The Owl Service and after

10th March 1995 at 00:00
The past twenty-five years have seen great changes in children's literature. Brian Slough celebrates the anniversaries of three publications that have charted the cross-currents. In a 1986 interview, Russell Hoban questioned the tremendous tottering edifice of books for children, books about books for children, books about books about books for children ... You take the point. The book in which his interview now appears, Celebrating Children's Literature in Education, answers his question in the best possible way - and with pleasure.

This illustrious collection of writing celebrates 25 years of Children's Literature in Education, the journal that evolved from a series of conferences at Exeter University in the late sixties. The anniversary is also marked in the current edition, which sustains the international flavour with contributions from Australia and North America alongside its distinguished British cast.

Editor Geoff Fox (of the original committee) faced with the delightfully taxing task of selecting from six hundred articles, opted for distinctive voices, "as provocative now as when they were first heard". Nineteen complete and substantial articles are included, while 25 extracts, entitled "In Essence", point to the reluctantly excluded. Placed centrally, they begin with the likes of Edward Blishen and Alan Garner in 1970 and conclude with Robert Westall (1993). Incidentally, just how many of us were influenced, like Westall, by Wilson of The Wizard, with its "solid wedges of print?" The book's eclecticism mirrors the journal. Neither is governed by a single perspective (apart from respecting young readers) and several questions are variously explored without destroying what Roy Fuller calls "the quality of mystery". For example, do children's writers write for themselves, the child within themselves, specific children, for children in general - or no one in particular?

Rightfully, Ted Hughes opens with "Myth and Education" - "a story can wield so much! And a word wields the story". The increasing verve of this seminal piece might be juxtaposed with the final article by Aidan Chambers on the future of books. He is not alone in urging that we treasure their physicality along with their spirituality, especially now there is a variety of print without pages.

There may be spectres on our screens (Charles Causley sees the word processor as "absolute death") but literature, not least in book print, will survive. "There are things that only literature can give us, by means specific to it". (Italo Calvino). In different guises, most of this book celebrates that thought.

Geoff Fox suggests that in the journal's lifetime the most exciting developments have been radical innovations in the creation of picture books. He mentions Peter Neumeyer's analysis of Maurice Sendak's We are all in the dumps with Jack and Guy - "images in context tell a larger story than we see on the surface only". In the same section Geoff Moss compares the book and film versions of Raymond Briggs's The Snowman. The book is deemed progressive, challenging and potentially subversive, its counterpart regressive; thus another of my Christmas prejudices is validated.

In the "What if . . .?" section, Brian Earnshaw's Planets of Awful Dread has more one-liners than Foetal Attraction, but the humour is never self-indulgent to the detriment of his argument. Whereas "too much science fiction for children puts them off science and puts them off the future", he hopes the genre might lure children into thinking about the human condition from a detached viewpoint, to be returned on the final page in a positive plane. He, with others, advocates speedy reading first: selectively later. Geoffrey Trease is informative and deliciously witty on the historical novelist at work and Judith Armstrong - along with Nina Bawden - offers enthusiastic defence of the wrongly maligned adventure stories.

The missionary enthusiasm in these voices is universally Cowperesque: "No wild enthusiast ever yet could rest Till half mankind were like himself possess'd". It is irresistible when eminent writers remember childhood readings: Kim (Rosemary Sutcliff) or Kidnapped (Patricia Beer). Best of all, Philippa Pearce revisits Robin Hood, who entered and took over her imagination at the age of five. She feels again the piece of string tied round her middle and her impulsive, unsophisticated response, generous and creative.

Similar creativity and enthusiasms surge through "Poets on Poetry". For Charles Causley there's no middle ground in poetry or art; children should write about their loves and hates. Vernon Scannell argues that poetry in schools should be presented with love and passionate conviction, before the barbarians win. In 1978 Michael Benton had warned that "we neglect poetry at our own peril" and, indeed, it was eight years before the Editorial Committee commissioned their first pieces on poetry (few had been volunteered). That gives a glimpse of the shifts in interests in children's literature during the journal's lifespan to-date.

Two recent articles are among the most thought provoking. Margaret Mackey on re-reading ("reading is incurably various") and Margaret Meek on the reading of "unstable" information texts, where "we are only beginning to understand that we can take nothing for granted". That remark might be said to justify the existence of the journal.

Celebrating Children's Literature in Education: Edited by Geoff Fox. Hodder Stoughton Pounds 12.99. 0 340 618639. Children's Literature in Education. An international quarterly. Eurospan Ltd., 3 Henrietta Street, London WC2E 8LU. Pounds 22 per annum. Copies of the anniversary issue are available from Geoff Fox, School of Education, Exeter University, St Luke's, Heavitree Road, Exeter ES21 2LU. Pounds 6.75 including postage.Details of an anniversary conference at Exeter University from September 22 - 24 are also available from Geoff Fox at the above address.

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