Potter's imaginary ancestors;Children's books of the century

31st December 1999 at 00:00
Child readers may now also be young consumers, but their favourite books are still fantasies, reports Geraldine Brennan

The first key children's book of the 20th century had already been around for a while in 1900. In A Child's Garden of Verses (1885), Robert Louis Stevenson became the first poet to make full use of the child's own voice in celebrating play and acknowledging terror. He was a sickly and isolated boy who grew up to be a great prose writer and adventurer; A Child's Garden has also had a long and active life (it has never been out of print) and its publication transformed poetry for children.

The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), Edith Nesbit's first book about the Bastables, introduced real children and their active imaginations to the children's novel in time for the new century. Nesbit tried a formula that Enid Blyton later flogged to death: a group of adventurers including a dog and a girl who's allowed to be an honorary boy, freedom from authority (mother dead; bankrupt father can't afford to send them to school) and a quest (the child's perennial urge to solve adults' problems, this time by making lots of money).

But she allows her characters (middle-class like so many of her readers, but fallen on hard times) to explore and challenge the society she places them in and to try out the daring schemes inside their heads.

More real children were to be found counting the pennies in Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes (1936). The Fossils' training for the stage allows them to leap over the conventions of the omnipresent school story and (partly) of middle-class expectations. Like the Bastables, the three sisters (again, one an honorary boy) take on adult-scale goals and succeed partly through dedication, but also through the transforming power of performance.

It took real adults (ie working-class ones) longer to make it into popular children's fiction except as picturesque walk-ons. Raymond Briggs achieved this in Gentleman Jim and Father Christmas, demonstrating that it needn't all be in the words. In The Snowman (1978), another tale of transformation, he showed a mass readership that you don't need the words at all. The Snowman, less subversive than some of Briggs's work, is remarkable for its impact on the adult book world, which approached Harry Potter scale.

Each Peach Pear Plum by Janet and Allan Ahlberg, a short picture book for the very young, was published the same year. With its interplay between word and image and its condensed references to a shelf full of nursery rhymes and fairy tales, it boldly pulled tradition to pieces while maintaining great charm and the comfort factor.

Debate on suitable content for older children's novels intensified throughout the last three decades of the century and continues. Junk, Melvin Burgess's novel about teenage heroin addicts, which won the 1996 Carnegie Medal, focused public attention on what a teenage reader expects and needs.

Child readers are now also child consumers and will find their own way to the bookshops when JK Rowling's Harry Potter Book Four is published next July.

But first, my personal bid for a book of 2000: Save your Christmas book tokens for The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, the final volume of the fantasy trilogy, His Dark Materials. The cyber-critics still will be poring over this one in 100 years' time.

Geraldine Brennan is the children's books editor of The TES

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