12 APRIL 1975, Page 21

Talking of children's books

Happy endings

Benny Green

Children and Literature edited by Virginia Haviland (Bodley Head £2.80) The Search for Delicious Natalie Babbitt (Chatto and Windus £1.95) The Bridge Ralph Steadman (Collins £1.95) The Apple War Bernice Myers (Abelard-Schuman E1.50) The Train to Yesterday Paul Jennings (Harrap £2.50) The Book of Wise Animals (Hamish Hamilton £2.95) The image conjured up by a reading of Children and Literature belongs in the gallery of classic comedy. In the drawing room of an Edwardian house fifty vociferous adults make a noise like the buzzing of bees as they explain their theories to each other. Several of these adults are describing to several of the other adults what it is like to be a child, and over in a corner by the fireplace, orating to a respectful throng consisting almost entirely of himself, an educational psychologist solemnly announces that "nursery rhymes like 'Punch and Judy', which among other things can deal very briskly with a whole range of primitive behaviour, from chopping off heads to throwing old men downstairs, can particularly relieve a child by ventilating some of his more violent fantasies". Standing by the open French windows with his back to the garden, a highly successful Englishman of the old school, that is to say an ambitious Scot, makes a stirring speech all about Aristotle and Nebuchadnezzar and D. H. Lawrence and various other writers one automatically associates with children's literature; his name is John Buchan, and he is much admired by the more respectful ladies in the room. But not, one suspects, by Brigid Brophy, who is busy talking to herself concerning her amazing Candour in confessing her amazing weakness for Louisa May Alcott.

What lends the scene its comic spirit is the fact that almost every one of them in that drawing room have their backs to the garden, which is full of children enjoying themselves. Only a few of the adults make any serious attempt to look out of the windows, and of these, only one or two have the humility to observe and then to deduce. Peter Dickinson delivers 'A Defence of Rubbish' which will warm the heart of everybody who ever devoured a cheap comic, and there is a marvellous parody of literary pretentiousness called 'Puppet's Progress', whose humorous effect is only slightly reduced when the reader realises that it is supposed to be serious. E. B. White modestly confesses that he never has any trouble with vocabulary, Andersen and Grimm are examined minutely, and so on. In other words, Children and Literature is a brilliantly entertaining anthology of critical writing about children's books over the last two centuries, deeply revealing even when inept, and at its best a good read for its own sake. The first expert to arrive in that drawing room is a Mrs Sarah Trimmer, and her personality turns out to be so odious that it is a wonder anyone else bothers to appear. She says things like "Novels should not be read by young persons" and miraculously, "Regarding Natural History, particular care should be taken to provide books which are free from the general objection to books of this kind". Mrs Trimmer appears to be suffering from the not uncommon pre-Darwinian illusion that as God was unable to get to the party then she has modestly acceded to the request to be his plenipotentiary among the teacups.

Mrs Trimmer is patently a dangerous, lunatic, but in the world of children's literature

virtue very often wins, and it is not long before Mrs Trimmer is being pelted with bath buns by half the guest-list. As the nineteenth century proceeds, as Lear and Dodgson and George Macdonald and Kingsley build the foundations of the golden age, so the adult reaction becomes more logical and scientific, which

means that it moves from sweet reason to much phoney solemnity. One American lady

commends Kipling's command of English style, and a hundred pages later another American lady makes the point that the

opening of A Farewell to Arms is not nearly so

complex as the opening of 'How the Rhinoceros got his Skin'. Those dreadful clodhop ping screwballs the brothers Grimm get off much too lightly and the American origins of the anthology are`symbolised by the failure of any contributor to mention the names of Richmal Crompton or the various pseudonyms under which the creator of Billy Bunter masqueraded.

I was not surprised to discover the better essays have been contributed by those writers who have sometimes studied events down in the garden. In a piece dealing with the happy ending, Natalie Babitt is ingenious but entirely convincing in her suggestion that children need the encouragement to consider the possibility of their own uniqueness, which I found not surprising coming from the author ess of that charming fantasy The Search for Delicious, and there is a relentless attack by the admirable Margery Fisher on those who think that there is something to be said for the disembowelling, or "abridging", as the perpe trators call it, of Great Expectations, so that children can rush their Dickensian fences and run the risk of spoiling pleasures to come.

Another lady worth a medal is a New Yorker called Frances Clarke Sayers, who roasts Walt Disney over the slow fire of her contempt for what his factory did to Alice and Mr Toad and Badger and Wart and all the rest of them. I see that authors are getting more skilful than ever at entertaining small readers while inculcating them with the sort of attitudes which the United Nations is supposed to approve of. My four-year-old has developed a profound appreciation for Ralph Steadman's fable about co-operation and trust, The Bridge, and also for the identical themes as displayed in Bernice Myers' The Apple War. My own juvenile reading lately, performed in unison with the nine-year-old, has included a dip into an excellent anthology called The Book of Wise Animals, which will introduce many readers for the first time to Kipling, Masefield, Poe and Shakespeare, and a race through Paul Jennings' time-travel fantasy, The Train to Yesterday, which we both found a shade disappointing, my son because he found the machinery of the plot rather cumbersome, and me because my admiration for Jennings at his very best makes it difficult for me to settle for anything less than his very best. But the peak for me this year has been the E. Nesbit books issued by Penguin, some with the original illustrations, but with others sadly lacking through their absence. I find I have to explain occasional archaic terms like "getting a wigging", but the characterisation and the plots stand up superbly. Not even the heartsand-flowers dead mother and impoverished father in The Treasure Seekers can disturb the authoress's complete control over the sensibilitieg of her readers, and it is an especially

impressive feat to write about a family of five children and manage to delineate distinguishing marks of all five within a few pages.

Meanwhile, most of those chattering adults are still standing with their backs to the drawing room window, which is perhaps just as well for the peace of mind of the children downstairs in the garden, for if they caught

even a whiff of all the solemnity and pomposity which is mustered up on their behalf, they would surely run away and never be seen again. Which brings me to the one essay in Children and Literature which seems to me to define to perfection the nature of that invisible barrier standing between the adults and the children, and which only the slightly mad are able to penetrate. I refer to Walter de la Mare's famous tribute to the Alice books, which dances perilously close to the brink of archness without ever quite tumbling in. But it is not the style I am thinking about. Here is the most exquisitely-wrought paragraph in the essay, and probably in the entire anthology:

The ryhthm of sculling quiets the mind and sets the workaday wits drowsing. The low secret chuck;e of the water, the lovely light on its surface, rimpling up into those three rapt little faces, would have decoyed any imagination into activity. And Carroll's voice flowed gently on to the accompaniment of the clucking of the river, the dipping swallows and the faint stir of the wind in the branches at the water side.

An adult is someone who is more interested in the genesis of Alice in Wonderland than in Alice in Wonderland itself.