From fairy tales to Barbie dolls

International Encyclopedia of Children's Literature
May 2, 1997

A book costing as much as this has a particular need to offer good value. Taking into account its 86 separate chapters, an elegant introduction by Margaret Meek and a high standard of production, the International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature comes through any parsimony test with head held high. Containing enough information to fuel dozens of separate books, it communicates clearly without losing academic rigour in a way that has sometimes marred previous collections. Students of children's literature will surely fall upon this volume; their tutors could learn much from it too.

Every chapter is original, although some are boiled down versions of longer works by the same author (John Rowe Townsend on the history of British children's literature and Joyce Whalley on the development of picture books are cases in point). Other authors say something new, such as Julia Eccleshare on contemporary problem novels and Michael Rosen on radio, television, film, audio and video. Some entries are cruelly short - 12 pages on animal stories and only ten on the family story. But suggestions for further reading after each chapter help here, although cross-referencing hardly occurs.

Strangely for an international encyclopedia, most references remain British and American. The exception is the final section on the world of children's books. This attempts to cover countries from Scotland and Wales (three pages each) to Pakistan and Bangladesh (two pages between them). References are made to former censorship in Russia, but little is made of modern political influences bearing now on children's books, for example in Iran and China. But given the insularity of British publishing when it comes to commissioning translations from abroad, even the shortest note on what is happening away from these islands is welcome.

Countries lacking their own indigenous children's literature, for example most of those in French-speaking Africa, get a mention even if it is only to record a blank. Our own Robert Leeson, author of the Grange Hill series and many other books, has described the sense of invisibility he felt in the 1930s when searching vainly for working-class children like himself in the children's books stocked by his local library. Children in Senegal, still faced by texts featuring rosy-cheeked, blond French children, apparently feel the same type of thing today.

There are however some cautionary notes that do not find any place in this compendium. Many of the children's book titles quoted are now out of print. Mark West's chapter on censorship touches on the efforts of evangelists and others to change or ban certain texts they dislike. But he does not mention the most insidious censorship of all, when market forces are quoted as sufficient reason for the disappearance of some of the best children's books, past or contemporary. A chapter on the economics of publishing should have had a place here at a time when former practices are increasingly being stood upon their heads. Books once created characters; now increasingly it is newly licensed characters who are producing books. Pooh Bear, Barbie Doll, Peter Rabbit and various other childhood celebrities now stride through the bookshops like all-engulfing monsters, spawning multitudes of forgettable spin-off titles plus assorted merchandise in their wake. Those new authors and illustrators normally expected to create characters for the next generation of readers meanwhile find it increasingly hard to get published and then stay in print.

There could, too, have been more teasing out of what exactly is implied by modern children's reading tastes in a cultural world where the divisions between adult and child entertainment have become extremely blurred. The most popular television programmes with children last year were those made for adults, such as Men Behaving Badly and Absolutely Fabulous. In the world of comics and magazines, Viz outsells other juvenile magazines in the child market, despite (or possibly because of) warnings on the cover about its unsuitability for the young. Children still read children's books, but what type, how often and what else are topics largely ignored here. The useful article by Geoff Fox on teaching fiction and poetry needs to be accompanied by an appreciation of the size of problem a teacher may now be facing with pupils who have never developed the habit of reading children's books for pleasure.

Books about children's literature now risk turning into a valediction for the past rather than acting as a signpost to the future. But what a glorious past it has been: a point underlined by Iona Opie on the oral tradition and Ruth Bottigheimer on fairy tales and biblical writing. Psychoanalytic and feminist criticism gets a look in too, but never in a way that leaves the general reader stranded on a rising tide of jargon. For this, much credit must go to the editors. Both have set consistent standards in the past for writing clearly about children's literature. They have now brought this skill to bear on the hard task of editing different texts to a uniformly readable standard.

Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in children's literature, University of Sussex.

International Encyclopedia of Children's Literature

Editor - Peter Hunt and Sheila Ray
ISBN - 0 415 08856 9
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £85.00
Pages - 923

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