The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English
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The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English
Since policy these days has to be made in triplicate, the slogan for literary guides must surely be 'analysis, analysis, analysis'. What group of readers is being addressed? What are the subjects that they may expect to find and how will those subjects be subdivided? How too will each entry be constructed in respect of factual information, editorial comment, and the clarification of relationships to other entries? What attention is to be paid to supplementary guidance in the way of introductory explanations, captioned illustrations, bibliographies, indexes etc?
Where your guide is on a clearly delimited subject and is edited by authorities thereon (eg. Lofts & Adley's Men Behind Boys' Fiction, 1970) any problems that arise will be largely mechanical. When however you choose 'children's books in English' and determine that your timescale will stretch from the present century back to Alfred, two Aelfrics, and the Venerable Bede (did they really write in English?) then you may have problems of control. These are exacerbated if you decide to include types of material that range from comics and baby books to young adult fiction, and from technical terms (claymation; recontextualisation etc.) to adaptations in various media, and that your geographical coverage will stretch to all relevant quarters of the globe. The intellectual demands of kneading all that stuff into a conformable whole are immense and, as editor-in-chief, Victor Watson has not made things any easier for himself by farming out American and Oceanic affairs to two sub-editors on whose expertise he seems to have placed complete reliance and by taking on submissions from something like 250 contributors. This was going to sea in a sieve with a vengeance.
The editorial problems posed by so gigantic a project necessarily entail equivalent problems for anyone trying to assess the result. I have already expressed strictures on the book's wayward and often ineffectual treatment of historical aspects* and I fear that the same adjectives must apply to its entries on more recent events which are probably of more interest to readers of BfK. How though can this be fairly exemplified in the limited space available?
The short answer is to point to the wholesale lack of consistency in the carrying out of the sort of editorial decisions noted at the start of this review. So far as recent children's books are concerned, it is tempting to suggest that the material has been prepared for readers of no great knowledge or experience of the subject but who wnat to find out more information on matters which have caught their attention - facts about authors, or illustrators, or individual books, or genres of book etc ... Satisfaction, though, cannot be guaranteed. For one thing, what they want may not be there. I'm not just thinking of many incomprehensible omissions of authors, illustrators or titles (alas, Captain Slaughterboard, who appeared as a classic in BfK, puts down no anchor here), but rather of the way in which corners are cut with the items which are included. I noted this too in BfK, when I mentioned the crummy treatment of Joyce L Brisley, but that example was symptomatic of what happens when no clear policy exists over giving authors single entries, containing all information regarded by the Editor (often erroneously) as needful; giving author rubrics, which direct you to articles not on the author but on series written by him/her (Jacques; see Redwall); and author entries which spawn multiple separate entries on individual works. (How is this determined though? Half-a-dozen of Anthony Browne's picture books receive individual entries but only one of Charles Keeping's - who is a much more demanding and serious artist. Almost all Alan Garner's stories are given a full buff-and-shine, while his towering colleagues - so much more diverse - Peter Dickinson, William Mayne, Jill Paton Walsh - are shuffled off with embarrassing haste.)
The failure to mention, let alone discuss, major works from these authors (The Blue Hawk, A Game of Dark, Goldengrove) is a token too of the erratic critical dimensions of the book. Victor Watson shows himself in a number of articles to be a critic of keen, but not necessarily succinct, perceptions. These virtues however are double-edged for they also reveal a willingness to privilege some material unaccountably over much else (three columns for The Borrowers?) and they show up the often threadbare efforts of many of his less talented contributors. Indeed, the gallant gesture towards oecumenism, which has necessitated delegating editorial control, has resulted in a fair cargo of the 'blandly descriptive' writing which Mr Watson was anxious to avoid. (Incidentally, readers unfamiliar with the growth of independent traditions in children's literature beyond our shores should have been supplied with 'national' summaries into which the likes of Brian Doyle, Colin Thiele and dozens more could be fitted. Is it not discrimination to give us articles on Afro-American or Maori literature for children and not American-American, or Australian, or New Zealandian?)
Much else disappoints. The boasted inclusion of mateial on 'contextual' topics is at best patchy - with illustration and book publishing particularly ill-served. What of the Children's Book Circle which is much more than just another society but is emblematic of a huge shift in public perceptions? Patrick Hardy, Grace Hogarth, Julia MacRae, Judy Taylor, Sebastian Walker ... you have lived in vain. The internal cross-referencing is half-baked (there is no other form of indexing) and the omission of bibliographical references is a disgrace. Hang it all, one of the functions of a guide is to direct your attention to where you can discover more if you want to. There is no help here; the Jumblies should not trust themselves to such a sieve.
NB Most examples here have been drawn from 'British' entries in the Guide. From my passing experience of US children's books I perceive that many similar defects can be found in the coverage of that nation's production.
(Part of the judges' statements for the Harvey Darton Award in Newsletter 72 (April 2002) of the Children's Books History Society pp7-8.)