“Damn them!” wrote Lamb to Coleridge in 1802. “I mean the cursed Barbauld crew, those blights and blasts of all that is human in man and child.” Lamb was in a temper because, having gone to Newbery’s bookshop to buy “the old classics of the nursery,” he had been fobbed off with “Mrs. Barbauld’s and Mrs. Trimmer’s nonsense”; and he was sure that the “knowledge insignificant and vapid” that they conveyed would only serve to give a child an absurd conceit of himself—
when he has learnt that a horse is an animal, and Billy is better than a horse, and such-like; instead of that beautiful interest in wild tales which made the child a man, while all the time he suspected himself to be no bigger than a child. Science has succeeded to poetry no less in the little walks of children than with men.
Coleridge was just as down on the improvers:
Give me the Arabian Nights Entertainments, which I used to watch till the sun shining on the bookcase approached it, and glowing full upon it gave me courage to take it from the shelf. I heard of no little Billies, and sought no praise for giving to beggars, and I trust that my heart is not the worse, or the less inclined to feel sympathy for all men.
Lamb and Coleridge had good reason to be so cross. Mrs. Barbauld and the other improvers—John Day and Mrs. Trimmer in England, Samuel Goodrich in New England—were intolerably prosy as well as moral. “Happy would it be for the animal creation,” so Mrs. Trimmer spells out the message of her History of the Robins, “if every human being, like the good Mrs. Benson, consulted the welfare of inferior creatures.” Worse still, the Barbauld crew actively campaigned against everything that (in retrospect, at least) had lit up Lamb’s and Coleridge’s imaginations in childhood. They condemned fairy-tales as “useless” or “prejudicial nonsense,” smelt corruption even in Robinson Crusoe, and judged the most harmless of old-wives tales to be a potential “engine of mischief.” Yet where did their passion for instruction lead? To harmless enough books like Crusts in Soak for Children to Peck, but also to appalling books by early Victorian Strangeloves, like The Art of Making Fireworks, Detonating Balls etc. “containing Plain and Easy Directions for Mixing and Preparing the Ingredients and Making and Finishing the most simple Devices in the Ingenious Art; by Christopher Grotz, Real Engineer.” Better trolls and hobgoblins than such explosive knowledge!
Today we think better of fairytales and old wives’ fables. Yet the Mrs. Barbaulds are still hard at it. They go to work more slyly than their originals; morals are implied, not rammed home; instruction is given a livelier disguise. They cast their net wider, eager now to condition the reader’s feelings as well as his behavior, to implant healthy social attitudes as well as correct morals. In their view, children must learn about ants and computers, how a President is elected and how the United Nations works; but they must also learn how to like a Sudanese camel-boy and a Yugoslav ballet-dancer, what to do when their mother remarries or their parents separate. (Bring them together with a grizzly bear is one answer supplied this year, very sensible in its context but beyond the resource of all but a few children.)
So the wise reader should approach each new book warily, sniff it, and ask himself: What is the writer up to? Does he want to amuse or delight me—and maybe amuse himself too? Does he want to make me something—a good student, a good son or daughter, a good camper, a good sport? Does he pretend to amuse while really he is getting at me—about cleanliness, or manners, or patriotism? Children, be on your guard!
Surveying the more than 250 books that have come my way, I report some general impressions. Straightforwardly instructional books form the largest single group; they range from the simplifications of picture-book knowledge (as in Colette Portal’s Life of the Queen, where the sympathies of the tinies are engaged by putting the ant-queen into human surroundings) to accounts which could be pleasurably read by any reader, like Louis Brennan’s Buried Treasure of Archaeology. The tone of most of these books is that of a good teacher—brisk and serious, and no talking-down—though some of the authors of junior biographies sound more like a copywriter trying to whip up interest. ” ‘Have you seen Elinor White’s young man?’ ” one college girl asked another. ” ‘He thinks he’s a poet!’ “—thus opens a chapter in Doris Faber’s Robert Frost: America’s Poet.
Visually, standards are pretty high, particularly in the picture books proper, but the black-and-white drawings to illustrate the books for older readers are—with shining exceptions, like Edward Ardizzone’s for The Alley—less generally successful. Again, the junior biographies supply some bizarre examples: a drawing captioned “Emerson, Margaret Fuller and Henry Thoreau edited the Dial” does not do justice to the sensible text of a life of Emerson, Trust Thyself. The pictures in books of traditional fairy tales tend to be artistic and cute, rather than mysterious and magical.
But whether in pictures or text, the mysterious and magical are altogether in fairly short supply; there is markedly less poetry than science, to use Lamb’s antithesis. And though the books are full of simple confrontations of good and bad, there is little horror or sadness. To balance the healthy, antiseptic diet offered by the story-books for older children, there are the reprints of adult classics now offered by publishers as children’s books. With Dickens in Great Expectations, with Kipling in The Mark of the Beast, the child can enter a world which has horror in it as well as victory, dark mystery as well as happiness, where he can extend his feelings as well as his intelligence.
The simple wish to amuse and delight is most in evidence in the books written for the very young, particularly in those by authors well established in the grown-up line who seem to be, for the moment, at play. Clifton Fadiman happily fools about with words in Wally the Wordworm (drawings by Arnold Roth). Wally ate words, voraciously, and when he’d eaten the headlines of the paper and six Good Humor wrappers, he slithered into a dictionary and started near the back with Sesquipedalian, which went down nicely, and Paradichlorobenzene, which tasted pretty bad; then he started a Palindrome hunt and bagged Madam and Deified, and went on to round up the Auk, the Centaur, the Chimera, the Roc, the Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Cheshire Cat. Wally’s conclusion:
So—down with the books that treat me like a baby!
Chuck ’em out the window, and I don’t mean maybe!
I’ll tell you the conclusion I have come to. It is that
I am tired of the cat who is sitting on the mat!
The Untold Adventures of Santa Claus (illustrated by Walter Lorraine)—he helped George Washington to cross the Delaware, for one—allow Ogden Nash to caper agreeably in couplets where for once the rhymes are almost conventional. Robert Pack also lopes along in couplets to describe How to Catch a Crocodile (illustrated by Nola Langner); the method is to go off to the Nile with a matchbox, a tweezer, and a pair of binoculars, so that when you’ve reduced the crocodile by looking at it through the wrong end, you can pick it up and pop it in the matchbox. More lightheartedly than in his poems, Ted Hughes is at play with animals in the prose tales of How the Whale Became (drawings by Rick Schreiter). All the creatures are newmade; some know what they want to become, others have to find out the hard way, like the Tortoise. He was created on a day so hot that God had to wear a sun-hat and keep calling for iced drinks. The tortoise’s coat was consequently thin as thin. Nobody cared for a practically skinless animal, so he was given a protective covering which changed him from the lightest and swiftest of creatures to the slowest and clumsiest. I could detect no moral to be drawn from this, except at God’s expense. Also malevolently at play in his own line is Stephen Potter with Squawky, who is the Parrot as Lifeman (drawings by George Him).
A cat who smokes a clay pipe, wears a cloth cap and caretakes for a school on a Welsh mountain, is the hero of John Symonds’s Tom and Tabby (illustrated by André François). Tabby goes to London with the boy Tom, who fetches up in a Lost Boys’ Home run by cats (picture of Dame Tomkins, Our Foundress, a cat in a large straw hat pushing a pram with two urchins, and under it the legend—“Two More Saved!”). A cow who in life was so sweet and gentle that she has to return after death to prove herself at heart fierce and fiery, is the heroine of William Pène du Bois’ Elisabeth the Cow Ghost—a tale told with formal charm, which he illustrates himself. Situations and conversations are repeated with a different twist at the end, the tension is wound tighter and tighter, and released in a huge laugh. The Young Man Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn (story and pictures by Eric von Schmidt) was Jeremy Sneeze, who lived in Massachussetts, long before there were Hershey Bars or Howard Johnson’s. He madep oems and pictures and put birds’ nests back in the trees, shocked Isaac Husk and Elihu Doom by his slack and shiftless ways, till a witch cast a spell and a crow hoed his corn and all was merry in the town of Diligence. There was nothing puritanical about the palace of Peter Hughes’s The King Who Loved Candy (pictures by Gerald Rose). It was made of barley-sugar pillars and chocolate walls, and topped off with six domes of the finest whipped cream—for it was in Asia Minor, though it also recalls George IV’s Pavilion at Brighton, which I have often wanted to nibble. The palace was defended by an army of Jellybabies, so that when the King inspected the troops, he could always take a lick at a soldier. It is a literally mouth-watering book, and Gerald Rose deserves a chocolate medal for the best end-papers of any child’s book this year. All the foregoing are proper picture books, in that the story is as dependent on the illustrations as on the text.
Tales about children of other countries tend to be written from the highest motives In Duane Bradley’s Meeting with a Stranger, Teffera the Ethiopian lad learns the best modern way with sheep, from Mr. Sam Jones the American; Daniel, of Elizabeth P. Fleming’s The Takula Tree, lives in an African colony tactfully not called Portuguese (though the white villains are named Quadros and Henriquez), and is left to work secretly for Independence after his American missionary friends have been expelled. From these books, and from Louis A. Stinetorf’s twelve stories of Children of Africa, a child can pleasantly learn much about Africa. The tone is high-minded, the values are liberal, but the plots seem to be manipulated to provide an ending which the author had in mind from the beginning.
Two books break away from this pattern, and immerse us in a strange life without conditioning our attitude to it. The boy in Natalie Savage Carlson’s The Letter on the Tree is French-Canadian; he wants an accordion, his farmer-father is too poor, he sulks, he ties a letter asking for money on one of the Christmas trees which they sell to Americans, a check comes, his father is furious, he meets a hobo, they convert an old sugar-cabin to a fishing-hut, and the happy ending is no more dramatic than the arrival of a new cow, and the accordion. The boy in William Mayne’s A Day without Wind lives on an island of the Hebrides. On this calm day between gales, he gets up from his box-bed in the kitchen, eats his porridge, helps with the sheep, meets his father who has been in hospital on the mainland (unheroically, to have four back teeth out). There is no high drama in either of these books, but they delight because their authors write of these worlds with clear-eyed affection and an insider’s knowledge. The child reader isn’t asked to be kind and understanding about either Bébert or Donald; he is just invited to share their lives.
The same is true for a full-length story by Eilis. Dillon, The Coriander. Pat lives on one of the small islands off the coast of Galway, where they badly need a doctor; so when he and his friend find that the man they have saved from shipwreck is a doctor, they promptly kidnap him for the good of all. There are high points of excitement with sheep-stealing by men from another island, a search by customs officers for contraband from the wreck, a chase, and a secret cave; but the happenings flow naturally and convincingly from this particular life in this particular place. Slowly, and not through any direct explanation, a picture is built up of an isolated, close-knit community, where men make their own working laws, where news travels quicker than the telegraph, and a wreck is almost a gift from heaven. It is a small world with a wide horizon—sons have gone to be surgeons in Boston or policemen in New York—and a long memory. We see it through the eyes of a boy who even in his games is all the time growing into the adult community, and is encouraged to do so. He admires his elders for their skills—with boats, with animals, with the sick—and wishes to emulate them.
Not so the children of Eleanor Estes’ The Alley. These Brooklyn faculty kids, whose backyards open out on to a common alley, live the subversive group life that is an altogether commoner manifestation of western society than Eilis Dillon’s hardy island lads aspiring to man’s estate. For them, seniority is no guarantee of respect: Connie can only suppose her father is so stupid because he’s so old. “That’s life. I have an old father and an old mother. In their forty-eights.” The values of seniors and juniors seldom coincide. The burglary that shatters Connie’s mother, for her engagement ring has gone, entrances Connie: ” ‘The most wonderful day of my life’ she thought, swinging.” (I then remembered writing in my diary, after we had seen my father off on a long absence, “The happiest day of my life”—because I had stayed at a hotel for the first time and seen over a liner.) The alley children detect the burglars in spite of the dumbness of their parents, but their detective work within the family circle is even more enjoyable. “You can always tell, always, when a grown-up is studying you. But grown-ups never know when you are studying them” says Connie, turning a cool eye on her grandmother (who loses interest in anything sensible when the Lyle Van program is due) and on her loving parents (“Despair clouded Papa’s face, the way it did when a bill he favored did not pass in Congress”). A lively and, to parents, rather unnerving book. But not half so unnerving as Louise Fitzhugh’s Harriet the Spy:
That night at dinner everything was going along as usual, that is, Mr. and Mrs. Welsch were having an interminable, rambling conversation about nothing in particular while Harriet watched it all like a tennis match.
Later, she sees them off to a party “in a state of high grumpiness.” She has been taught by her literary old nurse to practice being a novelist by keeping a notebook; so into it go her family, her neighbors, her class-mates and her teachers, including splendid Miss Barry who coaches the class in a dance about Christmas Dinner, and has difficulty with the squashes and the peas:
“I want you to feel that one morning you woke up as one of these vegetables, one of those dear vegetables, nestling in the earth, warm in the heat and power and magic of growth, or striving tall above the ground, pushing through, bit by bit in the miracle of birth, waiting for that glorious moment when you will be…” “Eaten,” Harriet whispered.
When the notebook is filched and read, hell breaks loose, but Harriet makes no concessions and remains splendidly sour. Even final success as editor of the Sixth Grade Page of the school newspaper doesn’t blunt her cutting edge. “I Love Myself” she writes, while sitting in the bathroom; and, as I love a tiger behind bars, I love Harriet so long as she is caged in a book.
Sabrina of P. L. Travers’s I Go By Sea, I Go By Land is a very different cup of tea: she is English, reticent, sensitive to her parents’ feeling (“And their two faces look like boxes, all shut up, as they always do when they don’t agree on anything”) and anxious to soothe them. Coming after Harriet, Sabrina seems at first too goody-goody to be true, and her situation—she is evacuated to America from England in 1940—an occasion for emotional clichés. But very soon it becomes clear that Pamela Travers has rendered with true feeling a child’s sense of separation and strangeness, and fear of losing her home, and the terror which threatens to engulf the uprooted if they don’t concentrate strictly on the necessity of the moment.
Over-conscientiousness marks many of the historical tales; so keen is the writer to pass on the authentic information which he has garnered about the Etruscans, or the Carthaginians, or the men of the Stone Age, that the action tends to be held up while explanaions are handed out. There is a good deal of this in Nancy Faulkner’s Knights Beseiged. They belong to the Order of St. John of Jerusalem. “Do you know its history?” asks Sir Rolf of Jeff, who has escaped from the Sultan’s palace to Rhodes; “Only a little,” Jeff tactfully replies. In between harangues there are some brisk escapes and ambushes, and intrigues that spring from the variety of people on sixteenth-century Rhodes, and from the peculiar nature of the Order.
So sure is B. Bartos-Höppner of his knowledge of life on the Tartar steppes and at the Khan’s court that he needs no formal descriptions in his Save the Khan but uses the significant detail—a necklace of red jade, a wolf mangled in the hunt, the sound of horses’ hooves on the steppe—to set the scene. Those sixteenth-century Tartars who are resisting the Russian Czar, are a harsh and brutal lot. “The skull-cracking contest” is a favorite sport, when two boys with bound hands crash their heads together till one breaks; in a mock battle when only lukewarm pitch is used by the defenders of a castle, to pour on the attackers, the Khan suddenly decides to eliminate a traitor by bringing his pitch to the boil. The author neither gloats over these scenes, nor explains them away; and Daritai, who wonders if life can’t be lived on another basis than violence, hatred and revenge, is a hero through whose eyes we can look at this savage world. Bloody too are the goings-on in The Burning of Njal by Henry Treece, another writer completely at case with his knowledge.
And Gunnar was busy all the time. He hoisted Kol’s vengeful father on the halberd like a big fish, and hurled him into Rang River, with a hole in his stomach that spoiled his appetite for ever.
It is all very dead-pan; perhaps that is the only way to make the saga tolerable. At the end Kari comes back to Iceland to face Hildigun, whose husband he helped to kill. She thinks he is the finest man left in Iceland; he demurs, saying there once were men like Gunnar and Njal:
“Yes,” said Hildigunn, coming down the hall with her hands out-stretched, “but they have gone into the ground, and you still walk on the top.”
Such terrifying directness needs no embellishment of rhetoric.
Though Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three is fantasy rather than history, it too is firmly based on knowledge—this time, of the Welsh legends of the Mabinogion. In the splendidly realized country of Prydain, the boy Taran of Caer Dallben searches for a magic pig with his allies Gwydion, Eilonwy, Fflewddur the Bard and Gurgi the creature of alliterative talk. Spied on by the dread bird gwythaints, captured by the Cauldron-Born, who are warriors of the evil Arawn, beset by wolves, confronted by the terrible Horned King whose head is a stag’s, Taran comes at last to safety, and home, and the end of his youth. Here too the tone of the narrative is brisk and down-to-earth; as in T. H. White, voices of today echo in a fabulous world of dwarfs and warriors and talking creatures. It is a book to suit all who delight in The Sword in the Stone.
Any grown-up who is anxious to appare sensitive, intelligent, and up-to-date, would be quite safe in giving a child any of the books so far noticed, though he must use his own experience in matching book to age. But should he feel like taking a risk with a sophisticated god-daughter, he might try Amelia Elizabeth Walden’s To Catch a Spy, which from the first sentence—“The girl stood there, staring hard at the Renoir painting”—held me in thrall. Snatched from her obscure clerkship at the C.I.A., Sally sleuths for the country in the luscious mansion of the internationally famous novelist Ralph Buxton, whose clothes were “impeccable—a handsome tweed jacket, trousers of a darker hue.” Sally, “American at the core, with a deep devotion to American ideals,” has to pass as Buxton’s dead daughter, a suspected spy who had “moved with a fast, freethinking, radical-minded crowd.” Impersonating this loose girl, plucky Sally in no time at all is “In the arms of an attractive male, one of the most compelling men she had ever met.” Nor need we fear the worst, for this is no James Bond, but Adam, who did his service with the Airborne Paratroopers, and is every bit as loyal as Sally. Between them they round up a large and impeccably dressed spy-ring, and its surprising master-mind. “I guess that brilliant kind of mind, when it gets twisted,” muses Adam, “is fertile ground for this sort of thing…They see a chance to play God, to pull the strings of humanity, making the whole human race their puppets.”
Engines of mischief, indeed.
December 3, 1964