Why are so many of the best-known children’s books British or American? Other countries have produced a single brilliant classic or series: Denmark, for instance, has Andersen’s fairy tales, Italy has Pinocchio, France has Babar, Finland has Moomintroll. A list of famous children’s books in English, however, could easily take up the rest of this column.
One explanation may be that in Britain and America more people never quite grow up. They may sometimes put on a good show of maturity, but secretly they remain children, longing for the pleasures and privileges of childhood that once were, or were said to be, theirs. And there are some reasons for them to do so.
In most nations there is nothing especially wonderful about being a child of school age. For the first four or five years boys and girls may be petted and indulged, but after that they are usually expected to become little adults as soon as possible: responsible, serious, future-oriented. But in English-speaking nations, ever since the late eighteenth century, poets and philosophers and educators have maintained that there is something wonderful and unique about childhood: that simply to be young is to be naturally good and great. It may be no coincidence that the romantic glorification of youth of the Sixties and early Seventies was most evident in America and Britain, or that when they want to make an especially touching appeal to voters, American politicians always speak of “our kids.”
Because childhood is seen as a superior condition, many Americans and Britons are naturally reluctant to give it up. They tend to think of themselves as young much longer, and cling to childhood attitudes and amusements. On vacation, and in the privacy of their homes, they readily revert to an earlier age: they wear childish clothes and play childish games and sometimes read children’s books.
The authors of great juvenile fiction, whatever their nationality, often continue to think and feel as children. They are spontaneous, dreamy, imaginative, unpredictable. E. Nesbit spent many hours building a toy town out of blocks and kitchenware, and wrote a book, The Magic City, about it; Laurent deBrunhoff, who has continued his father’s Babar series for many years and is now over seventy, still climbs trees with childish skill and delight. James Barrie spent his summer holidays playing pirates and Indians with the four Davies boys, and Lewis Carroll also much preferred the company of children to that of adults.
Since so many juvenile classics are written by people like this, it should be no surprise that they often take the side of children against adults. These books are, in the deepest sense, subversive. They make fun of grown-ups and expose adult pretensions and failings; they suggest, subtly or otherwise, that children are braver, smarter, and more interesting than grown-ups, and that grown-up rules are made to be broken.
J.K. (Joanne) Rowling, the Scottish author of the newest British children’s classics, the brilliant and phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, is…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.