DATES FOR YOUR DIARY:
Meet Susan Cooper
Random House Children’s Books in association with the London Home Counties Youth Libraries Group and School Libraries Group invite readers of Books for Keeps to meet novelist Susan Cooper.
Ms Cooper will be at Morley Books’ showroom, Golden Lane, London EC1 on 29 April 1993 from 6.00 pm onwards to launch her long-awaited new novel, The Boggart, published by The Bodley Head.
This is a rare opportunity to meet her and numbers are strictly limited. For further information or to reserve your place, please telephone Morley Books on 071 251 2551 by 16th April.
Robert Cormier visits UK during May
If you’d like to hear him speak, he’ll be giving the Royal Over-Seas League Literary Lecture at 7.00 pm on Wednesday, 12 May at St Andrews Hall, Over-Seas House, Park Place, St James’s Street, London SW1. Tickets: £2 members, £2.50 non-members. Further information from Wendy Cooling at the Children’s Book Foundation on 081 870 9055.
Also, on Friday, 14 May he’ll be at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, where he’ll be giving a lunchtime talk with Berlie Doherty for teenagers, teachers, librarians and booksellers. The talk begins at 1.00 pm and details can be obtained from Karen Forster on 061 833 9333.
Our Darlings versus Dennis the Menace
Nicholas Tucker on an important new exhibition
One particular battlefield in the perpetual war between adults and children is now open to visitors free at London’s Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. The issue is the nature of childhood itself, and the arena where competing definitions slug it out is Trash or Treasure, a new and permanent display drawn from 80,000 ancient and modern children’s books owned by the late Anne and Fernand Renier. As well as collecting classy children’s books, the Reniers also gave generous shelf-space to the cheaper, often discredited type of literature catering for an earthy rather than an idealised image of childhood. To that extent, the battle lines at Bethnal Green between these two opposing factions are fairly drawn up.
On the respectable side, numbers of the titles on view insist that children are sweet and lovable, or at least should always try to be. Magazines like Our Darlings feature simpering infant girls and boys posing in more ways than one. Older children are pictured in The Guide happily ‘At work on the potatoes at Butterstone Hall’. Suggested attractions on other pages include a Camp Rubbish Puzzle Competition. Of the sexual and scatological jokes that give children such pleasure there is no trace. While all the various illustrated editions of Gulliver’s Travels included pick on well-worn plot details such as his towing away of the miniature fleet, none depict the scene intrinsically most enjoyable to the young, where Gulliver extinguishes a town fire by the simple expedient of peeing on it.
Fictional animals are also shown living in an unnaturally ethereal world, where cats marry dogs and robins court wrens. When Anna Sewell’s Black Beauty (‘translated from the original equine’), writes that ‘Before I was two years old, a circumstance happened which I have never forgotten’, he is referring to his first glimpse of the hunt, not to the gelding he had to suffer. Adult humans, too, normally appear in a positive, trouble-free light. The Town Clerk (They work for us) depicts our hero in an untypically jovial mood, and there are also books about incongruously jolly policemen, farmworkers and cobblers. Only in Alan Works with Atoms is the title character too pre-occupied to beam from the cover picture at his young audience.
Children, eventually fed up with too many unreal portraits of themselves, sometimes get their revenge by turning to parody. The sentimentality of ‘Mary had a little lamb’ has made it into one of the most cruelly burlesqued of all nursery rhymes. A thwarted child can also become proficient at reading between the lines. Gulliver’s adventures may have been partly enjoyed for the sexual excitement implicit in the notion of being tied down; a thrill some adults remember feeling when reading, as children, about Tom Kitten being trussed up by Mr and Mrs Samuel Whiskers. Other children have derived more entertainment than Captain W E Johns would have wished from the title of his novel, Biggles Delivers the Goods. And in a brisk chapter on human reproduction illustrated at a would-be safe distance by examples of chicken embryos, Lord Baden-Powell describes, in Rovering to Success, how ‘The germ is born in the hen and fertilised by the cock’. One can almost hear young readers’ delighted laughter echoing down over the years.
As this new wing to the museum abundantly shows, low literature and comics eventually arose to take on these forbidden interests more directly. Children looking for violence could turn to Penny Dreadfuls like Entombed Alive or From a Dead Man’s Lips. Fairy tales, originally revived by and for folklorists, also contained gratifying references to sex and violence, plus some far from flattering pictures of adults. The giants that loom out of the older fairy story illustrations have that irascible, flushed look of adults who may like the bottle but certainly detest all children.
The modern children’s books on exhibition are now more able to accommodate both these sides of childhood. Raymond Briggs’ Fungus the Bogeyman Plop-up Book is as lavatorial as the most obsessed child could wish, and manuals of sex instructions invite children to ‘Draw a picture of your clitoris and other sexual parts’ on the blank page provided. Today’s fiction for older children comes over here as much more honest about what really goes on than the latest adult sex and shopping blockbuster. The only problem is whether enough children are still reading. Despite some enthusiastic juvenile entries in the visitor’s book, this part of the museum could well be chiefly patronised by nostalgic adults. In all too many cases, their children may be happier at home playing with their Gameboys.
Trash or Treasure
A Dip into 400 years of Children’s Books
is at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood, Cambridge Heath Road, London E2 9PA (tel: 081 980 3204). Opening times: Mondays to Thursdays and Saturday 10.00 – 18.00 (inc. Bank Holidays); Sundays 14.30 – 18.00. The Museum is closed every Friday.
Nicholas Tucker is a psychologist, critic and broadcaster. He teaches courses in psychology and children’s literature at the University of Sussex. He’s the author of The Child and the Book (CUP), a standard text on the development of children’s reading interests.