Bytes threaten books

6th October 1995 at 01:00
Brian Alderson reports on an anniversary.

In August 1969, a star-bespangled conference on children's literature was held at Exeter at the (then) St Luke's College of Education. If the roof had fallen in on one of the plenary sessions we would have lost a generation of creative genius - not least the present Poet Laureate.

Much enthusiasm was provoked which led to several notable annual repetitions and also to the founding in 1970 of Children's Literature in Education, a journal with its editorial centre at Exeter.

By way of celebrating the 25th anniversary of this event, another conference has just been held at St Luke's, now transformed into the Exeter University School of Education. High point of this occasion was the lecture given in memory of the late Sidney Robbins, who was the founder of those early feasts, and whose energetic commitment to children's books was here endorsed by Chris Powling in what he called "a memorial rumination which is mainly a story with a couple of jokes".

Like much of the conference his story, was conceived in light-hearted fashion, but concealed an undertow of worry: in this case over the place that children's books may find for themselves in the brave new electronic world that awaits us. That was a theme that recurred elsewhere during the two days of the conference and it was counterpointed by other speakers who similarly cast rather depressive observations into the best major key that they could find.

Michael Rosen sought to make a case for the children's writer as an index of - or even an agent for - socio-political change. Anne Fine drew upon her own experience as author and parent to show how novels might be "instruments of ethical enquiry", teaching children lessons of hope and tolerance through their narratives. And, peering back across the last two centuries, Mike Benton of Southampton University, drew some intriguing, if selective, parallels between the idealised vision of childhood in art and literature and a contrary, Hogarthian authenticity.

Such themes were a far cry though from the bravura performances of 25 years ago when writers such as Margery Fisher and Joan Aiken could talk with so much conviction about the imaginative power of fiction - but then such traditional generalities, with their limited final vocabulary, might not have satisfied Exeter's present audience, schooled in the new critical technologies. If the roof had fallen in on this conference, the nation would have been bereft mostly of theoreticians with a vested interest in giving children's literature an institutionalised respectability.

Nevertheless, the eternal verities did shine through here and there. Shirley Hughes, with persuasive simplicity ("that's how you do it, really") showed the authorartist preoccupied with and delighting in her work. Burdened only by the demands of her craft, rather than by fashionable hermeneutics, she showed children's literature as Sidney Robbins would have had it "liberating the audience" into free imaginative flight. And the audience too showed that it was still there to respond. For, in further counterpoint to our anguished discussions, we were also privileged to meet the uncomplicated pupils from Class Five of Pinhoe Primary School. They recited, they performed, they sang poetry, and it was children's literature not so much "in education" but "in life" itself.

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