Comparisons, comparisons! As BfK readers kept pointing out in their Millenium questionnaires (sent out with our May 1999 issue): ‘There are a lot of flaws in trying to compile ‘Best of’ lists.’ Of course the major one, so far as books are concerned, is that like cannot easily be compared with like even within a particular genre. At least we asked for your ‘best of’ in a number of categories. But are results like these (see The Children’s Books of the Century ) anything other than random?
BfK readers are not just ‘the public’ but people who work and/or live with children and young people and their books. The BfK questionnaire thus tell us which authors, illustrator and poets and which titles are valued by those knowledgeable about children’s literature. Interestingly, your choices correlate almost exactly with Books for Students predictions (see BfK Briefing in BfK 119) for ten titles which might still be read in 100 years time.
Roald Dahl emerges as your ‘Outstanding Writer of the 20th Century’ and C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Tolkien’s The Hobbit as two of the ‘Most Important Novels’. Fantasy then, of a sinister or escapist variety, appears to have been influential in shaping the imaginations of late twentieth century children. But there are signs that a shift away from this has already begun – Philip Pullman is your ‘Favourite Children’s Author’ and his allegoric trilogy, His Dark Materials , is of a quite different and more demanding order. As for Junk , in our Trainspotting times, teen fiction, both distinguished and undistinguished, continues to push back the boundaries to encompass social realities of an unpleasant or disturbing nature.
The Children’s Laureate, Quentin Blake, is both your ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Favourite’ illustrator’, a tribute no doubt to the wit and gaiety of his unmistakeable style as well as to his extraordinary versatility, whether it be interpreting poetry or fiction by others or creating his own distinctive picture books. Your choices of ‘Most Important Picture Book’ and ‘Novelty’ are both from US illustrators – Maurice Sendak and Eric Carle.
For poets, Michael Rosen is also both ‘Outstanding’ and ‘Favourite’ while Allan Ahlberg’s collection of poems about school life, Please Mrs Butler , is your choice of ‘Most Important Poetry Book’. Both Rosen and Ahlberg are from the ‘populist’ tradition of contemporary poetry in which a seeming simplicity of language and accessibility of subject matter is transmuted in the best of such poems into plays on words of great inventiveness and meaning. By way of contrast, The Rattlebag , your choice of ‘Most Important Anthology’, is in the ‘heritage’ tradition and already an indispensable classic.
The only book in translation amongst your winners is The Diary of Anne Frank , indeed one of seminal documents of the 20th century. Your ‘Outstanding’ non-fiction author, Terry Deary, is largely responsible for the recent growth of paperback non-fiction of an accessible, often jokey kind, in the wake of his phenomenally successful ‘Horrible Histories’.
And the 21st Century? J K Rowling got your vote. Natch.