A Game of Dark
Salt River Times
A Parcel of Trees
While the Bell Rings
Once upon a time children’s books were the black sheep of fiction; like detective stories and westerns, they were tended mainly by specialists, critics of popular culture, or nostalgic sentimentalists. In libraries they were—and still are—herded together into a separate room, or quarantined from the rest of literature in the stacks under the letters PZ.
Recently, though, children’s literature has begun to be discovered by mainstream theorists and scholars. Learned volumes on its significance crowd the library shelves, and the professional journals are full of articles that consider every classic from Alice to Charlotte’s Web as a “text.”
And yet, apart from the few people who write for these journals and the—I suspect—even fewer who read them, many of the most interesting children’s books are little known. A case in point is William Mayne, one of the most gifted contemporary British writers. His thirty-five years in the field—in this case, you should probably picture a steep, stone-walled pasture in the Yorkshire dales, where Mayne has lived most of his life—have produced picture books, family stories, tales of mystery and adventure, and some of the best fantasy and time-travel fiction to come out of England since Tolkien.
Mayne’s dialogue has been likened to Pinter’s, his “exploration of sense experience” to that of Keats, his “alienation effects” to Brecht’s, and his sensitivity to landscape and primitive emotion to Lawrence’s. By and large, these comparisons are not all that far off. Mayne also manages to treat extremely sophisticated ideas and subjects—such as the ambiguities of perception and the shifting relations of present and past—in a lucidly simple manner, so that he can be read by children. If most of juvenile literature, however original and brilliant, was not still largely in quarantine, he would also be read by adults.
The first things about Mayne’s work that strike most critics are the vividness and economy of his language and his acute, subtle sense of how the world looks and sounds. In A Game of Dark, a story of a boy who loses himself and finds himself again in an imagined medieval world, fallen leaves are “circles of faded carpet along the streets,…and between these circles with their unsewn edges lay the starlit desert of cloudless pavement.” When he describes a train starting, the rhythm of his sentences is onomatopoeic:
Then there was a sort of small shake in the engine, and from the wheels there came a noise like sugar being trodden on, which was the rust on the rails being powdered. From the engine itself came a puffing roar and there was movement, and then there was going. [Salt River Times]
Even the briefest simile can open out:
There was [a bird] quite near, and he heard its wings flutter against the air like a book being shaken. [The Yellow Airplane]
The reader, if he or she chooses—and no doubt some do so choose—can …