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THE THREE GOLDEN AGES OF CHILDREN'S FICTION

Wednesday, March 06, 2013
 

 THE THIRD GOLDEN AGE OF CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

 

I’m here to talk about the three golden ages of children’s literature, and how they differ from each other, but perhaps it might be a good idea to start with asking what a golden age is. Does it mean that a lot of books are published which unexpectedly make money? To judge by the number of would-be children’s authors who believe they are going to be as rich as JK Rowling, it can seem so. Does it mean that a group of gifted writers simply emerge at a particular time, and are picked up because market conditions are good? That is closer to what some publishers believe. Or does it mean that a body of work is produced which somehow addresses both subjects of universal interest and which are particular to concerns at a certain time in history? This is closest to what I myself think is true.

Children’s books are, paradoxically, one of the most important forms of fiction, and the most overlooked. Important, because it’s children’s authors rather than poets who are the unacknowledged legislators of the world. From them, as much as from parents, a child receives an idea of how the world could or should be. A great children’s book, whether for the very young or the teenaged portrays an environment in which the small and powerless can outwit or even change the big and powerful. Such books confront our deepest fears of being lost, hungry or in mortal danger, and they also reinforce a child’s inner ability to cope with this fearfulness. Almost any great book which children still read conforms to this model. Yet for most of the time, children’s books are treated as infantile, escapist or easy to write. Believe me, they are not.

Every week, I receive around 100 books to consider for just one small review. I am given less than 300 words to cover a literature which is vast. Despite this, I know for a fact that a book reviewed by me will shoot up the sales charts, and be looked at by talent scouts for Hollywood film studios. Why? Because I was the first to review and make a fuss about Harry Potter, How to Train Your Dragon, The Gruffalo, Twilight, How I Live Now, His Dark Materials and The Hunger Games. If I think I’ve found a nugget of gold in the 5,000 or so books I sift through each year, I don’t care whether it has a big marketing budget or a complete unknown behind it. All I care about is that it has something which I think many children will fall in love with.

One of the reasons why I became so interested in children’s literature is because, at the time when I began to be published as an adult novelist, stories had become deeply unfashionable. “Yes, oh dear yes, the novel tells a story,” said EM Forster, and the story retreated from literary fiction into children’s literature. Children’s authors, though their work and influence may outlast and outsell almost all Booker Prize winners, got used to being handed the parsley crown not the laurel.

I have never shared this view, partly because, to me, story is as crucial as style, and it is infinitely harder to get right. To say that plot is simple because there are only seven kinds of plot is as stupid as saying that life on earth is simple because there are only four different bases of DNA. In the early 1990s, story and plot began to return to adult literary fiction and as it did so, children’s literature began to expand, not only in terms of length and depth but also in terms of reach.  Readers starved of story began to discover what are now called crossover books. The picture book began to be understood,  after Maurice Sendak, as something extraordinary - a fusion of images and limited vocabulary which authors such as Julia Donaldson, Lauren Child, Alan and Janet Ahlberg, Emily Gravett and more have turned into a post-modern art form. At the other end of the scale, there has been the explosion of fiction for teenagers, some of which became hugely successful films. Today, a children’s author may still not get more than the £3000 which was Rowling’s original advance for Harry Potter, but they should expect to sell into up to 30 countries. Children’s literature is the only sector in bookselling which is still doing well. The American children’s book market is worth $3 billion annually, and expected to grow to over $9 billion by 2015. The UK market is worth around £776 million, and accounts for one fifth of the total books market. It is something the British do exceptionally well – and is the only contemporary literature to have been celebrated in last year’s Olympic Games, themselves partly devised by the children’s author Frank Cottrell Boyce.

I am here because I review children’s books for the Times, and before that reviewed them for the Independent on Sunday and the New Statesman. How this came about was, in one sense, quite fortuitous: I was in my local independent bookshop and picked up two books which I thought my own small children might enjoy one day. One was called Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone; the other was Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. I liked the first one so much that, despite being an adult novelist and critic, I gave it one of its first reviews – and I bought two first edition copies, one for a nephew, and one for a god-daughter. He promptly scribbled all over it; she is now buying a flat on some of the proceeds. However, it was Philip Pullman whose imagination and prose electrified me. Why, I wondered, hadn’t I heard of him?

Fifteen years ago, Philip Pullman was a middle-aged teacher struggling to get noticed at all thanks to his then publisher, Penguin, and the obscurity of children’s publishing in general. His heartfelt letter of thanks to me was instrumental in my deciding to dedicate some of my time as a critic bringing this form of literature to wider attention.  The timing was perfect in that not only did the late 1990s coincide with the emergence of phenomenal new story-tellers, but with an economic boom and a national rise in birth-rates.

Children’s books originally emerged in the simplest way from nursery rhymes and folk tales: William Godwin, husband of Mary Wollstonecraft and father of Mary Shelley, published the first Mother Goose Tales. Otherwise, children found entertainment in the Bible, Greek myth, and in books not originally intended for them such as Gulliver’s Travels, Robinson Crusoe and The Pilgrim’s Progress. The power of stories written for this audience has its roots, therefore, in our deepest feelings and most enduring myths, but the first Golden Age did not take off until the 1850s with Thomas Hughes’s Tom Brown’s Schooldays, Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women and numerous adventure books for boys by Captain Marryatt, Ballantyne, Henty and H Rider Haggard. This age lasted until the First World War, and was particularly dominated by five authors. JM Barrie, Robert Louis Stevenson, E Nesbit, Frances Hodgson Burnett and Anna Sewell all wrote in distinctly different genres which have been passed on, and modified, to present-day authors.

Barrie’s Peter Pan, which few children find readable today, was the first novel in which a group of ordinary children enter a magic world and have an adventure there – something that readers of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, CS Lewis’s Narnia stories,  JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials will recognise. These are what many now think of as quintessential children’s books. They allow a child to escape from what is real and, as importantly, return from what is a kind of fugue state in a better frame of mind.  It is particularly appropriate that the monies from Peter Pan still go to Great Ormond St, the only hospital to be entirely dedicated to seriously ill children.

Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island has also fallen out of favour with present-day readers, despite films such as Pirates of the Caribbean which derives pretty much everything from it. But his influence is stronger if you think of him as one of the fathers of historical fiction, setting the ball rolling for writers as diverse as Rosemary Sutcliff, Geoffrey Trease and Leon Garfield and today’s Mary Hoffman, Mary Hooper, Marie-Louise Jensen, Jamilla Gavin, Paul Dowswell, Elizabeth Laird and more. His young hero, Jim Harker, foreshadows the plucky resourcefulness of Anthony Horowitz’s reluctant teenage spy, Joe Craig’s genetically modified superhero and Owen Colfer’s criminal mastermind Artemis Fowl. If this kind of adventure later emerges in the adult world as chunky thrillers read by businessmen on long-haul aeroplanes it’s still very good fun.

E Nesbit has perhaps been strongest of all. Her stories, whether magical or not, are firmly rooted in the real world and have been hugely influential on books of the Second Golden Age which people of my own generation loved – Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, Diana Wynne-Jones’s Chrestomanci books, Lucy M Boston’s Green Knowe quartet, Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, Joan Aiken’s Wolves of WIllighby Chase sequence and Eva Ibbotson’s hilarious witches and ghosts. Her dauntless brothers and sisters were echoed by Enid Blyton, Arthur Ransome, Noel Streatfeild and, more recently, a constellation of contemporary authors like Hilary McKay, Anne Fine, Fiona Dunbar, Cathy Cassidy, Anthony McGowan, Frank Cottrell Boyce, and Francesca Simon. Above all, she is acknowledged as the single greatest influence on Rowling, presumably because her conception of how the logical consequences of mixing the magical with the mundane is so comical. All have drawn from her faultless ear for family drama, her abundant sense of humour and her social conscience.

Frances Hodgson Burnett is also one of the most sympathetic to modern children, despite being a raging snob. Her stories of impoverishment, illness, bullying and exile have a consistent following and a marked influence on authors such as Jacqueline Wilson. She is the patron saint of the sensitive, romantic child. Yet it is this strand has deviated most from the original, in alarming new ways which I will outline shortly.

Finally, there is Anna Sewell whose equine autobiography Black Beauty left a lasting legacy to those who write animal stories. From Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book to AA Milne’s rodents in tweed to 101 Dalmatians and Michelle Paver’s Wolf Brother, this is a kind of story which delights in animals, real or stuffed. It remains a potent force in the world. If Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed the way white people began to see black people, novels such as Black Beauty changed how we see animals. Even if I personally never wish to be sent another book about a little lost kitten, Black Beauty laid the foundation for the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals – a body which came into being several years before that for the prevention of cruelty to children.

What makes this first Golden Age so particularly distinct is, in fact, its didactic and moral purpose. Children do not need to be very old to realise their vulnerability, or to feel that the adults who have them in their power are unjust. The little chimney-sweep in The Water Babies, the half-starved servant girl Becky in A Little Princess, the crippled Jim Harding in E Nesbit’s Harding’s Luck, the death of Black Beauty’s great love Ginger and even Peter Rabbit’s father’s fate in a pie leave powerful impressions on the minds of those who encounter them. Yet if we think of this First Golden Age, we tend to think of it as bathed in sunlight. Its stories offer reassurance that everything will turn out all right in the end. Yet in today’s multi-racial, multi-faith world, this does not always go down well.

If you think of some of the books which you may have loved in your own childhood – novels such as Little Women, say, or What Katy Did – and try to re-read them to your children or grandchildren, you quickly come up against concepts such as duty, self-sacrifice and not complaining which tends to be quite alien. A small child will usually love the gentle pace and detail of Beatrix Potter, Babar, Orlando the Marmalade Cat and The Wind in the Willows, but a novel such as Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy, once a huge best-seller in its day is now seen as nauseatingly sentimental. The same author’s other heroine Mary Lennox, described in the beginning of The Secret Garden as  “a selfish and tyrannical little pig” is much more interesting -and, alas, familiar.

Above all, the children in this First Golden Age do, rather than think. They are allowed to be outside all day without interference by adults.  They are expected to be resourceful and resilient, proud of their class and country. When Nesbit’s Five Children time travel in The Story of the Amulet, they have no qualms whatsoever about telling Caesar how jolly marvellous Britain is – thus inciting him to invade us. Boys are portrayed as stronger and bolder than girls, and are packed with moral fibre; The Jungle Book, of course, directly inspired Baden Powell’s Boy Scout movement. We have lost this, for better or for worse.

The Second Golden Age, which fed the imagination of the baby boomers, ran roughly from the 1950s to the 1970s, and is quite different in that it reverberates with a new, global moral consciousness. It portrayed the battle between good and evil – most famously in Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings – as an absolute struggle, and it did so in the wake of the Second World War. To grow into adulthood aware that someone, somewhere, can destroy the world with a nuclear bomb, or determine to destroy an entire race does have a profound effect on the imagination. To also discover that many of these atrocities were carried out because a populace did not question authority is also to understand why authors such as Roald Dahl, Judith Kerr and the sublime Maurice Sendak became so popular.

It’s not surprising to find that the genre of choice for the Second Age was fantasy. Though gentle stories about families like Tove Jansson’s Moomins and the Wombles charmed younger readers, and though more realistic stories by Ian Serralier, Nina Bawden and Penelope Lively still have their following, being able to confront the forces of evil in a separate space and time became paramount.

The alternative world of Narnia into which CS Lewis’s four children repeatedly escape is beautiful and magical but fraught with danger. Like Nesbit, he explores the possible consequences of magic, but he also provides spiritual balm in the figure of Aslan, the talking lion.

There are many examples of this guiding, protective, mysterious figure in the literature of this Second Golden Age. Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series has a wise, magical old teacher in Merriman Lyon – or Merlin, as he turns out to be. Alan Garner’s Colin and Susan have the wizard Cadellin, and Frodo Baggins’s Companions have Gandalf. All of these draw on national myth, both Celtic, Norse and Arthurian, but above all they draw on the European concept of God, and it’s no surprise to find the same figure popping up more recently in Harry Potter’s Professor Dumbledore. And no wonder we needed him. In the 1960s, it wasn’t enough for a child to find her father or restore the family fortune. This time, we were told, we needed to save the world. By the time you get to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, it’s not just this world which needs saving, but the multiverse.

The child, or children of destiny, is a myth which is far older than Jesus. We see it in the story of Hercules, in Romulus and Remus, and the rebirth of Osiris.  Yet however enchanting this Second Golden Age is, in many ways it’s much less honest than the First, in which death, poverty and sickness are confronted as real. The Victorian and Edwardian child was told they could achieve a better life through duty, courage, faith and hard work; the child growing up in the counter-culture was far more reliant on supernatural luck.

Tolkien and CS Lewis made such a profound impression on my own generation that many of us have talked and written about how desperately we wanted to find Narnia and Middle Earth. Two distinguished literary critics, Francis Spufford and Laura Miller, have both described their feelings about CS Lewis’s fantasy world as being akin to that of first love. I wanted to go to Narnia too, but I also wanted to be a Hobbit – yes, even to going round without shoes aged seven in the hope of growing hair on my feet.  For all its flaws, it remains to me the best children’s book ever written.

Today’s children and young adults tend to have this feeling about the Harry Potter books. I have lost count of the number of people now in their twenties who confess to me their disappointment at turning eleven and not getting a letter admitting them to Hogwarts. Yet Rowling’s enchanted world, even when it darkens, is an anomaly. For in our Third Golden Age, we ask children to confront not only the traditional enemies such as school bullies, or Dark Lords, but new ones, and far from reassuring readers that some authority is benign, it is portrayed as wholly malignant. The child’s heroism lies not in following instructions but in defiance, truancy and rebellion.

This Third Golden Age is ripe with an extraordinary amount of talent. Where there might have been, say, five or six leading authors in my own childhood, today there are probably over a hundred. The children’s book world is publishing vastly more books of all kinds, and includes genres such as horror which we would never have considered appropriate. Children can’t get enough of Darren Shan’s vampires, Charlie Higson’s zombies and Derek Landy’s demons. Are they more resilient, or more brutalised?

Equally popular among boys and girls is the dystopian novel, and these, interestingly seem to have emerged from the America of George Bush and the Britain of Tony Blair. In advance of the general mood among adults, politicians and leaders are consistently portrayed as deceitful, greedy, vainglorious and wicked. Neither teachers nor doctors nor parents are trusted. Occasionally, as in this year’s Costa Prize winner for children, Sally Gardner’s Maggot Moon, the dystopia portrays an alternative history – a Fascist 1950s Britain along the lines of 1984. More usually, the dystopian novel is set in the future, against the cataclysms produced by current trends. It is of course, a solution to the time-honoured problem all children’s authors face, about how to get rid of the grown-ups – but it is pretty drastic to kill almost all of us off.

Dystopia isn’t new: in my own childhood there were superb writers such as John Christopher, whose Prince in Waiting trilogy should be much better-known. But these futures were the product of natural catastrophe or alien invasion. Now, the darkness and violence of contemporary dystopias is exciting and disturbing and highly politicised. The most famous is Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, in which two teenagers from different Districts of a country called Panem, once America, are required to fight each other to death for the ultimate TV reality show. Famine, dictatorship and celebrity culture are combined with the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur, and the result is a trilogy which has dominated the bestseller lists for three years. Plenty of other novels like Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies, Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now and Moira Young’s Blood Red Road depict our future as ravaged by science, racism, war, genetic mutation, technology or most credibly, exams.

Many are quite brilliantly plotted and written, and I recommend them, especially for reluctant readers of 11+, even if, like vampires and demons they are becoming too familiar. Children enjoy imagining how they might behave in such adventures, and the usual blend of action, romance and moral dilemma does no harm. But there are other kinds of novel being published which do worry me.

The emphasis in the First Golden Age was very much on being healthy in mind and body – if a child became sick, he or she usually got well as part of their story. Almost the only counter example I can think of to this is a Victorian classic by George Macdonald, whose little hero, Diamond, dies at the end of At The Back of the North Wind. Otherwise, though child mortality was vastly higher then, than now, children got better. That, if you read The Secret Garden or Heidi, was the point.

Today’s reader has no such encouragement. There is an alarming trend in what the Daily Mail has termed “sick-lit” which seems to wallow in the idea of a child self-harming, dying, or even committing suicide. I trace this back to a novel which was not written for children at all, Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones, but it has spread into best-selling books like Ways to Live Forever, Before I say Goodbye and many more. At present I receive about ten books a year from the US and UK in this mawkish vein – the latest, just out, being one called The Fault in Our Stars about two teenagers with terminal cancer who fall in love. Having known two teenagers who died recently, one of cancer and the other through suicide, I find the portrayal of such tragedy to the vulnerable teenager reprehensible and even dangerous.

Feminism has had a more positive impact. Ever since Frances Hodgson Burnett featured heroines who dared to be awful, girls have been stepping out of the shadows. Pippi Longstocking has morphed into Steig Larsson’s Girl With a Dragon Tattoo, and Joan Aiken’s Dido Twite, from The Wolves of Willoughby Chase sequence and is a thrillingly rude, rebellious, and resourceful precursor to Philip Pullman’s Lyra. Heroines in the work of Louise Rennison and CJ Skuse are lippy and funny and unafraid of either boys or werewolves. Almost every contemporary action heroine is, horrid word, feisty. They rush about, twanging their bows and felling zombies with the same superiority that they show in exams, but at least they aren’t hoping to lose their virginity to a hot boy before dying of cancer.

And what of boy readers? They are still brave, but infinitely more troubled than in previous eras. They swear, fight, steal, and even kill other children. All are orphans or sons of single mothers.  Anthony Horowitz’s teenage spy Alex Rider is increasingly beaten up, scarred and gloomy as he repeatedly saves the world; he can’t protect his mother substitute from being murdered at the end. Anthony McGowan’s savagely funny heroes may escape from Hell in Hellbent but they can’t avoid dying in Henry Tumour or killing their friend in The Knife That Killed Me. Tod, the hero of Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking, saves his world but ends in a coma. It really isn’t very hopeful, even when they acquire super-powers.  Again, there are exceptions: Harry Potter comes back from the dead and lives happily ever after, Pullman’s Will helps mend the multiverse and perhaps his mother’s mind, Michelle Paver’s Torak belongs to no tribe but will forge his own, Cressida Cowell’s Hiccup has his adorable dragon Toothless and, yes, another feisty girl called Camikaze to back him up. But the cover of most novels aimed at the boy reader either has a monster on the cover, or a faceless boy in a hoodie who is definitely not going to be hugged by David Cameron or anyone else. Some authors, such as Melvyn Burgess and Kevin Brooks go even further, portraying lives in which violent bullying, sexual assault, drugs and knives are commonplace – as alas they are. Narnia and Wonderland are vanishingly remote.

Does this make the Third Golden Age less remarkable? It may make a good deal of it less long-lasting: we tend to treasure what comforts us, after all. Deep down, we all still want the fairy-tale to end happily. We still want to return home, to love and safety and a dinner that is still hot.

Authors themselves confront new problems. All of us, whether writing for children or adults, know that, as entertainers, we are competing with the instant gratification of computer games and DVDs; the action has to begin on the first page. Whether that page is paper or electronic doesn’t matter, though my own impression, having asked many children what they prefer, is that all prefer to hold a book rather than read on a screen. They also, parents should note, like new copies of novels rather than hand-me-downs, because a child – it should never be forgotten - is entering into a dialogue with that author which is theirs alone. If their taste in literature doesn’t chime with yours, then neither, probably, does their taste in music, TV or film. However, it is my belief that there is no such thing as a child who doesn’t like books. There is only the child who hasn’t yet found the books he or she will love.

Just because many modern authors seem to be less comforting than those we ourselves remember is no reason not to try them, even as a parent, because as many adults have found, children’s books are just as interesting, well-written and satisfying as most other kinds of fiction. At its best, this third Golden Age is remarkable for its richness, sophistication, cleverness and imaginative brio. The joyous inventiveness of previous ages has been reborn in the work of Cressida Cowell, Philip Pullman, Dick King-Smith, Quentin Blake, JK Rowling, Susan Price, Julia Donaldson, Katharine Langrish, Michelle Paver, Francesca Simon, Catherine Fisher and Sally Gardner, among many others. This is an astounding time in which to be a parent, or a child. Above all, it is an astounding time in which to be a reader. The novel, in whatever form you read it, is not going to die. It is reborn again and again because, Yes, thank God, the children’s novel tells a story.

 

Copyright Amanda Craig 2013





 
© Amanda Craig 2009
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