That’s not a usual setting for a kids’ book series. Its assumptions are too strange. Its ethics are too dubious. That’s my argumentby Sam Leith / August 25, 2010 / Leave a comment
“That’s not my puppy. Its coat is too hairy.” Know what I’m talking about? If you have children under ten, you will. The That’s Not My… series of board-books are the air you breathe—along with sinister Justin from CBeebies, the freaky yoga monkey from Waybuloo, and the bizarre thumb-sized College of Cardinals living at the bottom of the Night Garden.
The format is unvarying. Each is a square, hardwearing book on thick cardboard. The cover and four subsequent double-page spreads each show a pleasing cartoon picture of, say, a wildebeest. A cut-out section of the picture is filled with a textured insert: glossy, shiny, squashy or what have you. “That’s not my wildebeest…” the text reads. “Its eyebrows are too fluffy.”
Through these spreads you go—your infant scratching and grabbing at the touchy-feely pages—discounting the excessively rough hooves, the over-shiny eyes, the dismayingly squashy nose and so on, until you alight on the sixth and final scene. Triumph. “That’s my wildebeest! Its tail is so hairy.”
So stuck in your head do the words get that they enter daily conversation. “That’s not my daughter. Her screaming is too annoying,” for example or—with a sigh of post-bathtime satisfaction—”That’s my drink! Its ABV is so high.”
The books are written by Fiona Watt, the editorial director of children’s publisher Usborne, and illustrated by Rachel Wells. When the idea was first tabled, the company’s founder Peter Usborne didn’t think a children’s book with a negative in the title would work. But the first title, That’s Not My Puppy… (1999) has sold 900,000 copies. The next, That’s Not My Donkey… will be the 33rd in a series which has shifted 8m books worldwide. (In French, perhaps because of the unwieldiness of the negative construction, they are “Ou est mon…”)
I am obsessed with these books but then, they’re an important part of the culture. As Whitney Houston declared—in a phrase that becomes ever less profound the more you think about it—”I believe the children are our future.” With these books, we are shaping the future. What shape are we making it?
Consider the enthrallingly strange assumptions that underpin them. In the first place, we have a collector of fierce ambition, and no small carelessness. He has a portfolio of objects ranging from the theoretically possessable (trains, cars, kittens, rabbits, dollies and so on) via the evanescent (snowmen) and the nonexistent (dinosaurs, dragons) to the…