The first and best comprehensive history of British children's literature was written by Harvey Darton in 1932. Still in print with some revisions, it is a work of great scholarship and complete self-confidence. Darton's own liberal, anti-didactic views sat well with general contemporary reactions against Victorian values. Secure that his values would be shared by his readers, he was free to chase his own special bibliographical interests without having to worry about dropping editorial bricks on the way.
Peter Hunt, editor of this latest history of children's literature, acknowledges in his elegant introduction that he has no such easy ideological ride in prospect. Definitions of childhood itself are up for grabs now before we even get to children's literature and the particular problems it raises. At the moment, Viz, the current favourite magazine for boys between the ages of 11 and 14, prints "Not for sale to children" on its cover. Where does that leave "juvenile literature"? And if we can ever agree what such literature amounts to, should it then be assessed principally as literary text, social document or specially age-adjusted reading matter?
By casting this study as history, Hunt can at least turn to chronology as a way of trying to control an increasingly unruly subject. Early chapters provide a good guide to the beginnings of children's reading around 1700 and developments thereafter. Mere publication dates do not necessarily describe children's favourite reading at the time. Mrs Sherwood's History of the Fairchild Family, published in 1818, was well known to Edwardian children, while Foxe's Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563, went through 30 different editions during the 19th century and remained prescribed children's reading as late as 1904. Today, the stories of Enid Blyton with minor alterations continue to sell despite their increasing age.
The best of these early chapters mix social comment with literary judgement in around equal measure. After that, the contents become more pedestrian. But Hunt himself has a good eye for interesting detail. In his chapter "Retreat and advance 1914-1945", he mentions Disney's Trip with Mickey Mouse, published in Britain in 1933. This favourite rodent not only plays cricket but has to endure bodyline bowling, which had been much in the news the previous year. It is also salutary to be reminded that the Girl's Own Paper ran an enthusiastic article about the Hitler Youth Movement in 1937.
Subsequent chapters are harder work. While space requirements make it difficult to discuss any author in depth, this is still no excuse for too many quick plot summaries attached to instant literary judgements, often of an irritatingly over-emphatic nature. This is to miss both wood and trees. Individual chapters on American, Canadian, Australian and New Zealand developments also suffer from a tendency to cover too much without saying anything particularly interesting.
Throughout the book 240 illustrations, mostly in black and white, are inserted in constantly pleasing and subtle ways (although the amount of "show through" on some pages suggests crowds of literary ghosts waiting to jump out over-leaf). Some attempt is made to discuss illustrators as well as authors, but once again there is not enough room for adequate coverage. Captions to individual illustrations are sometimes woefully stodgy: "Robin Jacques's humorous drawing adorns the cover of one of Ruth Manning-Sanders's vigorous retellings of traditional stories." Mrs Trimmer could have managed better than this 300 years ago.
The whole work peters out in a desultory last chapter on colonial and post-colonial children's literature. An editor's conclusion would have been preferable, given the present uncertain future of children's literature. Even so, two and a half cheers for this well-presented history, published at a reasonable price for the amount and quality it has to offer. Its contents remind readers that much of the humour in modern authors like the Ahlbergs and Roald Dahl, when he is writing verse, rests upon familiarity with classical nursery rhymes and fairy tales. This type of literary cannibalism can always be amusing, but what happens when children no longer recognise the originals upon which it draws? There has been a fall in books sold to under-sevens recently, in line with the current attractions of video and CD-Rom. Let's hope this illustrated history is not also a reluctant epitaph for those juvenile habits of reading for pleasure once taken for granted.
Researching Children's Literature - A Coming of Age? contains 12 papers given at a conference held at Southampton's La Sainte Union in 1994 and now published by the college itself. The first paper, on the general topic of research, is once again by Hunt. He writes perceptively about awkward questions some would rather avoid. For example, what is the actual point of research in the area of children's literature? Who is it for? Should any society reasonably interested in its own children want to be informed about what they were or are reading? As it is, most adults only know about the books they read as children. At least critics should be better informed about both past and present than this.
Hunt has his own views on these questions, and other contributors tackle subjects as various as autobiographical writing for children about the last war and metaphors of the garden in children's books. Sometimes those engaged in these discussions appear over-defensive about children's literature as their chosen field of study. There is no need for this bad habit, found elsewhere among some children's writers and publishers. Children's literature is a rich and endlessly interesting subject, and seems set to continue that way so long as children themselves are willing to co-operate as readers. Should that ever change, there is always the past to examine, with enough titles and topics suggested in these two publications alone to keep any researcher busy for years to come.
Nicholas Tucker is lecturer in cultural and community studies, University of Sussex.
Researching Children's Literature: A Coming of Age?
Editor - Neil Broadbent, Anne Hogan, Gillian Inkson and Maggie Miller
ISBN - 1 897914 12 1
Publisher - La Sainte Union Coll.of HE, Southampton
Price - £5.50
Pages - 92