Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Thursday 9 March 2023

The Decline and Fall of the Little Red Hen

Once upon a time, this was my favourite book - which, judging by recent posts on Primary education websites, shows I was a precocious proto-capitalist; these days, if their approving teachers and parents are to be believed, children are likely (with, I suspect, some prompting) to say that the hen should have shared her loaf of bread with the other animals even though she did all the hard work to produce it.

It wasn’t just the satisfactory ending that appealed; like the other Ladybird story books of its vintage, it’s an aesthetic and linguistic gem, with detailed illustrations clearly drawn from life - the hen scratching in the dirt to plant the seeds is a delight - and a keen sense of rhythm pervading the text:
“Who will help me to plant these grains of wheat?”  asked the little red hen.
“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the rat.
“Not I,” said the pig.  

By the mid 1990s, the style is very different. Gone are the lifelike animals and the lovingly-detailed rural settings; instead we have a flat and dreary cartoon with a corresponding lack of complexity. While the language remains relatively unchanged, the ‘other animals in the farmyard’ have become ‘her friends’; a patronising gesture in keeping with the simplification of the illustrations, all doubtless intended to make the book more ‘relatable’ for modern children.

Another couple of decades and the complex and detailed illustrations of the original have been replaced by a faux-naïf style in which the animals (the pig having been unaccountably replaced by a dog) have acquired clothing and are depicted in an anthropomorphic style oddly reminiscent of “The Island of Doctor Moreau”. The language, too, has been sadly debased:
“Will you help me to plant the wheat? “ asked Little Red Hen.
“No,” said the cat, the rat and the dog.
All these changes are, I fear, symptomatic of a wider malaise. I’ve often wondered how the sophistication of Ancient Roman art and literature could have given way to the Dark Ages and what it must have looked like to those living through the change.

Having seen what has happened to the little red hen in a scant fifty years, I think I am starting to understand.


  1. Interesting. Most of our Ladybird books were bought from charity shops so I read the originals to our grandkids. I recognise your first cover but not the other two.

    A story of cultural cowardice if ever there was one.

    1. Hang onto those if you can; they were lovely things and deserve to be passed on for as long as possible - look at the alternative!

  2. Wow. You see the odd story of wokism in the news and people get all angry about it, but it's not until you see what's happening in the background that makes you realise just how deep the rot runs

    1. There’s certainly food for thought in teachers congratulating themselves on convincing five-year-olds that the little red hen should share the bread - the long march through the institutions continues to bear fruit.

  3. I think I will temper my love affair with Kindle and ensure I hang on to some beloved books in physical form, just to avoid this sort of progressive dumbing down...

    1. I have a horrible feeling that it is not just dumbing down we need to fear; it’s not beyond the bounds of probability that books which are deemed unacceptable may disappear completely from kindle (and possibly eventually from second-hand shops; look at the media furore now whenever anyone catches sight of a golliwog in a shop window).

      The problem in deciding which ones to preserve is second-guessing what is going to trigger the next generation of self-appointed censors; meanwhile, given the contents of my collection, I’m starting to feel a bit like a herbalist with a cat in the mid-seventeenth century.

    2. The other significant thing is the church.
      There it is, centre of village life.
      And then, gone.

    3. An interesting point; when the two later editions removed the quintessentially English village from the background, they effectively took the tale out of the context in which Ladybird had originally set it, thereby losing the resonance of the story with the morality of a small, self-contained community.

    4. The village depicted on the original is real, it is Hambledon in Hampshire. The view hasn't changed much, apart from all the cars. https://www.google.com/maps/@50.9315268,-1.0810953,3a,17.8y,339.6h,97.73t/data=!3m7!1e1!3m5!1smO3mSDf6O6d_Yw2vXaPuvw!2e0!6shttps:%2F%2Fstreetviewpixels-pa.googleapis.com%2Fv1%2Fthumbnail%3Fpanoid%3DmO3mSDf6O6d_Yw2vXaPuvw%26cb_client%3Dmaps_sv.tactile.gps%26w%3D203%26h%3D100%26yaw%3D48.481834%26pitch%3D0%26thumbfov%3D100!7i16384!8i8192

    5. Thank you, Lemmi!

      It is somehow deeply comforting to know that it is genuine place and still survives in a recognisable form!

  4. Yes, it's a lovely village, unfortunately down to only one pub these days.


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