A random sample

2nd June 1995 at 01:00
THE HUTCHINSON TREASURY OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE. Edited by Alison Sage. Foreword by Quentin Blake Hutchinson Pounds 19.95 - 0 91 176144 1.

Alison Sage has plainly set out to compile the collection that has everything. Into 500 immaculate pages she has compressed all the reading ages of childhood, every kind of verse and prose, and an authorial cast-list ranging from 19th-century classics to mass-market contemporary writers such as Judy Blume and Roald Dahl. With the aid of skilful and imaginative designers - page after page reveals some newly attractive balance between illustration and text - she has succeeded in blending all these disparate contents into a book which has its own distinctive and engaging identity.

First and foremost this is intended as a family book, for children to grow up with. The youngest end of its intended readership could scarcely carry it: this is a large, sturdily bound and heavy book, the very opposite of Beatrix Potter's volumes, which were so carefully designed for small children to own and hold. At home the Treasury is a book that children start by sharing with parents, and gradually annex as they get older.

Although less obviously a book for primary schools, there is no reason why it should not be similarly treated there. Becoming familiar in early years as the source of teachers' readings, it should then be made available in classroom libraries for eight and nine-year- olds to revisit and explore. The anthology's range and compendiousness make sound educational sense when it is recognized how central to older children's experiments with books is the security and pleasure of re-reading, taking confident possession of things known and liked already. Introduced at the earliest stages of reading, the Treasury could serve as a base-camp and headquarters for solo raids on children's literature as competence develops.

The anthology is split into four parts. The first, "Youngest Picture Books and Rhymes", has a wide range of modern and traditional verses and several picture books in virtually complete form. Its choice of illustrators represents classic artists such as Kate Greenaway and Arthur Rackham as well as a variety of modern figures including Anthony Browne, Maurice Sendak and Tony Ross. The child who leafs through these pages will become familiar with styles and conventions spread across a century, and the effect is to domesticate the traditional by placing it alongside images of the present.

With pictures and picture books this is easy, but the anthology's design is such that the same becomes true for longer stories in the third section, "Younger Fiction, Poems and Traditional Stories", and the fourth, "Extracts from Older Fiction and Poems". Episodes from classic works, of manageable length, rub shoulders with modern stories of immediate popular appeal. The Treasury is historical by stealth, and creates a sustainable illusion that all children's writers are contemporaries.

Many of the choices will seem obvious, even banal. But the later sections are made up essentially of "tasters", and if an anthology like this gives no chance to taste Carroll, Stevenson, Kipling, Barrie and Nesbit it is failing in its job. Events such as Mary and Colin's night-time meeting in The Secret Garden, Mowgli's defence of Akela in The Jungle Book, and Jim Hawkins's eavesdropping in the apple barrel in Treasure Island, are deservedly famous, and every child comes fresh to them. They are effectively placed here alongside modern achievements such as Brian Jacques's mock-heroic epic Redwall, or Robert Westall's Northumbrian schoolboy odyssey, The Kingdom by the Sea.

Every anthologist would have chosen differently. Perhaps there is too much inter-war and early postwar writing here, and the omission of Jan Mark, the laureate of the children's short story, is especially regrettable. But taken all in all this is a splendid book, intelligently edited and beautifully produced.

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