Where sheep get fleeced

5th July 1996 at 01:00
Voices off:Texts, Contexts and Readers, Edited by Morag Styles, Eve Bearne and Victor Watson, Cassell Pounds 45 and Pounds 16.99

Kimberley Reynolds samples a critical collection. In Britain, critical writing about children's literature sits uneasily in the worlds of scholarship (where it is often dismissed as an inferior body of writing for an inexperienced group of readers) and of the children's literature establishment (where readers of all ages become peevish when the works they love are subjected to critical scrutiny and become the subjects of academic discourse).

In almost every other country where children's literature has become an academic discipline, researchers have vigorously distanced themselves from "amateurs" (by which they mean those whose knowledge of children's literature lies outside academe). In Britain, however, the study of children's literature is constructed differently. For the most part, all kinds of knowledge about children and reading are thought equally important and interesting.

This difference lies at the heart of Voices Off, and is immediately apparent from the table of contents and the list of contributors. The book has five sections, each devoted to some of the "voices" which influence what and how young people read. These are "The Voices of Children"; "Voices from the Past"; "Classroom Voices"; "Voices Off" (by which they mean voices off the page, for instance, the implied voice of the story teller in wordless picture books, or the way words move off the page in performance), and "Voices of Authority".

The contributors include booksellers, writers, illustrators, teachers and lecturers (but no linguists, librarians or bibliographers, who are also active in various aspects of children's literature); the emphasis is on effective ways of bringing young people and texts together.

Voices Off is full of interesting material, but for me the most effective chapters are those which concentrate on specific texts and issues. For instance, the first chapter, written by Elizabeth Hammill, children's manager for a branch of Waterstone's, uses a little-known story by Mary Norton as the basis for discussing the current state of series fiction.

As someone at the sharp end of the interaction between books and young readers her observations are particularly telling, and many parents and teachers will hope for answers to the questions she puts to publishers of series books for six- to nine-year-olds: "Why are we offering this age group a reductive literature - impoverished in form, language and content? Why, when we know that children engage with the complexities in picture books, do we then offer them trivialised experience and expect them to regard it as 'progress'? Is children's intelligence being underestimated and text devalued because it doesn't work like television or computer games? Is there a consequent assumption that all young readers need simplified and accessible texts - 'dumbing down', as they call it in the United States?"

Hammill's is not the only point of view in this section; among the "voices in" the text are those exploring the merits and unexpected uses of the books young people choose to read themselves - including highly popular horror series.

In "Voices from the Past" texts such as Aesop's fables, the children's poems of John Bunyan, and Shakespeare are shown to be meaningful to young readers today even if, as is true of Bunyan, it is only through his early use of themes and images which have become associated with children's verse.

Janet Bottoms's piece on teaching Shakespeare in the primary classroom includes some humorous and convincing discussions between primary children who have been "playing with" Macbeth. Their powerful identification with the characters combined with their ways of reading texts ( most are more familiar with adventure and mystery stories than with tragedy) leads to conclusions not unlike those reached by the American woman in James Thurber's "The Great Macbeth Murder Mystery".

The collection contains several fine contributions on picture books by very experienced "voices" such as Geoff Fox, Anne Rowe and Victor Watson. Probably my favourite chapter comes in the final section in which Mary Hilton explores the pressures exerted on boys by their fiction. The links she identifies between popular boys' fiction, violence and the military are powerful and disturbing.

Voices Off is a wide-ranging and stimulating collection of essays, and demonstrates well how the interactions between those working in different branches of children's literature can be productive.

It is hard to imagine how this kind of collection could be done better. However, it is also important not to assume that this is the only way to write about children's literature. There is a need for another kind of voice as well: that of sustained academic criticism which asks different kinds of questions and is less eclectic in its interests.

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