As a parent of young children from day one it's been mine and my wife's mission to read to our kids every day. We started early which meant that we moved onto older picture books fairly quickly. My eldest made it clear around 18 months that he wasn't interested unless there was some form of story.
With kids' books you have to find the age dependant sweet spot that's got story, but isn't too long, and isn't so annoying that reading it twice a day for months won't drive you to suicide. Luckily there's a fantastic range of publishers, and with picture books you're not dogged branded stuff (that hits later when they like Marvel, DC and Turtles.)
Saying that in the United Kingdom there isn't a bigger picture book "brand" than The Gruffalo. He's the ubiquitous present in play groups, schools and homes. Every toy shop will have a Gruffalo (or other Donaldson/Scheffler creation) product, and if a bookstore (may they live long and prosper) has a children's section it'll have their books. Animated adaptations of their works have started to become a Christmas mainstay, both on television and on stage; and the last Oscars had Room on the Broom nominated for best animated short.
Luckily the popularity has a basis in merit and the books are fantastic. They've been in our house since the beginning and we eagerly await a new story from the Simon and Garfunkel of the picture book world.
So when this month The Scarecrows' Wedding was released, we of course jumped on it (even attending an event around the book with stickers and colouring - I let Zac have one of course, after I got a sheet.) When I first read the book I have to admit I was taken aback that smoking was put in. Up until this point morals had been limited to "be good to people and it comes back to you" and "look after the environment." Very quickly though I saw the smoking for what it was, a forward thinking and ballsy move.
Our children are surrounded by a plethora of confusing images. Every single day my son, who's now 3 and a half, sees something new and asks me about it. Sometimes it's easy ,"you don't play with knives because you will stab yourself and it will hurt." Sometimes it's a bit more complex- "Yes I know Daddy drinks coffee, but you cannot." In the second instance I find the simplest health related response is just telling him it'll give him diarrhoea (his greatest fear.)
Today I read this article on the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund website. I felt I needed to chime in.
If you walk down the street, you see people smoking. It's the same here as in the US. Zac has asked about it on more than one occasion, and it's again a complex issue. Yes smoking is bad for you and will make you ill, but why do people do it? With a three and a half year old there's the obvious answer "some people are stupid" but essentially you need to illustrate as best you can the pitfalls. Now I'm not about to take a Clerks style line and show him a cancerous lung, and the Scarecrows' Wedding does it fantastically.
Apart from the fact that Reginald Rake is portrayed as shady, it's obvious from the moment smoking is mentioned it's a bad thing. Betty O'Barley (the female lead) instantaneously points out that "smoking is bad for you!" (Probably as much they're made out of wood, old clothes and straw; as the cancer). Rake's attempts to look cool blowing smoke rings ends in him coughing and setting Betty alight. There's no wriggle room here, there is not one second smoking is illustrated (both figuratively and literally) as a desirable thing to do.
As a parent, these three pages (yes folks, it's three pages of the book) are an amazing tool for pre-schoolers. Often when we're faced with "don't do this" moments we're answered with "but why?", and here we have a great example to use.
I applaud Donaldson/Schaffler/Scholastic for not only publishing this, but using their position of power (this is essentially the Harry Potter of kids' books) to put forward a clear and important message.
The argument about the suitability of this content for pre-schoolers can easily be countered with the existence of visible smoking in our day to day lives. It's unlikely if I'm on the high street I'm going to see a couple having sex and/or injecting heroin. So I feel fairly confident I don't need this moralised to my son in the Gruffalo 3 (which I assume will be Gruffalo does Dallas if they do choose this route.)
Smoking though is everywhere. Luckily in the UK smoking can't be advertised, but you see people in the street every day. You cannot avoid it. Better to have this example to use whenever the question arises, than no example at all. It's things like this that'll stay with our kids.
Much like a lot of important difficult messages for our children an even hand and a thoughtful practise are vital; and that's what you get. Any parent hiding their kids from this reality need to evaluate the reality of our world.
If you're interested in learning more about the Comic Book Legal Defence Fund (CBLDF)head on over to their website to see the fantastic work they do.