I heard about it long before I saw it: Hello Sailor, a picture book for children, about two gay men. The rumours came my way like a sea breeze... it was an expression of the love that still, according to its critics, ought not to dare speak its name (at least, not to the under-sevens).
Macmillan, the book's publishers, were hoping for trouble: How will British public react to 'gay' book for kids? its press release asked. This worked like a charm and the Sun lost no time in exposing the book's homosexuality, even trying to enhance its story by claiming: 'Publishers deny the pair are gay.'
Books for younger children about gay relationships are rare. It is no wonder when you consider the reception given to Jenny Lives with Eric and Martin. This pedestrian school book caused an almighty fuss and was partly responsible for the Section 28 legislation that sought to prevent the 'promotion' of homosexuality by local authorities.
Since then, there has, depending upon your point of view, been a gap in the market. I can't think of a single picture book with a gay couple in it. But does this matter? Is homosexuality such a tricky subject for parents that they must tactfully broach it through books? I doubt it. I remember my older son asking when he was eight or nine, unprompted by any book, whether love could exist between people of the same sex. And when I said it could, he was curious, unjudgmental. Unlike adults, children accept the world as they find it.
I didn't have high hopes for Hello Sailor (its arch title suggests a music-hall romp with double-entendres). But when, at last, I saw a copy, it was a shock and not at all as I had expected. In fact, I am still trying to square the difference between what I had foreseen and what I found.
It is a beautiful book. Ingrid Godon's melancholy pictures are filled with seagulls, lighthouses and sand dunes. You can almost smell the sea salt. And there are no children in it. There is no family. There is no sex. It is about yearning. And it makes - just as it should - the love between two men as natural and deep as any other.
Matt lives alone in a lighthouse, missing his friend, Sailor, who is at sea and may never return. Most children will identify themselves with Matt for, although he happens to have grown up, there is a sense in which he is still a boy. And when the much-desired moment comes and Sailor returns and Matt says: 'Hello Sailor' , it makes an unexpected impact, the familiar greeting made new.
When I read the book to my boys (four and six), they admired the lighthouse greatly. But not an eyebrow nor a question was raised about anything else. As an attempt to educate children about homosexual love by awakening discussion, it is a failure. And, in the end, I found myself wondering whether, although it makes a lovely book for children, its natural audience wasn't an adult one? Macmillan hopes that, by publishing it before 14 February, it could be an 'alternative' Valentine's Day gift for gay couples. Why only for gay couples? It is, I think, for everyone who has ever been in love.
I don't feel the need for more books about gay parents, but might well if I were a gay parent. When I was a single parent, I felt oppressed by the relentless portrayal of nuclear families in picture books. Mum was married to Dad (and to the stove). Mum and Dad were always jolly and the children could take their happy parents for granted. I was kept going by the exceptions, in particular by Sarah Garland, who did and still does, a line in wild single mothers whose children's socks were odd and whose lives were odder still.
There is a reason behind the conservatism in the children's 'world of books'. Adults have a desire to keep their children in the dark - or in the light forever - about what the world is actually like. And it is only the recklessly talented who dare to subvert this. Penguin's lead title for this month is Melvin Burgess's Lady: My Life as a Bitch, out in paperback. Like Hello Sailor, it takes risks. Penguin boasts: 'Adults will be scared of it.' It is about a promiscuous 15-year-old girl who turns into a dog. As a bitch, her life is transformed and she gets the sexual freedom she craves. It is a plot that will not behave itself in the retelling and, unlike its heroine, refuses to lie down. But it is a riveting read.
Burgess describes writing for teenagers as an 'issue of trust'. He argues that they have access to 'much stronger material on film, TV and radio'. His aim is to 'speak directly to them about their own lives instead of hypocritically allowing them to eavesdrop stuff supposedly aimed at the over-18s'. He's right. Bogus idylls don't last. And our children, even the little ones, live in the same world that we do.