Tuesday, 28 April 2009

Books for children

Every two years the UK publishing industry chooses a distinguished writer or illustrator of children's books as Children's Laureate, and a £10,000 bursary is provided. To mark the tenth anniversary of the laureateship, the first Laureate (Quentin Blake) and his four successors have each chosen their seven favourite children's books.

Here they are; I have arranged them in the order in which they were written:

Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens (1838)
A Book of Nonsense by Edward Lear (1846)
Little Women by Louisa May Alcott (1868-9)
What Katy Did by Susan Coolidge (1872)
Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson (1883)
A Child's Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson (1885)
The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde (1888)
Five Children and It by E. Nesbit (1902)
Just So Stories by Rudyard Kipling (1902)
A Little Princess by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1905)
The Railway Children by E. Nesbit (1906)
Just William by Richmal Crompton (1922)
Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner (1928)
Mary Poppins by P.L. Travers (1934)
The Box of Delights by John Masefield (1935)
Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain by Edward Ardizzone (1936)
Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfeild (1936)
The Family From One End Street by Eve Garnett (1937)
Sword in the Stone by T.H. White (1938)
Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel by Virginia Lee Burton (1939)
Stuart Little by E.B. White (1945)
Five Go to Smuggler's Top by Enid Blyton (1945)
The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank (1947)
Lavender's Blue by Kathleen Lines (1954)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken (1963)
Absolute Zero by Helen Cresswell (1978)
Not Now, Bernard by David McKee (1980)
Fairy Tales by Terry Jones (1981)
Rose Blanche by Ian McEwan and Roberto Innocenti (1985)
Daz 4 Zoe by Robert Swindells (1990)
Snow White by Josephine Poole (1991)
Clown by Quentin Blake (1995)
Queenie the Bantam by Bob Graham (1997)
Journey to the River Sea by Iva Ibbotson (2001)
Mr Gum and the Dancing Bear by Andy Stanton (2008)

• I find this list rather cheering, but it will probably be described as "worthy" (i.e. dull). It is sadly true that a selection made by children would not include many of these, but this is not so much because they would not appeal to today's children but because few of them have had the opportunity of reading many of them, and the power of marketing drives them (or their parents) to thinner fare: but the choice was made by authors who have demonstrated that they understand very well indeed what children like.

• There are probably hardly any books on the list which no adult could read with pleasure (Blyton, certainly and a few more), and several were not even written for children.

• Beatrix Potter, Milne and Grahame are absent; there is generally very little anthropomorphism.

• Nor is there much fantasy or magic: no Rowling, Tolkien or C S Lewis; most of these books are about real people doing real things. This does not mean that they all feature familiar backgrounds or characters with whom modern children can identify: there are some exotic situations and unimaginable people here.

• Not all is sugar and spice: Mary Poppins and the Famous Five are there but not typical, and there are plenty of dark themes.

• Imperialism is clearly dead: no Henty or Buchan, and Kipling is represented only by his (anthropomorphic) fables.

• I have read only about half a dozen on the list; I probably didn't have the time, because in my early teens I was busy reading around thirty of Richmal Crompton's books about William Brown. This shows that brilliant writing and characterisation can bring alive scenes and characters quite foreign to the readers experience: the books deal with affluent middle class life in a semi-rural setting in the 1920s and 30s—William's parents had a cook!—though Crompton went on writing them up to the 40s. All this was very far from anything familiar to me, and yet I could appreciate his eleven-year-old view of life and share wholeheartedly in his concerns.

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