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Last Updated: Friday, 16 November 2007, 10:55 GMT
This is Janet. This is John... all over again
The original nuclear family work in the garden

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

Forget the modern updates, this Christmas you may find yourself getting a little literary slice of the 1950s.

Once upon a time, everybody learnt to read with Janet and John.

This apparently middle-class nuclear family featured Father - slicked hair, grey slacks, blank expression - and Mother - surprising Hepburn-esque cropped hair and primary colour clothes.

Then there was Janet - blonde hair in bunches, typically seen in a dress or a skirt - and John - curly reddish hair and always in shorts.

It was easy to imagine Father managing a small-town branch of Barclays, while Mother churned out jam for the WI. Over the years they have been wickedly parodied by Terry Wogan and others, and provided the backdrop for more inclusive views of family structure, such as Jenny lives with Eric and Martin.

Janet and John were not health and safety-obsessed

In 2001, when the books were "updated" for the modern generation, the perceived social stereotyping was toned down and more [ie any] ethnic minority characters were added.

But now the unashamedly middle England, middle 20th Century originals are back in print, and they are part of a major trend in publishing towards nostalgic facsimile editions of old favourites.

"They don't make 'em like they used to." It's been a recurring sentiment in British culture for a long time. All the way back to the industrial revolution and beyond, people have been yearning for a time when standards, both of conception and construction, were supposedly better.

The proof of the ubiquity of this sentiment may arrive in your Christmas stocking in a few weeks time.

The wave of nostalgia that has gripped the publishing industry follows the success of Conn and Hal Iggulden's Dangerous Book for Boys. Published in 2006, it looked as though it could have been published in 1956.

Retro chic

As well as similar retro-styled modern adventure almanacs, publishers are scrabbling for books, particularly children's stories, from the 1950s and beyond, to lovingly reprint them in facsimile editions. Failing that they are taking modern content and giving it a 50s feel with foil lettering and retro design as is the case with Buster Books' boys annual, girls annual and How to Be the Best at Everything.

Oor Wullie
Scottish nostalgia-ites are also catered for
It's the literary equivalent of the fad for 70s Adidas trainers, says Graeme Neill, of the Bookseller magazine.

"If we look at the publishing industry it has been behind popular culture by a number of years. People have wanted retro."

And it is clear - for the facsimile reprints if not the adventure annuals - that many of the books will be bought by adults, for adults. The Janet and John reprints are labelled "humour" as if to get the message across.

It's perhaps not just a case of reminiscing about one's own childhood, but also a harking back to the social and cultural values of another age. In a recent survey, respondents longed for old-fashioned sweet shops, bobbies on the beat, village fetes, district nurses, red telephone boxes, bus conductors and everything else 1950s.

And whether or not that world ever existed, there are many adults who want to hold its cultural embodiment in their hands.

Whether it's the reissued Janet and John books, Rupert Bear annuals from the 50s, Oor Wullie and the Broons from earlier, or Jackie annuals from later, adults everywhere are buying children's books with no thought of giving them to children.

Rupert 1959 annual
Rupert also presents some problems for modern publishers
Some are trying to capture the spirit of an age they associate with innocence and imagination, says John Beck, honorary secretary of the Followers of Rupert.

"It's nostalgia publishing. People remember it from the past with happy memories. They are probably going to be in their 40s, 50s, 60s. To see it again to relive those times. They were probably happier times.

"There were no muggings or shooting or other problems that one has these days. It is that security that they remember from their youth."

And just as the Dangerous Book for Boys tapped a zeitgeist that is increasingly exasperated by what they see as an overprotective health and safety culture, so these books from decades ago reflect a more buccaneering spirit.

Sense of adventure

In the Janet and John books, the children ride on horseback across rivers and climb trees, once normal activities that would now probably not make it past a typical risk assessment form.

Protesting Congolese student holds copy of Tintin in the Congo
Tintin in the Congo enjoyed hefty sales after it was branded racist
"There are children climbing trees. Now they say we can't do this we can't do that, you can't play conkers, children aren't allowed out," says Alastair Williams, managing director of Summersdale, the publishers reprinting the Janet and John books.

He agrees that it is the power of the idealised remembrance of the 50s that drives adults to buy these books for each other.

"It's a lot like going up into the attic and finding something from your past like an old television. It can evoke rose-tinted memories. Something like 70% of the population learnt to read with Janet and John. It's almost part of our cultural heritage, something that is instantly recognisable."

But while these facsimile reprints offer commercial opportunities for publishers, they can also threaten a political minefield.

Take books from six decades ago and you are reaching back to an era of different social mores, including a very different attitude to racial epithets.

Negative depictions

The recent reprinting of Tintin in the Congo sparked a furore because of its stereotypical depiction of Africans. The publisher, Egmont, was unrepentant, having printed the book with a foreword discussing the issues of racism and changing cultural norms. Perhaps not surprisingly, the book sold heavily off the back of the negative publicity.

Made UK debut in 1949
Published in US as Alice and Jerry
It is claimed 70% of UK adults learned to read with them
Revised stories in 2001
Alistair Spalding, of Egmont, says: "Context is extremely important. It is a very difficult issue." But he insists there could be no question of censoring the book and therefore invalidating its status as a facsimile reprint.

Many publishers take this position. The reissue of the pre-war comic strip the Broons by Aurum Press drew criticism for another - by modern standards - negative depiction of a black character.

Rupert, also from Egmont, again offers a major challenge, but Beck suggests the publishers will not reprint some of the annuals for this very reason.

For Mr Beck, with certain exceptions, it is wrong to bow to political correctness. Instead the change in attitudes should be highlighted as part of a context that opens up a debate on how much society has changed.

"It would open up that debate rather than just editing it all out. It's important these things are remembered. They should try and make it as real as possible. If you start altering it, it's no longer a facsimile."

And that is what readers want from these reproductions - an accurate window back into their childhoods.

Below is a selection of your comments.

When I was at primary school, I had Nicholas Stuart Gray's Down In The Cellar out from the library for a whole year. I loved that book. Now I'm in my 40s, I recently found a copy on Amazon, and enjoyed it as much as I did 35 years ago. Wonderful.
Mike Smith, Leeds

I have never been ashamed of reading books which I have kept from my childhood. I've even made a point of going out to buy some which got lost along the way. Five years ago, I made a special trip to the fabulous Hay-on-Wye to buy the Famous Five series because it had to be the versions I had read when I was nine, not the latest reprints where they all wear jeans instead of shorts. Last Christmas, I bought my 38-yr-old fiance a copy of the Roy of the Rovers annual he'd had when he was a kid and to say he was over the moon would be a total understatement. There really is nothing to beat a good bit of nostalgia, especially when it comes in the shape of books. Long may it continue.
Donna Chisholm, Staffs, UK

I remember Janet and John with loathing. I can understand the success of Boys Own type escapist adventures, a genre abolished for nearly a generation by politically correct "quality" children's literature, but I can't see any real appeal in the deadly dull Janet and John, Fortunately my children used the much more lively Oxford Reading Tree scheme.
Robert Hardy, Cambridge

Nostalgia? These wooden parodies of an ideal middle class existence went hand in hand with a suffocating repressive social order mired in class and taboo. Abortion illegal, minority rights non-existent, and in some cases discriminated against in law. Faith espoused as a good thing, with horrific child abuse associated these days with churches, scout groups etc, all unreported - and unreportable. Seeing these things again makes me feel sick.
Gio Bellini, Bournemouth

I collect Biggles books, which can sometimes make me wince to say the least. And I'm a merchant seaman - a group hardly known for liberated views. Still I put what I read into the period of time it comes from. Whilst there is racism in the books, it's not deliberate - it's just how it was. You can try and censor this or prevent selling or publication, but then you are getting into revisionist history and burning book piles. And that's just plain scary. One should always look at the past and the evidence it presents with the simple viewpoint of what it is - a snapshot in time. You may not like it but it's a fair bet that your favourite grey-haired granny is a hardline racist - and it's purely because of the age she was born into.
Mark Chisholm, Dereham, UK

I had never heard of Janet & John until I moved to London - reading in 1960's Liverpool was via Dick & Dora (with dog & cat, Nip & Fluff). The retro trend however is a longing for certainty and values (often phrased as "innocence") as against the moral relativism that now prevails.
Steve Mac, London, England

I remember a great sense of achievement in moving from the Janet & John red book (number one I think) to the blue book, aged about six or seven at my primary school in north London. I was as fascinated with the typeface as with the illustrations; the beginning of a lifelong love of reading and creative writing. Interestingly though, my schooling was interrupted by a family move to Scotland for 18 months. When I returned to my primary school in the last year before going to secondary school, my reading and writing ability - according to the teachers - far exceeded those of my classmates. And I don't recall reading Janet & John books in Edinburgh.
Michael, Welwyn, UK

Re Janet and John being "published in the US as Alice and Jerry" - was alliteration out of fashion on the other side of the Atlantic at the time?
Laurie, Reading, UK

I'm now thinking of "investing" in a few sets of Oxford Reading Tree books. No doubt in 2050 they will be worth a mint as my own children's' generation are falling over themselves to recapture the adventures of Biff, Chip, Kipper and Floppy the dog. Does anyone else look out for the spectacles and dog's bone when they are reading these books with their kids, or is it just me?
Dave, Guisborough, UK

At 26, I have recently purchased one of my favourite books of all time, The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. I bought the book for myself, and loved reading it again. I was however very disappointed to find that my fingers do not fit through the holes in the pages as they did many years ago.
Claire, Cardiff

I recently found a bookshop in Alresford, Hampshire, selling copies of The Adventures of Little Black Sambo. I loved this book as a child so I purchased a copy. My son aged eight and daughter aged four now also love the stories. There is probably no way this book would be published today, but there is nothing wrong with the book in any way.
Nick Grace, Southampton

John, John, look.
Look, John, look.
That was the first page I read for my Infant teacher in 1955. At the time it didn't occur to me that I was able to read before then.
Maggie, Paris

Because my Dad was in the services, we moved around a lot and the few books that my brother and I owned ended up being given away. I have since spent my adulthood hunting around second-hand bookshops and more lately the internet replacing these long lost friends - embraced with tears and great emotion.
Annemarie Riggs, Shrewsbury, Shropshire

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