Brian Alderson considers writers' awareness of "childness"
What distinguishes books for children from those for adults? Does an awareness of child readers govern the way in which we judge such books? Questions such as these have long fuelled debates about children's literature and nowhere with such persistence as in the magazine Signal, subtitled "approaches to children's books".
Signal was founded in 1970 by Aidan and Nancy Chambers under their Thimble Press imprint, and Nancy has edited it with rigorous devotion ever since. Its 82 issues (so far) have shown a consistent seriousness in the "approaches" proffered by her contributors and her sustained editorial control is matched only by Margery Fisher's very different work with Growing Point.
With justifiable pride in her achievement, Chambers celebrated the 25th anniversary of her magazine by compiling The Signal Companion, a classified guide to the 75 issues from 1970 to 1994.
In harness with Elaine Moss, her longest-serving and most prolific contributor, she isolated 22 broad categories into which Signal's total contents could be divided ("Authors amp; Writing", "Classroom Use of Books", "Social Issues") and then listed chronologically what had been published, each item with a helpful descriptive abstract.
The range is impressive. Historically, it travels from the good-godly writers of the 17th century to the post-modernists; conceptually, from abstract argument to practical accounts of work with children. The list of contributors displays a galaxy of talent, with art critic John Ruskin and 19th-century religious novelist Charlotte Yonge jostled by today's luminaries writing from Europe, North America and Australia.
An index brings unity, and a Thimble Press Chronology includes the many book lists, guides and tracts that the press has also published.
The most recent of these publications is Peter Hollindale's Signs of Childness in Children's Books which almost amounts to a provisional summation of Signal's persistent attempts to argue a way towards a just formula for criticising children's literature.
(The impulse was there from the beginning, when Alan Tucker reviewed recent poetry in tandem with a rewarding acknowledgment of his own critical standpoint. Since then, axe-grinders have had their theories tested into thoughtfulness by the magazine's editorial demands.)
The virtue of Hollindale's 140-page contribution to the debate lies primarily in his careful disentangling of the "childness" of children from the "childness" of the texts they encounter and of the adults who write them.
He needs "childness" and its related adjective "childly" to escape from the pejorative resonances of the more usual "childhood" and "childish", and he applies the term as "the quality of being a child" and, by extension (I think), "the quality of appreciating as a child".
Armed with that freshened-up vocabulary, he propounds in the first half of his essay a kind of lay psychology of children's reading, which is particularly valuable for its willingness to foresee, and not dodge, the counter arguments, and also for its awareness of contemporary difficulties arising from intrusive media and society's attitude towards today's children.
In the second half of the essay, he turns to texts, formulating what is almost a catechism for the critic of children's literature.
The key factor here is the accepted distinction between the text and the "reading event" - the childness which each individual brings to their interpretation.
And that is the point at which more is required of Hollindale's wise analysis. At an elementary level, one would like to hear more about texts beyond the fiction of his theme. What of picture books, or the childness of book illustration? Folklore? Poetry? At a pragmatic level, more account could be taken of the commanding influence which adults may have on the making of readers.
One book shared creatively with a child will make more of "childness" than bare analyses. But what matters is the necessity for a widening of knowledge among the sharers of the kaleidoscope of literature that is to hand.