, sud­den­ly plunges down into the depths of the deep, and pulls down the anchored ship with it into the profound.

Our anony­mous medieval zool­o­gist adds that, “this is just the way … unbe­liev­ers get paid out … peo­ple who are igno­rant of the wiles of the Dev­il … anchor them­selves to him, and down they go!” In Par­adise Lost, Mil­ton likened Satan to “that sea-beast / Leviathan, which God of all his works / Cre­at­ed hugest,” whilst Job notes that Leviathan is a vain crea­ture, one that “behold­eth all high things: he is a king over all the chil­dren of pride.”

‘The Book of Beasts’ trans­lat­ed by T.H. White

Nature, and ani­mals in par­tic­u­lar, take on a sim­i­lar – if less didac­tic – role in Empire of the Waves. The dia­bol­i­cal fel­mane recalls the Bib­li­cal Leviathan, whilst the fel­mane Queen Dagar points towards the Canaan­ite god, Dagon, some­times depict­ed as part man-part fish. Salila is a world of omens: a sea that roils with snakes fore­tells doom, the future of a child can be read in the slimy entrails of an urchin, and the birth of hun­dreds of white tur­tles becomes a por­tent of renew­al. The pirate Li Fan says, as these new­born tur­tles rush into the sea: “And so it always is … that hope springs anew, grow­ing in the qui­et places of the world, unseen.” This vision of the nat­ur­al world is a reflec­tion of my child­hood spent on the beach­es of the north coast of New South Wales: a place of rugged beau­ty and unlim­it­ed imag­i­na­tion … and a place of mean­ing too. 

Designed by Bruno Herf­st, Illus­trat­ed by Allen Dou­glas (Pen­guin)

To the alliance of evan­gel­i­cals and neolib­er­als glee­ful­ly fill­ing our skies with car­bon and despoil­ing the com­mon her­itage of land and sea, the view of nature in Empire of the Waves might seem – like that of The Lord of the Rings – to be pan­the­is­tic, verg­ing on hereti­cal. Cer­tain­ly, it is easy to destroy a for­est in the name of progress, to fac­to­ry farm ani­mals as lov­ing and inquis­i­tive as pigs, or evis­cer­ate a reef with indus­tri­al nets, if you believe God gave us this world to use sole­ly for our own extrac­tive ends. The vision of nature and ani­mals in Empire of the Waves chal­lenges and invites us to act as shep­herds not as lords and to join in the eter­nal dance of cre­ation and recreation.

But what respon­si­bil­i­ty, if any, do writ­ers and film­mak­ers have for the sto­ries that we tell and the worlds that we cre­ate? We can­not place sole blame for unjust wars or eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty or envi­ron­men­tal ruin on sto­ry­tellers. Many writ­ers I know believe that tales change noth­ing at all, for good or ill, which seems almost as bleak as it is sure­ly wrong. I sus­pect writ­ers are more impor­tant than we fear, yet less pow­er­ful than some might hope. If sto­ries changed noth­ing, then the adver­tis­ing indus­try would be out of busi­ness, states like North Korea would not invest so much time and effort in pro­duc­ing pro­pa­gan­da, and reli­gion would lose all its pow­er. Ide­ol­o­gy – Left or Right – is a form of sto­ry­telling too.

As Kim Jong Il pon­ders in On Juche Lit­er­a­ture, do writ­ers rep­re­sent the world? Or make it? Or do they, per­haps, in rep­re­sent­ing, make? Kim Jong Il was ask­ing from a posi­tion of great pow­er, but also from a posi­tion of anx­i­ety. For he under­stood, as his son well under­stands, that tec­ton­ic shifts in children’s cul­ture mark tec­ton­ic shifts in a soci­ety. And so Kim Jong Un seeks to root out het­ero­doxy. Indeed, if North Korea’s myth­mak­ing were enough to make its peo­ple loy­al, then it would not need to build prison camps with between 80,000–150,000 polit­i­cal pris­on­ers, or to demand such strict sur­veil­lance and self-crit­i­cism. If Chris­tians lived in thrall to the pre­cepts of Christ’s para­bles, then the faith would have tak­en few­er turns towards pogrom and inqui­si­tion and war in its 2000 years of history.

In recent years, there has been a resur­gence of didac­ti­cism in Eng­lish lan­guage children’s lit­er­a­ture, as if the con­tra­dic­tions of human nature can be resolved through sto­ry. This is naïve. The human brain is not pro­grammed or repro­grammed so eas­i­ly. Read­ing The Chron­i­cles of Nar­nia is no more like­ly to con­vert a child to Chris­tian­i­ty than read­ing His Dark Mate­ri­als is like­ly to con­vert a Chris­t­ian child to athe­ism. What Lewis and Pull­man do so well, how­ev­er, is to play a part – an impor­tant part, but one part all the same – in a demo­c­ra­t­ic dis­course. Books are social objects. The con­text of the read­er mat­ters: fam­i­ly con­text, peer and edu­ca­tion con­text, and the broad­er social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic con­text too. Read­ing Ani­mal Farm in Syd­ney is not the same as read­ing Ani­mal Farm in Pyongyang.

This is one rea­son why I oppose cen­sor­ship in children’s lit­er­a­ture, and want to resist the temp­ta­tion of send­ing fairy tales, for instance, down the mem­o­ry hole. Encoun­ter­ing a chal­leng­ing, even an offen­sive, idea is no more like­ly to make a “good” child “bad”, than a vio­lent video game is like­ly to cause a high school mas­sacre, as if a + b must = c. The plucky but­ter­fly does not always flap its wings and cause a hur­ri­cane. Didac­tic children’s lit­er­a­ture – still less a turn towards some kind of neo-social­ist real­ism, as some seem to be propos­ing – is no more like­ly to redeem our fall­en world than bad sto­ries are sin­gle-hand­ed­ly respon­si­ble for destroy­ing it.

Cen­sor­ship is a fool’s errand in any case. Svet­lana Gouzenko – wife of the famed Sovi­et spy and defec­tor Igor Gouzenko – recalled how in her child­hood the Young Pio­neers staged a mock tri­al of famous fairy tale char­ac­ters, only for the Russ­ian chil­dren to revolt. As Gouzenko writes in Before Igor: Mem­o­ries of My Sovi­et Youth:

For the Octo­ber cel­e­bra­tions that autumn our class pro­duced a small play in which a group of Young Pio­neers expelled the heroes of Russ­ian fairy tales as ‘non-Sovi­et ele­ments’ … [T]he group leader, a girl called Zoya Mecho­va … explained the old fairy tales about princes and princess­es, exploiters of sim­ple folk, were unfit for Sovi­et chil­dren … Cin­derel­la was dragged before the judges and accused of betray­ing the work­ing class. Next came Father Frost, who was accused of climb­ing down chim­neys to spy on peo­ple. One by one [they] were con­demned to exile. The only excep­tion was Ivan the Fool, who was set free because he belonged to the com­mon peo­ple and was no trai­tor to his class … Zoya Mecho­va made her sum­ming up speech, but nobody heard it. The chil­dren in the audi­ence began to cry. ‘Bring them back! Bring them back! Don’t shoot them!’ The uproar was deafening.

Sto­ries are remark­ably resilient.

Acknowl­edg­ing that chil­dren will want what they will want is not the same, how­ev­er, as sim­ply shrug­ging and say­ing that it does not mat­ter what chil­dren read, as long as they do read. This is a com­mon refrain, espe­cial­ly as Aus­tralian chil­dren read less than ever and lit­er­a­cy stan­dards are in free-fall. We must reject that argu­ment as well. Beyond its dis­con­cert­ing rel­a­tivism, this lais­sez-faire atti­tude reduces lit­er­a­cy to the tech­nol­o­gy of neo-lib­er­al­ism, in which the only func­tion of a book is to improve a child’s read­ing skills, improve her grades, and so pre­pare her for the world of work. This is one rea­son why the lan­guage of Le Guin’s A Wiz­ard of Earth­sea, for instance, or Ruth Park’s Play­ing Beat­ie Bow, would now be seen as too sophis­ti­cat­ed and chal­leng­ing for many upper pri­ma­ry stu­dents. Why both­er with aes­thet­ics, let alone meta­physics, when func­tion­al lit­er­a­cy is the prin­ci­ple goal of read­ing? Or why trou­ble with ambiva­lence and het­eroglos­sia when lit­er­a­ture is increas­ing­ly reduced to a sub­sidiary of the social sciences?

Ursu­la Le Guin

Authors are often asked to instill in teenagers a sense that read­ing books is “fun”. Of course, read­ing may be fun at times, but rarely in the way most chil­dren under­stand the word. Read­ing – like learn­ing an instru­ment, a sport, or sec­ond lan­guage – often demands dis­ci­pline and patience. Read­ing brings plea­sure through a dawn­ing sense of mas­tery, open­ing the read­er to a world of intel­lec­tu­al, emo­tion­al, and aes­thet­ic pos­si­bil­i­ty. It is futile for children’s lit­er­a­ture to com­pete with the shal­low mes­merism of Youtube, The Emo­ji Movie, or the Mar­vel Cin­e­mat­ic Uni­verse. More­over, it is moral, aes­thet­ic, and intel­lec­tu­al sur­ren­der. Nor will a pan­icked increase in overzeal­ous test­ing rebuild our read­ing cul­ture. Most of the state-man­dat­ed direc­tives on read­ing in Aus­tralia are them­selves unreadable.

Before the pan­dem­ic brought a halt to such events, I ran a work­shop for a group of 15-year-olds that com­pared the cre­ation myths of Ursu­la Le Guin, Tolkien, Lewis, and Empire of the Waves. We talked at length about his­to­ry and pol­i­tics and meta­physics. In my expe­ri­ence, there is noth­ing I would teach a post­grad­u­ate that I can­not share with high school stu­dents. Stu­dents from work­ing class back­grounds, from immi­grant or refugee back­grounds, are just as hun­gry, if not hun­gri­er, for this. My favourite school vis­it last year was to a school where a major­i­ty of stu­dents were born in Iraq, Syr­ia, Afghanistan, and North Africa. And every North Kore­an exile I have ever met is hun­gry for knowl­edge and experience.

In the after­math of World War Two, there was a renais­sance in children’s lit­er­a­ture in Britain from which the whole world ben­e­fit­ted. In part, I think, this was because a gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren raised with first hand expe­ri­ence of Ger­man bombs and flat­tened cities, sim­ply did not find the old myths and tales to be suf­fi­cient anymore. 

J.R.R. Tolkien in 1916

Many of the great writ­ers of that time, like Lewis and Tolkien, were them­selves vet­er­ans of war, and well under­stood the trau­ma of a gen­er­a­tion that had come of age in the shad­ow of the Blitz and the atom­ic mush­room cloud. It was not coin­ci­dence that the British NHS and wel­fare sys­tem emerged from the same world­view that birthed the gold­en age of Puf­fin Books.

My own child­hood, on the oth­er hand, coin­cid­ed with the post-Cold War unipo­lar moment. The col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union and tri­umph of Amer­i­can-style neo-lib­er­al­ism ush­ered in an era of brash tri­umphal­ism and a car­ni­val of con­sumerism and envi­ron­men­tal degra­da­tion. In the after­math of 9/11, the Iraq War, and the Glob­al Finan­cial Cri­sis, aus­ter­i­ty erod­ed the wel­fare state and social media divid­ed us against one anoth­er. We threw so much away. Too much. So here we stand in the midst of a pan­dem­ic. Great Britain and the Unit­ed States – still the prin­ci­pal sources of our glob­al children’s cul­ture – are exposed as unpre­pared for the Coro­n­avirus, their post-World War Two pur­pose seem­ing­ly for­got­ten, their social fab­ric fray­ing along with their health and edu­ca­tion sys­tems. In that respect, then, South Korea and Aus­tralia are both outliers.

Like that post-war gen­er­a­tion, the gen­er­a­tion of chil­dren emerg­ing from the pan­dem­ic is also sens­ing that the old myths are insuf­fi­cient. Our politi­cians and edu­ca­tors and writ­ers have promised them one world, yet deliv­ered them anoth­er. One day – per­haps soon – when the Kim dic­ta­tor­ship is gone, North Kore­an chil­dren will con­front the same prob­lem. A cul­tur­al edi­fice built on the foun­da­tion of Kimist hagiog­ra­phy is no prepa­ra­tion for a world with­out it.

W.H. Auden (quot­ed in James Fen­ton’s ‘The Strength of Poet­ry’) argued that:

[T]he pri­ma­ry func­tion of poet­ry, as of all the arts, is to make us more aware of our­selves and the world around us. I do not know if such increased aware­ness makes us more moral or more effi­cient. I hope not. I think it makes us more human, and I am quite cer­tain it makes us more dif­fi­cult to deceive, which is why, per­haps, all total­i­tar­i­an the­o­ries of the State, from Plato’s down­wards, have deeply dis­trust­ed the arts. They notice and say too much, and the neigh­bours start talking.

Let us not seek to make our chil­dren too pious or too moral, nei­ther let us sur­ren­der to a fake-news rel­a­tivism that believes in noth­ing but our feel­ings or the log­ic of the mar­ket. Let us tell com­plex sto­ries, chal­leng­ing sto­ries, sto­ries that make us hard­er to deceive. We need more chil­dren’s sto­ries in trans­la­tion, not just Eng­lish to Kore­an, but Kore­an to Eng­lish. Gath­er­ings like this are a step in that direc­tion. And I look for­ward to the day when we can run an event not just in Seoul, but in Pyongyang too.

Anni Tidechild by Allen Dou­glas (Pen­guin)

Empire of the Waves, like so many children’s fan­ta­sy adven­tures, plays with the trope of the “cho­sen one”, the mes­sian­ic sav­iour of the world. Anni Tidechild is the heir of Zarrin Shek, her ances­tor like­wise called upon to save the world from the men­ace of the seem­ing­ly implaca­ble fel­mane. And yet, the twist, revealed late in the nov­el, is that Shek did not have cos­mi­cal­ly ordained super­pow­ers or mag­i­cal abil­i­ties, but rather gained her pow­er through the wis­dom of learn­ing the lan­guage of her ene­mies, of mak­ing peace, and find­ing com­mon cause in unlike­ly places. It was Zarrin’s tragedy that she then unleashed apoc­a­lyp­tic vio­lence and destruc­tion all the same. The ques­tion, then, is will young Anni Tidechild learn history’s les­son? Is there anoth­er path for Anni – and for all of us – to choose together?