I’m not going to explore what makes a classic children’s book – this is best saved for a university essay, but there is a wealth of children’s literature which is universally recognised as being the classical canon. Whether it’s the Victorian/Edwardian canon of The Railway Children, The Secret Garden or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or the 1950’s canon of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Charlotte’s Web, these books have something in common. They endure through the ages, they are well written with quality narrative and most of them can be read on two levels – the basic story childhood level, such as children stepping through a wardrobe into a fantastical land, or into a secret garden, but if you care to look you will find them imbued with deeper meaning, such as the allegory of Christ as Aslan in Narnia, or the motif of the Garden of Eden before the fall in the grounds of Misselthwaite Manor in The Secret Garden.
I was recently inspired to write on classic children’s books by two events. One, the currently trending #2015classicschallenge on http://theprettybooks.wordpress.com/2014/12/27/2015-classics-challenge/ , which if you are inclined to social media you should look at, but mainly by my trip to the theatre at Kings Cross to see E Nesbit’s The Railway Children.
Although many adults may balk at the ‘prison’ spying storyline for little ones, in essence the story starts with a miscarriage of justice. Even the five year old who accompanied me to the theatre fully understood that premise – many a time they have been ill accused of a misdemeanour at home when in fact someone else was to blame. The bulk of the story revolves around neat little incidents as the children get used to their new home in Yorkshire alongside the railway line, befriending the locals and helping out, particularly Mr Perks, the stationmaster, and the children’s endless optimism fires each adventure. E Nesbit’s books are always beautifully full of hope. The older children to whom I read the story both commented on how neatly and satisfyingly all the storylines come together in the end. And they couldn’t get over the mother’s utterance:
“Jam OR butter, dear – not jam AND butter. We can’t afford that sort of reckless luxury nowadays!”
In fact reading classics aloud to children aged between six and 10 (or any age) is in itself enormously satisfying. They often see it very differently from how you remember the story. One thing I’ve always tried to do is to use illustrated classics. Although the e-reader has its place (as I’ve said before) I haven’t heard of any parent (yet) using this to read aloud to their child at bedtime. So many of the illustrated classics allow the children an insight into a tale that is usually set a long time ago and can be quite a leap in the imagination. A small drawing can do wonders and start the ball rolling in their own imaginations. Pick carefully though as the illustrations can stick in the mind for many years. One set I’ve used many times is those illustrated by the great Robert Ingpen. His imaginings of Peter Pan and Wendy by J. M. Barrie are quite startling, and a long way from Disney. Be warned, the story too is a long way from Disney. In fact, our perceptions of the classics may be somewhat different from the reality as we read them as children ourselves and memory can be shapeshifting. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain has ceased to be taught in schools in the US as it contains the ‘n’ word more than 200 times, although of course this was widely accepted when published in 1884, and I don’t remember it being a huge issue when I was a child (no age reveal here though!) The language in Peter Pan is quite difficult and dated, and the undercurrent of sexuality and frustrated loneliness in the boy who never grows up is never far from the surface. Of all the classics I’ve reread with children, this was the only one where I wished I’d stuck to an abridged version.
Other beautiful illustrations are those of Angela Barrett for The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, although I have shown the cover version illustrated by Charles Robinson, another fine illustrator, as it is easier to purchase. The language here is not difficult, only reading aloud those Yorkshire accents for we Londoners, and is quite captivating from the start:
“When Mary Lennox was sent to Misselthwaite Manor to live with her uncle, everybody said she was the most disagreeable-looking child ever seen.”
The characters in The Secret Garden are loveable and sympathetic despite the fact that sometimes (like us all) they can be quite selfish and stubborn. This is a beautiful story of how Mary, and her cousin Colin, despite their disagreeable misfortunes, come in time to recognise the beauty around them and to embrace it, eventually bringing warmth and friendship to the cold harsh Yorkshire household in which they live. It has magic and darkness and timeless quality. In my 1983 Octopus Books edition, there are full page colour illustrations every so often which highlight a particular phrase from the book:
“She put the key in and turned it” illustrates the door to the garden but doesn’t quite let you see inside – that is left magically for your own imagination.
Of course a book will always conjure slightly different impressions depending on the age at which you read it – and perhaps the person reading it to you, but one book that never fails to delight – even amongst five year olds who don’t really get it – is Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. This I read in any version that sticks to the original illustrations by Sir John Tenniel. No one else can illustrate the Queen in quite the same way:
“The Queen turned crimson with fury, and, after glaring at her for a moment like a wild beast, began screaming ‘Off with her head! Off-“
It’s a fantastical, subversive adventure where nothing really makes sense, but it should make you laugh. Also written as a satirical viewpoint on Victorian life, people hurtling to keep up with the industrialisation and inventions of the time, and the autocratic behaviour of the queen, there is no end to the depth of the Alice books. However, reading it to children introduces them to fantasy and ‘wonder’ and hopefully will invest them with a sense of the possibilities of literature.
As I said before it’s not just literature from more than 100 years ago. Puffin Modern Classics have cited as classics both the The Sheep-Pig by Dick King Smith, and The Demon Headmaster by Gillian Cross, as well as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.
But a literary culture is always fluid. Will Harry Potter last as The Railway Children has, and be the ultimate children’s classic of our time? The past couple of years has seen a growing chorus of new children’s literature that demands to be read– including Five Children on the Western Front by Kate Saunders, see my review here – and The Last Wild by Piers Torday (soon to be reviewed). This year too is filled with promise. The question is which titles will endure?