The Known Unknowns

by MrMoth

Ah, simpler, more innocent times.

I warn you now, this is about that most ghastly of things – parenthood. The experiences therein. Stuff I know, or think I know, ‘since becoming a father*’. If you don’t like that, well, I suggest you stop reading now because the first line of the next paragraph isn’t for you.

Since becoming a father I’ve started watching a lot of TV which isn’t made for me, and reading books which aren’t written for me. I’m not going to lie to you, people – a lot of it is terrible. Appalling, knock-it-out-on-the-cheap, thoughtless, insultingly bad trash hiding behind the defence of ‘it’s only meant for kids’, as if children aren’t worth spending time and effort to please. As if they’re not perceptive (actually, you know, they’re really not. The number of times I’ve got away with saying that ‘there is no TV on’ is shockingly and rewardingly high). As if we, the parents, aren’t going to notice.

I’m not here to talk about that stuff, though. The bad isn’t worth examining on any level above a rant (and I do plenty of that), it’s the good that’s interesting. Always. The bad is easier, the good is more interesting. I’ve already talked about the sort of Stockholm Syndrome that sets in after about a year of exposure to it, but there’s another phenomenon, related but very different. Further warning for those still reading – the next sentence will make me sound like I’m writing for Comment Is Free.

I not only know who these people are, I can name all the toys.

I saw a tweet recently which expressed it perfectly. ‘Really is weird watching @realchrisjarvis on @CBeebiesHQ considering I use to watch him when I was younger’, to which said real Chris Jarvis (as opposed to the hologram Chris Jarvis, who is composed of light and unable to operate even a touchscreen keyboard) replied ‘I’m 105’. I’ve had the same feeling – not of being 105, but the oddness of seeing a man I used to watch on Children’s BBC (OK, I was, like, 15 at the time so a weeeny bit old for it) presenting shows for my daughter. Two generations know damn well who this man is, but is he famous? Is he a household name? Only in a cloaked, half-forgotten way. As soon as I saw him on Show Me Show Me (the pitch-perfect 21st century successor to Playschool or Play Away), his name sprang from some dusty part of my brain. It’s Chris Jarvis! But, had you presented me with the name four years ago I would have had difficulty picturing a face. To put the cherry on this particular cake, his co-presenter is Pui Fan Lee, who was Po in Tellytubbies. Her fun-fur animatronic suit is more widely known than she is.

There exists, then, a sort of secondary level of celebrity. For clarity, I’m not talking about A-list through Z-list. I’m talking about actual celebrity, those who are celebrated. Chris and Pui  are beloved in millions of households across the country, but remain outside the usual sphere of popular culture, locked in the CBeebies multi-channel dungeon, working away from the general consciousness, and they’re not the alone. Some of the sparkiest, most creative performers, writers and illustrators I can think of toil in a sphere which is at best viewed with a sort of patronising indulgence, at worst with a pitying contempt – not good enough to do grown-up stuff, eh?

Steve Backshall – even has to fight hippos off with a shitty stick.

The liminal zone of the sort of fame the Show Me Show Me presenters enjoy comes in the form of TV for the older child. Steve Backshall is almost very nearly a celebrity thanks to his Deadly 60 series, a show which gives kids what they want – weird, wonderful, dangerous animals – but doesn’t flinch from science. That 90% of the women I know who’ve seen it seem to fancy Backshall probably doesn’t hurt, either. Dr Who is, technically speaking, a family show. Or a children’s programme that has talked its way into prime-time. It doesn’t matter, it still makes its stars household names (while simultaneously dooming them to always be outrunning the shadow of the Tardis, and that fucker can travel through time) and is frequently much more entertaining than any supposedly adult show on the same channel. Steven Moffat still had to create Sherlock to get any serious critical respect, though, didn’t he? I say this not having watched a single second of Sherlock, but Dr Who is better.

I regularly despair of a world in which adult books are significantly less fun than those for children. Not necessarily in terms of content – actually, it would drive me up the wall to have to read quite so many books about bears – but in the playful way children’s authors engage with the very form of the book. Yes, you have to hold the small dears’ attentions, but this goes beyond the odd pop-up shark or fuzzy-tummied Winnie-the-Pooh. Look at Vivian Schwarz’s ingenious There Are Cats in This Book. The pages stretch, burst vividly at the seams, transform into thrown balls of wool, are elastic playgrounds which serve the central conceit of the book – that the cats in the book want to play with the reader. Or the magnificent ‘paper engineering’ of Corina Fletcher on display in the pop-up versions of Giraffes Can’t Dance** or Oliver Jeffers’s Lost and Found.

Jeffers is worthy of recognition anyway, with his gentle, whimsical stories and gorgeous naive art style. Plus Heart in a Bottle is the most astonishingly, heartbreakingly true book about grief I have ever read – it packs a shattering punch in just a few words and simple pictures. But the pop up Lost and Found is almost worthy of a gallery. Not for Jeffers and Fletcher the bravura paper dynamics of Giraffes Can’t Dance, instead some tabs do little more than switch a light on in a house, or gently sweep an oar across a rolling ocean. A perfect fit of form and function it can make an adult reader think ‘Christ, why didn’t Wolf Hall do this?’ But have you ever read this book? If you have children, chances are you will have read at least one Jeffers. Or Schwarz. Or something by Emily Gravett, whose books are often riots of interactive detail; the paper equivalent of a DVD stuffed with Easter Eggs. If you don’t, these delights are probably beyond your ken.

Emily Gravett’s Wolves – filled to bursting.

Rightly so? Probably. You’d look a bit of a tool sitting down with Gravett’s Again!, which ends with a dragon burning a hole through the last few pages and back cover, on the Tube. Your boss might question your sanity if your lunchtime reading consisted of Claire Bampton’s incredible pop-up retelling of Frankenstein, with its intricate dioramas and nested pop-up devices.

And don’t tell me that, actually, you have the Hunger Games trilogy at home, or a set of first edition Harry Potters. They’re just novels for grownups with the ages dialled down. There is no structural difference between a young adult novel and any other novel. Cover at front and back, words in the middle. The closest you will get to the formal messiness of a good pre-school book is in the world of the avant-garde. e e cummings might, had he been born fifty years later, have used his eye for textural deconstruction to tell tales of owls or bears to toddlers. Or he would have written for McSweeney’s like some kind of twat.

Experimental literature’s retreat to hipster arthouse is a shame. The physical book is under threat from ebooks, and there are clever authors and artists are creating a world in which at least some literature has to be paper and card – but they are either unknown or dismissed as y’know. For kids.

Even when the walls of the child/adult blockades are breached, parity of respect is still often lacking. Take, for example, Michael Rosen. Now, to be fair, Michael Rosen is by any estimation a pretty famous and highly-regarded individual. His first book of poetry for children was published in the mid-seventies, he is a broadcaster of some standing on the subject of language and was made Children’s Laureate (a post I have much more respect for than Poet Laureate, for some reason) in 2007. He is a batty, hard-left, endearing presence on Twitter. He was named a Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the Governement of France (showing that the French are maybe not all bad) We’re Going on a Bear Hunt is pretty much mandatory reading for any child in 21st Century Britain, and his collections are filled with witty, daringly inventive verse. I am not saying that, generally speaking, Michael Rosen is held in anything but very high esteem, but it would be a surprise to see his name on a list of great poets of the last 100 years. TS Eliot’s Practical Cats, for example, seem plodding and conventional in comparison to Rosen’s dancing, warm vernacular, but Eliot had the good sense to write poetry for grown-ups and is rightfully considered one of the finest poets of the 20th Century. Rosen dedicates his remarkable way with language to those most receptive to it and so remains just outside contention. Fortunately, the children of today are the curators of tomorrow, and as successive generations have enshrined the likes of Postgate & Firmin or Roald Dahl as enduring creators of some genius, so I hope his work, and the work of others in this thankless dimmed spotlight, will last.

MrMoth has written a daringly old-fashioned book for children, which you can look at the price of here.

*Three years ago today, birthday fans.

**Written by Giles Andrae, better known to the world as Purple Ronnie.

About Thom Willis

Thom is the curator of #microwrites - - and writes his own stories for He lives in London because, given the choice, who wouldn't?

6 thoughts on “The Known Unknowns

    1. Summer holiday CBBC links, I think. I don’t know, I was, like, fifteen so I was just eating sausage rolls and waiting for Phillipa Forrester to turn up.

      Some Gravett books are tricky to read aloud (esp Again! and the Meerkat one), but others are fine – Monkey and Me, Orange Pear Apple Bear or Wolf Won’t Bite come to mind. Of course, they’re more conventional, but eventually you can just hand the kid Wolves and let them play/read.

  1. Happy Birthday to the Mothlet! Peppa Pig is also an unsung work of brilliantly observed, subtle satire on the state of the modern family. When the kids get old enough for CBBC, more good stuff comes to the fore; Horrible Histories, Gastronuts, 12 Again for example and the Spike Milligan shows on CITV.
    We’re Going on a Bearhunt on the other hand, I despise with a white-hot passion.

    1. Thank you.

      And I’m happy for people to disagree with my personal choices, but it’s gratifying to see people agree with the sentiment.

  2. Fantastic article.

    Michael Rosen has published adult poetry by the way. “Carrying the Elephant” was written after the sudden death of his adult son.

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