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Remember the Peter and Jane books? Published by Ladybird, an imprint of Penguin, the iconic children's books depict two siblings visiting places with their parents and pet dog, helping children learn about reading and key words of the alphabet along the way. Inspired by their adventures, artist Miriam Elia created a much darker spin on the series called We Go To The Gallery. And now, Penguin are coming after her.
In Elia's book, Peter and Jane visit an art gallery. Peter stares at large vaginas, considers the idea that God is dead and experiences guilt for his own existence after his mother reveals that the reason she isn't an artist is because he's alive. It's hilarious, but Penguin don't see it that way. They want the books destroyed.
"According to them, I've violated their book and infringed their copyright, but at no point have they proved that they actually own the rights", Elia told us. "This began with copyright objections, but that's changed now – their objections are just moral. They want anything rude, anything with a vagina in it, anything using the words 'fuck' or 'feminist', anything sexual, removed."
Penguin told Elia that they will pulp her books and forbid her from exhibiting the art in public. "I got a 15 page email saying how my book might corrupt children, or an old person might buy it and accidentally read it to his grandchildren," she said. "I mean, it's a pathetic argument. It's like they think life's a Werther's Original advert or something."
Penguin once prided itself about supporting literary subversion – they fought to publish DH Lawrence's controversial novel Lady Chatterley's Lover in 1960, but in recent times they've sometimes adopted an aggressively conservative approach. Last month, Penguin India agreed to recall and pulp all remaining copies of Wendy Doniger's The Hindus: An Alternative History after receiving complaints from conservative Hindu activists.
Elia isn't the only artist they've gone after, either. According to her, they "came down like a tonne of bricks" on Stanley Donwood, the artist better known for designing Radiohead's album covers. In 2001, he collaged Peter and Jane against a depiction of the apocalypse, and was made to remove it from the public realm entirely.
The case is ongoing and Elia is refusing to stand down. "At first I was scared, but now I just want people to know what's going on. They're trying to bully me. I have a right to my art and a right to satirise." Go Miriam.
You can read her statement on her website here and check out extracts from We Go To The Gallery at the top of the article.
Follow Thomas Gorton on Twitter here @angstromhoot