China knows it, and so should we: children’s stories really can conquer the world

The Chinese authorities are unhappy about the hold that Western children's books have on youngsters

The Chinese authorities are unhappy about the hold that Western children's books have on youngsters' imaginations. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Western children's literature offers fun, adventure - and a world of imagination. Maybe that's why the Chinese authorities are worried about them, says Sharon Griffiths.

Harry Potter always was dangerous, of course. And I was never sure about Topsy and Tim or the Gruffalo.

As for Peppa Pig – such smug, pink middle-classness is enough to topple any Communist state.

Which is what's worrying China at the moment.

The Chinese Communist Party is having a crack down on foreign children's books being printed in the country. They want to stem the 'inflow of Western ideology.'

Well, good luck with that one.

China is the country, remember, which has built a replica Eiffel Tower, Austrian village and an English town complete with statue of Winston Churchill. They seem to have embraced Western ideology pretty thoroughly already.

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And they're worried about Peppa Pig?

But maybe they're right. China has 220 million children under 14, devouring 40,000 new books every year. Children's literature is a great way to get to them.

Books are a glimpse into our world. For new generations of Chinese eager to know the West after centuries of isolation, they provide easy insider knowledge.

Never underestimate the influence of Meg and Mog, Charlie and Lola or Little Nutbrown Hare.

We're living in a glory age of children's literature and are lucky to have some of the best children's books in the world. They're funny and encouraging and help children discover the world and make sense of it. They calm their fears and stretch their imaginations.

No wonder Chinese kids, like children all over the world, enjoy them.

Books we read – or have read to us – in early childhood become part of us. We can't remember where we heard them first but their very words and rhythms and characters have rooted themselves firmly into our minds.

That's why pious Victorians flooded the market with terrifying tracts that warned of the dreadful fate that awaited children who weren't mild, obedient and listened to their mothers.

Now children's books are more likely to feature characters who are as timorous or as ordinary as the rest of us but manage to overcome their fears and triumph. They promote independence, free thinking and a willingness to do the right thing. Heroes and heroines, from Winnie the Pooh to Harry Potter are often rebels and rule breakers.

You can see why the Chinese are getting nervous….

For small children, stories are a first introduction to the world, a door into the imagination that can stretch their little minds without them realising. They also provide early lessons in morals, of the difference between right and wrong.

On a purely mundane level, reading to children gives them the gift of language and words – which will always give them a head start when they start school. If they enjoy books and are eager to read, they're going to fly through the system.

Much more importantly, their lives will be richer. Books hold no limits, no border controls.

Despite their magic and their force for good – as well as fun – books are losing out. One in ten adults doesn't own a single book. Many small children are left with an iPad instead of a story. Children of alcoholics regularly ring a helpline asking for a bedtime story because their parents are too drunk to bother. And children know they need stories to help them make sense of the world.

When a giggling two year old tiptoes through the mock fear of 'We're going on a bear hunt,' they maybe just enjoying the moment. But actually, they're starting an adventure that could last a lifetime.

If the Chinese Communist Party wants to ban them, then it only goes to show how powerful children's books are.

Make the most of them.