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August 1976

Introduction to Imaginative Literature, Part V

So-Called Children's Literature

There are, of course, many other noteworthy works of English literary art that have been stigmatized by the label children’s literature.”

PART IV: SO-CALLED CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Does my title betray a defensive attitude, perhaps even a bit of ill temper? It should. For the more extensive my own investigations of so-called children’s literature becomes, the more I feel a kind of intellectual outrage at those who have promoted such a concept. It is one which, I am convinced, has denied many a serious writer the adult audience he deserved and has denied uncounted serious readers the pleasure those writers’ works might have afforded them. I must count myself among the latter number, by the way—among, those who believed some books to be “for children” and so avoided reading those books themselves. And the pleasures I have found since I began reading “children’s literature” in exactly the same way and for exactly the same reasons I have always read “literature”—those pleasures have served too often to remind me of what pleasures I had denied myself in earlier times.


“…novelists of genius are denied recognition because their characters are animals.”


Succinctly put, there are at least three different sorts of things printed up and sold as children’s literature: there are stories (and I’m going to limit myself to fiction in this discussion, on the grounds, among others, that there is very little true poetry for children—just a lot of narrative verse) whose characters are animals, natural or mythological, or whose worlds are Faery-like, or whose events are magical or some of the above or all of the above; there are stories put together by professional educators, psychologists, and sociologists according to their (usually statistical) assessment of how children respond to various pedagogical stimuli and according to their opinions is to what values ought to be thereby inculcated in children (and these works—the bulk of the fiction offered to small children in State schools—are no more literature than political cartoons are fine art); and there are works of literary art that present the feeling-world of a child—a world less complex than an adult’s but no less meaningful and no less beautiful, because it is produced by a mind fully as fertile in invention and fully as facile in symbolic transformation as any adult’s.

I hope it is obvious that stories about animals and fairyland and magic aren’t necessarily or even usually children’s ter or Hope Mirlees’ Lud-in-the-Mist? (These last two are only recently out of print in inexpensive paperback editions from Ballantine Books, and are well worth reading). Still, novelists of genius are denied recognition because their characters are animals. And I will break my own rule about translations to mention one such unfortunate case, that of the German writer Felix Salten and his novel, Bambi. Thanks in large part to Walt Disney, this fine work has been paraded before a large segment of the public in adulterated and incompetently bastardized form. Bambi is not a faintly nauseating gambol among fawns and grasses; it is an existentialist fable—a fable of the region in which the existentialist vision is fading into the Byronic conception of the world as hard, cruel and nobly, dramatically doomed. Salten is writing about the world also inhabited by Jack London and Ayn Rand (in her gloomier works; like We the Living). And he is writing about it in a terse, clear, cleanly poetic prose not unlike Hemingway’s—this is true both in Whittaker Chambers’ fine translation and (based on my halting perusal of the original) in the German as well. But he is writing about animals, and this has somehow consigned his work to the children’s room of the library. Of course, children do tend to like stories about animals, fairyland, and magic; the reason, I think, is that such stories are frequently simple and thus more comprehensible to children than the average tale. This is not to say, however, that they are deficient in either beauty or meaning for adult readers.


“The chief victim in our own language of the stories-about-animals-are-stories-for-children school of criticism is Kenneth Grahame.”


While l am at the business of breaking my taboo against translations, I want to mention the work of Antoine de St. Exupery and Hans Christian Andersen. The former’s best known work, The Little Prince (Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, $1.25, paperback), is a haunting, sad, exquisite formulation of the child’s conception of adult character types and the child’s often halting discrimination between the real and imaginary. Andersen is the author of two of the best short stories I’ve ever read: “The Fir Tree” and “The Nightingale”—at least, I hold this view of the translations I read (Andersen’s Fairy Tales, translated by Lucas and Paull, Grosset and Dunlap, $5.95). And while I’m speaking of fairy tales, let me not fail to mention Oscar Wilde, whose “The Happy Prince” is one of the most nearly perfect works of fictional and artistic style ever produced in English and one of the shrillest defenses of Christian altruism outside of C.S. Lewis.

The chief victim in our own language of stories-about-animals-are-stories-for-children school of criticism is Kenneth Grahame. Grahame was a belletrist in the purest sense of that word—a deliberate writer of beautiful prose. And in his sensibility he was very close to the decadent, aesthetic consciousness of the Yellow ’90s (he contributed essays to the era’s most notorious periodical, The Yellow Book). Yet because he chose to write of reluctant dragons and of animals (a rat, a mole, a toad, a badger) who speak and act like fin de siecle Englishmen, he has been remembered as a children’s writer. Of course, Grahame wrote The Wind in the Willows originally for his children—wrote it for them in the sense that he composed for them the main plot, the Victorian fable of Toad who was addicted to fast motor cars and had to be recalled by his friends to a life of temperance. This is the heart of The Wind in the Willows; it is justly famous for the richness of its humor, and it is popular among children because of the simplicity (and simple-mindedness) of its moral perspective. But for Grahame and for all those children who skip over it only to become the adults who keep the book in print because of it, the heart of The Wink in the Willows is the chapters dropped into Toad’s narrative from time to time as melliferous interruptions, as poetic relief—“Dulce Domum,” “Wayfarers All,” “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.” If there are prose poems, and I’ve said there are, these are some of the most accomplished in our language—the kind of orgiastic word revelry you might expect in Dylan Thomas or Mervyn Peake or the George Meredith of The Shaving of Shagpat, but not in a “children’s writer.”

Two of Grahame’s lesser but still very atmospheric productions, The Golden Age and Dream Days, have recently been reissued, complete with the original Maxfield Parrish illustrations. I confess these old book illustrations together with the drawings of the late Victorian period (the work of Aubrey Beardsley and the Alice illustrations of Sir John Tenniel are representative of what I mean), are my favorite pictorial artworks—they are colorful and romantic, but outrageously stylized and individualized, so that the best of their makers—Arthur Rackham, Kai Nielsen, Maxfield Parrish—are instantly recognizable. Their work has recently been collected and published in a number of competing editions. The work of such later exemplars of their art as Mervyn Peake, Frank R. Pape, and Rockwell Kent, has lamentably, not yet become so newly popular. Two contemporary illustrators of genius are Leonard Lubin (whose new edition of Lewis Carroll’s The Pig-Tale has recently been published by Little, Brown and Company, $4.95) and Edward Gorey, whose Amphigorey, an omnibus collection of fifteen picture books (some of them novels) with illustrative text, has been recently brought out (G.P. Putnam’s, $12 95).

A survey a few years ago showed that a number of leading literary intellectuals would, if forced to choose only 50 books with which to live out the rest of their lives, include in the 50 a one-volume edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. I’d include it in my own 50, though it’s difficult to explain why. Taken as a continuous narrative, the two form a unified whole, presenting a coherent child-perspective on the adult world. But the peculiarly keen pleasure its admirers take in Alice is not of a purely aesthetic sort. It is a more general admiring enthusiasm and elation at the chance to commune a few hours with a man of great wit and not a little erudition, who was able to weave an intricately patterned whimsical story out of scraps of philosophy, mathematics, politics, physics, literature, and an overriding sense of the extent to which the absurd and humorous are only special, cases of the logically faulty. (The edition of Alice that guides the reader through all of these scraps in footnotes nearly as enjoyable as the text is Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice, Clarkson Potter, $12.95.) I have been laughing at some of the Alice jokes for more than a decade; I’ve been relishing its polished epigrammatic style for at least that long; and I don’t ever plan to stop marvelling at either. The book’s biggest enthusiasts, interestingly, are philosophers, mathematicians, scientists, and literary intellectuals; its biggest detractors are children, most of whom find it annoyingly enigmatic or incomprehensible. And it is doubtless significant that Walt Disney’s Alice, the most “faithful” of his feature-length animated adaptations of “children’s literature,” was his least successful commercially.


“Bambi is not a faintly nauseating gambol among fawns and grasses; it is an existentialist fable…”


There are, of course, many other noteworthy works of English literary art that have been stigmatized by the label children’s literature; it has been my purpose here to name only a few of the more ourstanding. If you enjoy the Victorian manner in fiction, I highly recommend Louisa May Alcott’s famous trilogy of novels, Little Women, Little Men, and Jo’s Boys. Also typical of the best in Victorian children’s fiction is Mary Louisa Molesworth’s The Cuckoo Clock (E.P. Dutton, $3.95). More recent works of note include A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner, P.L. Travers’ Marry Poppins books, Lucretia P. Hale’s The Peterkin Papers (Houghton, Mifflin, $5.95), Rudyard Kipling’s first Jungle Book (again, nothing like Walt Disney) and C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia, particularly volume six (which may be read first), The Magician’s Nephew (Macmillan, $1.25, paperback). Next time: the essay, and a change of title for this series.