Revel in the books that made us

11th August 2006 at 01:00
From comics to computer games, from Narnia to Sweet Valley High, a mighty new reference work on children's literature keeps Geoff Fox busy all summer

The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature

Editor-in-chief Jack Zipes

Four volumes, Oxford University Press pound;220 (library edition). See www.oup.comonlinedigitalreference for e-reference options

American Jack Zipes, the editor-in-chief of this new encyclopedia, is professor of German at the University of Minnesota, a folklore expert who wears his scholarship lightly. This is reflected in the titles of his own books, such as Don't Bet on the Prince and The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood. His translation of Grimms' fairy tales is a standard text. He is a skilled storyteller and a most agreeable man, as much a listener as a talker. If that were not enough, he once admitted to me that he had trialled for Arsenal.

Some of these wide-ranging interests and qualities must have served him well during the five years it took to assemble this mighty reference work.

His introduction hints that things were not always easy: "a trying experience"; "many contributors (resigned) due to illness or a personal problem"; "whenever an article did not meet professional standards it was either rejected or extensively revised".

Zipes has always travelled and networked widely, and his international team of eight senior editors was skilfully chosen. The UK representative is Kim Reynolds, professor of children's literature at Newcastle University, whose finger seems to be on every significant pulse in the world of children's books. The entries are contributed by more than 350 writers, some 170 from the States, 60-plus from the UK, with substantial numbers from Australasia and Canada. That still leaves more than 80 contributors representing other countries, from India to Poland, Venezuela and Japan. Zipes and his colleagues have had no truck with the jargon of fashionable theory. "The contributors have sought to write in clear language with a minimum of technical vocabulary." That intention has been successfully implemented for a general readership including "college and high school students or scholars - seeking information, definitions, ideas for research papers, an overview of recent scholarship, or an introduction to the multitudinous aspects of children's literature".

Zipes acknowledges other reference works, but claims that this one excels the others in breadth and depth. Breadth, yes: the four volumes comprise 1,870 pages and 3,200 entries. Depth is less certain. Victor Watson's admirable 2001 Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in Europe contains essays which, especially for the British reader, are at least comparable to those in Oxford's compilation. In one regard, at pound;220, OUP outstrips its rivals by a distance. The Cambridge single volume (814 pages) is a relatively modest Pounds 50, yet offers more than 2,500 entries.

The focus of the Oxford work "tends to be on the Anglo-American tradition for an English-speaking readership". However, the Outline of Entries lists essays on 39 countries or regions, including those whose children's books will be little known to most of us, such as Iran, China, Spanish-speaking South America and Pakistan.

Around 90 entries cover "Special Subjects and Terms": anything from 250 words on "Eagle Weekly Boys' Comic" to substantial discussions of "Censorship", "Critical Approaches to Children's Literature" and "Multiculturalism". There are around 120 entries on "GenresTypes"; "Picture Books"; "Computer Games"; "Animated Films"; "School Stories".

"TitlesCharacters" includes 150-plus entries from "The Addams Family" to "Yankee Doodle" by way of "Gesta Romanorum" and "Sweet Valley High Series".

The most numerous group is "AuthorsIllustrators" with 2,700-plus entries of varying length. North American names may not be familiar or of immediate interest to British readers, but enthusiasts will relish browsing according to taste. Distinctive Russian illustrations by Ivan Bilibin? Or "Edward Home Gall" - didn't he write those Colwyn Dane detective stories in The Champion just after the war? Many entries append brief bibliographies, enabling further exploration.

Almost all of the entries, as is the way of reference works, avoid negative critical comment. Not a whiff, for example, of the serious reservations of David Holbrook or Philip Pullman about The Narnia Chronicles. Dennis Butts is an exception, with his dismissal of Captain Frederick Brereton's First World War adventure stories: "formulaic... poorly written and uncritically chauvinistic." The entry for William Mayne (by Victor Watson, as it happens) does not flinch from an even-handed comment on the writer's sentence for child abuse and any consequent impact upon the appraisal of his novels. There are inevitably surprises (no separate entry for Books for Keeps magazine) and Judy Blume must be delighted, if astonished, to learn she has "over 75 million books in print".

The text is enlivened by over 400 half-tone illustrations, many of them culled from the Cotsen Children's Library at Princeton, whose curator Andrea Immel was one of the senior editors. Illustrators themselves are well-served; the excellent Jane Doonan provides almost 40 entries, including those for Maurice Sendak, Quentin Blake, Raymond Briggs and EH Shepard. So, a hefty, expensive product; but if enthusiasm and the school library budget stretch to it, a fine resource.

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