Scamper through the ages

10th March 1995 at 00:00
An Introduction to Children's Literature. By Peter Hunt Oxford Pounds 30. 0 19 219261 2. Children's Literature in the 1890s and the 1990s By Kimberley Reynolds Northcote House Pounds 7.99. 0 7463 0728 4.

Of making many books there is no end, Ecclesiastes tells us, and much study is a weariness of the flesh. It seems particularly to apply to books about children's books. As Peter Hunt himself says, children's literature is suffering from a cacophony of approaches. In 1990 his Children's Literature had tried to analyse these and to summarize the criticism of two centuries. A lot has been published even since then and it already needs updating. His current Introduction might be called an extension of this work, since it is mostly a pot-pourri of quotations from widely different critical sources behind which he often seems to shelter when one longs to know what his opinion is. Where he gives it, it is often refreshingly different from the received view, as when he says of The Secret Garden that it is very much of its period, "overblown, enthusiastic, sentimental, and having a fundamental belief in fairies."

It is not clear for whom the book is designed. In under 200 pages, Hunt scampers from Caxton's Aesop to 1990s realism, enlarging on a few books, but mostly just naming authors and titles. (It has to be said that names are often mispelt and dates are wrong, and that he clearly has not read many of the older books.) Obviously great swathes have had to be omitted, and anyway he is out of sympathy with the past; John Rowe Townsend's Written for Children still remains much the clearest account of the history of children's books. The main interest of this Introduction lies in the multiplicity of different approaches that it reveals, and the attempt to define what a children's book is. But by the end it becomes clear that any definition is impossible.

Kimberley Reynolds' Children's Literature in the 1890s and 1990s is less than half the length of Hunt's and the more successful exercise. Very wisely she decided that in a short study of this kind it is impossible to provide a panoramic view and she has restricted herself to a few representative texts. These she links to changing ideologies and social backgrounds. She moves from the Calvinism of Mrs Sherwood's History of the Fairchild Family (of course published much earlier than the parameters of the title), where children are regarded as monsters of iniquity until they are savingly converted, through the turn of the century books about the Beautiful Child all purity and innocence, through mid-20th century classics like Lucy Boston's Green Knowe books and Mary Norton's Borrowers, to the present, when teachers are apparently angrily rejecting the books of the past "almost invariably written by dead, white, European males and which for decades were believed to represent the best in literature."

The book manages to cover a surprising amount of ground in its 83 pages - gender issues, attitudes to sex and violence, children's "rubbish" reading, the national curriculum, and a lot more - without ever seeming perfunctory. It is a very useful book in an area where a short pithy introduction like this is badly needed.

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