Children's books

13th April 2001 at 01:00
READING SERIES FICTION: from Arthur Ransome to Gene Kemp. By Victor Watson. Routledge Falmer pound;13.99.

While the word "series" in relation to children's literature has various possible interpretations, the focus of Victor Watson's study is sequences of "related stories about the same group of characters, usually by the same authors". Although, as he reminds us, English children's literature is notably rich in these, he believes their significance in forming children's reading preferences has not been fully acknowledged. Such criticism as there has been, Watson argues, tends to be simplistic and to associate the genre with "third-rate and formulaic pot-boilers".

In what is primarily an attempted act of reclamation, Watson selects various examples of series fiction (not all of which could be considered neglected) and subjects them to what he designates "an inward-looking and text-based" critical inquiry. He incorporates these approaches within a more personal framework, giving scope for occasional anecdotal and autobiographical reflection and, more seriously perhaps, for occasional expressions of disapproval of the currently low status of children's literature and the poverty of its criticism. These various voices unite in his clarity, range of reference and enthusiasm.

But this enthusiasm sometimes threatens to become the kind of passion that can blind critical objectivity. This danger is at its clearest in the three chapters devoted to Arthur Ransome's work, discussed book by book in an attempt to accentuate its "complexity and humanity, (its) trust in children".

The essential starting point for Watson is to see Ransome as a "magical" writer whose child characters are equally "magical"; "champions of goodness". But does not their gradually becoming "characters of myth" over the course of the series diminish the "humanity" of the fiction? And is Missee Lee really "one of the greatest children's books of the century"?

Before turning to the various series represented in Enid Blyton'swork, Watson provides an entertaining chapter on the "camping and tramping" fiction that typified so much English children's literature between 1920 and 1960. Many of these individual authors and titles (such as the Scout novels of Percy Westerman and Marjorie Lloyd's Fell Farm books) have long been forgotten, but Watson usefully reminds us how this genre may be seen as expressing adult nostalgia for a vanishing rural way of life and as incorporating a myth of English historical continuity.

Blyton's work, in many respects developing from these idyllic narratives, was subsequently to displace them. Watson's thesis here is that, come 50 years, her writing will be of academic interest only; in the meantime, it deserves to be taken seriously, even if, overall, it is damned by its banality.

The "inward-looking and text-based" approach promised by Watson is given its most illuminating expression in the detailed chapters on Malcolm Saville, Mary Norton, Lucy Boston, Susan Cooper, Antonia Forest and Gene Kemp. Some of the criticism here - especially on Norton, Forest and Kemp - is exemplary in its determination to direct the reader away from the mere surface of the text to its centre, from "minimalist readings" to strategies that encourage appreciation of the "invisible excellence" of quality fiction. If the chapter on Forest does not revive interest in this undervalued writer, it is difficult to imagine what will.

Watson's choice of texts for his closely focused analysis is such that he proves beyond doubt that series fiction is not "generically or inevitably inferior" - even, in any case, if few people might have described the work of Norton or Boston (or even Ransome) in this way. But there remains a need for a detailed investigation of series fiction which does not quite reach such lofty peaks of excellence and of the reasons for its precise, and continuing, appeal to children.


Robert Dunbar is a lecturer at the Church of Ireland college of education, Dublin

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