Tuesday, 7 December 2021

Harry the Dirty Dog is on the nose

or so it would seem. 

If you are not a reader of children's picture books (I happen to like reading them) or you have never come across young children you probably don't know "Harry the Dirty Dog" by Gene Zion. 

It was published back in 1956. My brother was given the book as a Christmas present that year. It is still available over sixty years later. I gave a copy of it to the Whirlwind when she was small. She wanted me to read it to her over and over again. 

It is a simple story of a dog who decides he does not want a bath. He hides the scrubbing brush and runs off. He gets dirtier and dirtier but has fun while he is doing it. Eventually though he decides to go home because he thinks his family might be missing him. He is so dirty they don't recognise him even though he does all his usual tricks for them. He has to go and dig the scrubbing brush out of the hole he has hidden it in and go to the bathroom and demand a bath before he is accepted as Harry again. There is a lot which can be said about the story. A lot can also be said about why it is so popular with children.

But apparently it has a "gendered pronoun" throughout the book - the dreaded "he"  - and that, along with men in "traditional roles", no longer makes it an acceptable book to read to children. The reason? It and too many books like it "lower the self esteem of girls". These books apparently have a long term effect on their "gender development". 

I am all for diversity in children's literature and some of the recent children's literature is certainly more inclusive. I see that as a positive but does that trend mean that we also deny children their glee at Harry realising he needs a bath? 

One of the books I was given as a small child was "The story about Ping" by Marjorie Flack. There is corporal punishment in that story - the last duck onto the boat gets a whack. I always felt that was wrong. What was wrong to me was not the corporal punishment itself but the reason for it - for being last. 

Ping's story did not make me grow up approving of corporal punishment. I am (strongly) opposed to it. I grew up believing it was simply not fair to be punished for being last. Someone has to be last. I am more opposed to the idea that "every child should get a prize". It is a philosophy that does nothing to encourage anyone. I remember telling a young girl that she had done something well. Her response was that it "wasn't good". I explained it was "good" for her - and why. Without the explanation my praise would have been meaningless.   Children know whether they have done well or not.

Children don't look on books like "Harry the Dirty Dog" as sexist or "The story about Ping" as being about corporal punishment. For them they are about getting dirty and needing a bath whether you want one or nor and about getting lost and then finding your family again.

Do we really want children to grow up in a colourless "gender neutral" society? Is removing "gendered pronouns" from books for young children or demanding that only certain types of books be made available really going to serve any purpose? Wouldn't it be better to use "Harry" as a story about having fun getting dirty and then having more fun in the bath? There is the chance of an important health and hygiene lesson there.

Of course we could remove these books and a hundred others like them from the library shelves but is that really doing children a service?



jeanfromcornwall said...

Right there with you Cat. The self-appointed censors miss so many things in their concentration on what is beside the point of the story. And who is going to instruct the little boy dogs that they must not cock their legs to water the lamp posts?

catdownunder said...

Thank you Jean!