Gillian Avery

Gillian Avery author of many children’s books, has also written several books of criticism, including Childhood’s Pattern.

New Guardians of Education

Gillian Avery, 17 July 1980

‘The father places his penis in the mother’s vagina.’ Modern prudery shies away, affronted, from this statement in a manual of sex education – not for Dr Bowdler’s reasons, but because the Young Person of today might infer from it that the female role in life is to be passive. Racism and Sexism in Children’s Books, which enshrines this and much other theorising about what should bring a blush to the cheek of the Young Person and, more important, to that of his mentor, is an undistinguished, one might even say dismally puerile, little collection of essays. But as the authors take themselves and their themes very seriously, and the blurb states that the volume has been prepared because of the ‘overwhelming response from readers and teachers’ to an earlier book on these subjects, it is worth looking at the views of the Bowdlers of the 1980s. The book has an English editor, who has apparently worked in English bookshops and a London public library, but most of the contributions are American in origin, coming from a digest first published by the Council for Inter-Racial Books for Children in the USA. I will reveal myself as an out-and-out racist when I say that it is permeated with a peculiarly Anglo-Saxon self-righteousness – Auden’s governess lying awake and giving the universe nought for behaviour.

What makes children laugh? First and foremost, disaster – other people’s disasters, naturally. My daughter, at the age of two, was so overcome by the exquisite funniness of her cousin knocking a plate from the table that she lay on the floor and sobbed with laughter. Disaster is, of course, a vital element in farce and clowning, but a child can find humour in the sort of domestic mishap that an adult would have to see on the stage before he could laugh. (Or does the humour of disaster appeal only to the Western mind? We were once the only Europeans present at a Boxing Day performance of Oh Mr Porter in a back-street cinema. Four men were whirled around on the sails of a windmill; we fell about with laughing, the Pakistani children who made up the rest of the audience were silent. They either found the situation totally unfunny, or else lacked the instinct that an English child would have, that everything would come right in the end.) It can go beyond ordinary calamity – Mitford aficionados will remember the glee with which that terrifying family chanted: ‘Crushed to death in a lift-shaft; man’s long agony in a lift-shaft.’

Good as boys

Penelope Fitzgerald, 15 August 1991

You don’t remember the lessons, you remember the teachers. At the heart of Gillian Avery’s book are the distant, half-familiar figures of extraordinary women, pioneers: Frances Buss...

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