Aubrey alerted me this weekend to a valuable and beautifully written article on literature for children. I am a lover of children's books old and new (yes, there are some good new ones) and I love reading reviews and opinions of the genre and of individual works. So I'm delighted to recommend this rather lengthy survey of the elements which make good children's literature.
Sometimes a book is in the canon of children’s literature just because the writing is so good. Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, for instance, stands as the perfection of its kind: a prose of greeny gold, of summer recollected in autumn’s light. Rudyard Kipling, too, has the perfect sort of prose for what he does. From Kim to The Just So Stories to The Jungle Book, he paints the strange new world of India in strange new Indian words—none of them quite defined, but all of them given exactly enough context that the child reader can feel the satisfaction of puzzling them out.
Then, too, certain books are remembered simply because they have an ideal premise. When William Golding won the Nobel Prize in 1983, it was mostly for the power of his 1954 novel Lord of the Flies. And there’s a reason that he based the book on (and made a horror story out of) R.M. Ballantyne’s 1857 feel-good children’s classic, The Coral Island. Ballantyne couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag, but The Coral Island reaches up to the platonic forms of childhood’s daydreams for its setting of boys alone on a desert island.
For that matter, think of Frances Hodgson Burnett—an author with a sensibility so delicate (and a father-fixation so indelicate) that any rational child would smash a window after reading her, desperate for air. But Burnett’s 1905 A Little Princess nonetheless succeeds as a story, because it provides a room where its natural readers’ fantasies can dwell, as the heroine—a little girl, bookish and mistreated—turns out to be the long-lost heir of a large fortune and the ward of an older man who pampers and, ah, yes, understands her.
Meanwhile, sheer liveliness of invention can make a book a classic, one set-piece tripping so rapidly on the heels of another that you don’t bother noticing how good or bad the story actually is: Around the World in 80 Days, for instance, and The Peterkin Papers; Black Beauty and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, too, different as they are. Good illustrations, as well, sometimes push a book into the canon. I’ve always thought Babar the Elephant was raised above its station by Jean de Brunhoff’s drawings, but the Little Bear books may be the prime example: Else Minarik’s discardable words are not much more than placeholders for the young Maurice Sendak’s art.
There's a taste. If you love this genre as we do, go read the whole thing. Aubrey and I both have some disagreements with the author (and not necessarily the same ones) but we loved the way it made us think about our own loves and dislikes.
Are there "classics" that you don't like at all? Or children's books that you think should be classics?