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 children’s literature about the turn of the last century; E. Nesbit’s classic story of wishes gone wrong, The Five Children and It, was published in 1902. But magic in 1972 not only gets you into amusing scrapes, it causes fear, illness, and death.
Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator by Roald Dahl is the only book of this lot in which magic power is seen as mainly exhilarating. Like many sequels, it is not quite up to the original Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, in which the “hilarious morality” advertised on the jacket was almost literally chocolate-coated. It has some of the same wild, euphoric inventiveness, and many of the same characters—though the Oompa-Loompas, the ever-cheerful African pygmies who work in the factory, are no longer black either in text or in the amusing illustrations—no doubt for the same reason that Little Black Sambo has been removed from your local library. But the plot is more uneven and derivative, and too much of it seems to be directed behind the child’s back to his parents.
The book takes Charlie and his family into space, where they become involved with an American spaceship hotel and some very unpleasant shapeless science-fiction monsters; and there is a lot of heavy political satire, centering on a Dr. Strangelove-type Chief of the Army, and an infantile President and his bossy Nanny (an odd cultural solecism—surely Mr. Dahl, or at least his American wife, knows that we don’t have nannies).
The Tenth Life of Osiris Oaks by Wally Cox and Everett Greenbaum is a comic story about a boy named Roger Oaks who becomes the owner of an Egyptian cat who can read minds. It is written in a cheerful, lighthearted tone and illustrated to match in semi-Zap Comics style. Together with an elderly elevator man, Roger tries to use Osiris to win at gin rummy, discover what the great geniuses at the university are thinking (“I want to hold her close to me with Delius playing on the hi-fi” is what the geniuses are thinking), and go on the stage—all disastrously. Good fun, until the end when Roger tries to stop a bank robbery and is sent to jail, while Osiris gets run over by a car and dies on the operating table. He reappears later, but without his magic abilities. The moral seems to be clear—it is at best useless and at worst fatal to know other people’s private thoughts.
The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart: It takes a certain amount of nerve to write yet another children’s story about a lonely little girl, a black cat, and an enchanted broomstick. Mary Stewart, already a practiced author of historical romances, manages pretty well, throwing in a college for witches and an exciting midnight chase. She writes agreeably, with a good eye for details of landscape, plants, weather, and character. But what is striking about this story is that it portrays the world of magic as wholly dark. The heroine (whose name is also Mary) enters it only to rescue a cat from a particularly nasty witches’ laboratory and to set free dozens of birds and animals who have been transformed into ugly crippled monsters—a vision of horror right out of Wells’s The Island of Dr. Moreau. No wonder Mary is quite content at the end to lose her broomstick and have Tib turn back into an ordinary cat—even, finally, to have amnesia for the whole experience.
A Castle of Bone by Penelope Farmer: A strange and remarkable story. The shabby middle-class London setting and the four very individual and by no means completely nice children might have come out of E. Nesbit or even Ivy Compton-Burnett, but the world into which they travel reminds me more of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia—except that in this case I suspect not Anglo-Christianity as a moral background, but some sort of neo-paganism, possibly what modern witches like to call the Old Religion.
The book also contains a striking new magic invention, one which seems ecologically very appropriate now when we have far too many seven-league boots, poisoned apples, and invincible swords. It is a cupboard, the property of which is to send things back in time; not historically, but by returning them to an earlier stage of existence, so that a pigskin wallet becomes a pig, some raisins a bunch of grapes, and a box of matches a small fir tree. The children have a good time with their cupboard until one of them falls in by mistake and turns into a year-old baby. Here too the hero rejects magic at the end of the book, and refuses to stay in the enchanted world—but this time you have the feeling he will be back.
What stands out immediately about the “realistic”—that is, non-magical—books for children being written now is that so many deal with remote parts of the world: frontier towns, isolated farms and villages, and desert islands—places still unpolluted either chemically or socially. The intrusion of civilization is seen as destructive, disgusting, or dangerous; if the hero is lucky, he defeats or rejects it.
The House of Wings by Betsy Byars is a somewhat overdramatized but basically decent story about a boy whose parents abandon him on his grandfather’s decrepit farm in Ohio, miles from anywhere. In the beginning he feels betrayed and can’t stand his grandfather, and the old man has little use for him or any other human being; but they finally get together in the course of rescuing a wounded white crane which has been hurt by flying into electrical power lines. A good book for naturalists and birdwatchers, and not bad even if you don’t like birds. Apart from the ecological lesson, the moral here—as in the two following books—seems to be that grandparents are okay, but you can’t trust your own mother and father. This belief, which is also present implicitly in Dahl’s Charlie books and in Osiris Oaks, is now very common in counterculture circles. What is odd is that all five books were written by members of the suspect middle generation.
In No Way of Telling by Emma Smith the remote location is a Welsh hill farm without electricity or indoor plumbing, two miles from the nearest road, and further isolated by a five-day blizzard. Amy (whose mother is dead and whose father is raising another family in Australia) lives alone there with her grandmother. During the storm they become involved with three mysterious foreigners who are tracking each other with intent to kill, as in John Buchan’s spy stories. In spite of the dreary title this is a very good book, also reminiscent of Buchan in its use of the English countryside in bad weather as a background for psychological suspense and violent action. Unfortunately, half the children who would enjoy it will never read it because of the male-chauvinist rule recently explained to me by a local librarian: “Both boys and girls will read a book with a boy hero; but only girls will read a book about a girl.”
In Goldengrove by Jill Paton Walsh the safe landscape is a seaside village where two cousins go to spend a late-summer vacation with their grandmother. There is a sense of creeping industrial development and tract houses, but the real intruders are the natural enemies of childhood—adolescence, disillusion, and knowledge of death. Exceptionally awful parents in this one—selfish and phony and squabbling; the old grandmother, by contrast, is wise, sensitive, and loving. Goldengrove is the name of her house. When I discovered that the heroine was called Madge (short for Margaret) and that she was about to meet a blind English professor, I became apprehensive; but Mrs. Walsh maintained her tact, and though the scene of Madge crying among the falling leaves did appear, the professor never read aloud to her from Hopkins. Another good book, but for older children, both because of the subject and because of the unhappy—or at least equivocal—ending.
Friday and Robinson by Michel Tournier is a new version of Robinson Crusoe for modern children whose parents like Norman O. Brown. The first half of the book follows the original, but after that Robinson sees the error of his English Puritan ways and learns from Friday how to live like a child of nature. When a ship finally arrives he finds civilized man coldhearted and disgusting, and refuses to leave his island. Tournier rewrote Crusoe first as a rather pretentiously philosophical book for adults called Vendredi. The juvenile version leaves out all the high thought and mystic symbolism, and is much better, though still very French in the popular sense of the word. What Friday teaches Robinson is mainly decorative arts and crafts, theatrical games, and gourmet cooking. The polymorphous sex which is the climax of Vendredi is omitted, though there are hints that Friday is having a passionate affair with a wild goat.
I would add it to the total of Good Grandparent stories except for a certain ambiguity about what is going to happen in the future between Robinson and the twelve-year-old cabin boy who replaces Friday as his solitary companion. Not bad, all the same. But the illustrations are terrible: done in a sort of greeting-card impressionism, all gray wash and scratchy lines—simultaneously vague and conventional; Friday is portrayed as a handsome young Indian type with straight hair and Wasp features—though in Defoe and in Vendredi he is definitely a Negro. (The Little Black Sambo avoidance syndrome again?)
Finally, three classics of children’s literature are now available again in fine new editions. For affluent parents, Once Upon a Time: The Fairy Tale World of Arthur Rackham, which contains the complete texts of Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, Rip Van Winkle, and Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, as well as selected fairy tales and fables, all with the original Rackham illustrations. The quality of the reproductions varies from fair to excellent; unfortunately not all are in color. I would have preferred fewer texts and better plates, but nevertheless the book is a good introduction both to nineteenth-century juvenile literature and to one of its greatest illustrators.
More within the ordinary budget are two fairy tales by George MacDonald, The Light Princess and The Golden Key, with superb new illustrations by Maurice Sendak. (The Golden Key also has a perceptive Afterword by W. H. Auden.) MacDonald was a Victorian mystic and visionary, whose strange and wonderful stories have no more—or less—of a moral than “Sleeping Beauty” or “Rumplestiltskin.” Not for every child, but ideal for the right one.
December 14, 1972