Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator
The Tenth Life of Osiris Oaks
The Little Broomstick
A Castle of Bone
The House of Wings
No Way of Telling
Friday and Robinson
Once Upon a Time, the Fairy Tale World of Arthur Rackham
The Light Princess
The Golden Key
The oldest conscious tradition in juvenile literature is the didactic. For over two hundred years, with varying skill, authors have labored at what in the eighteenth century was called “cheating children into learning.” This might be done directly, by giving facts a chocolate coating of pictures, jokes, and verse; or indirectly through imaginary biographies like John Newbery’s famous tale of Goody Two-Shoes (1765), in which the eponymous heroine escapes from a rural slum by attending diligently to her studies, and finally achieves worldly success as an elementary-school principal.
Self-improvement, good manners, and above all moral virtue were the subjects of countless sermons disguised as storybooks; and when adult literature was adapted or reprinted for children the emphasis was apt to be on the moral. Thus the nineteenth-century popularity of Aesop, and those folk tales which seem to suggest that virtue is rewarded and vice punished. This tradition has continued up to the present; we all know what happened to Tom Suck-a-Thumb and to Hilaire Belloc’s Henry King, whose Chief Defect was chewing little bits of string.
Looking over this year’s children’s books, I was therefore not surprised to find the cheats and moralists still hard at work; but it was discouraging to find that there were so many of them, that they wrote so badly, and that—especially in books for older children—they disguised their purpose so poorly. Reading on, I became irritable; I felt the temptation to lay about me, using this magazine as a club to knock down things which should be beneath notice. (This activity is referred to in our house as Simonizing, after the famous drama critic.) But it seemed not only kinder but more useful to forget them and concentrate instead on the few good books I discovered, some imaginative and others realistic, but all written in a style which would not cause pain even if they were read aloud slowly, and with a moral lesson which is either novel or relatively well-concealed.
Stories about magic do not pretend to describe the real world, except metaphorically; they make their own rules and can therefore be even more thoroughly moral tales. Of course the moral is not always one contemporary parents and guardians would like if it were spelled out in adult language. Alice is the classic example; but even The Cat in the Hat, now used as a first-grade reader in schools all over the country, contains the suggestion that it is sometimes better not to tell your mother the whole truth.
What is interesting in recent books is how often magic powers, or magic properties, turn out to be either more trouble than they are worth or seriously dangerous. This is the reverse of the usual fairy-tale situation, and may suggest an increasing—if quite natural—distrust of special knowledge or powers of any sort (scientific, political, psychological). This distrust, which is as old as the tale of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, appears as a dominant comic theme in …