Some adults are very afraid of not being seen as grown-ups. It appears that Anthony Holden, biographer of Prince Charles and Beethoven and Whitbread Award judge, is one such. Holden is the Whitbread judge who is reported as arguing that if J K Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban won the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, it would’ send a message to the world’ that Britain refused to grow up. He went on to threaten to dissociate himself from the decision should Harry Potter win. In the event, Seamus Heaney’s translation of the Anglo-Saxon epic, Beowulf , was chosen. This was seen as a ‘safe choice’ for a book of undoubted quality but considered by many in the children’s book world and elsewhere as a disappointing and craven decision, given the extra-ordinary impact of Ms Rowling’s work.
In his pamphlet, Signs of Childness in Children’s Books *, Peter Hollindale cites the philosopher Mary Warnock’s reaction to an undergraduate who ‘preferred children’s books to other forms of mental entertainment’:
‘There is no doubt that there is an irritating feyness about the spectacle of an intelligent adult… curling up, metaphorically thumb-sucking, lost in The Secret Garden or Sara Crewe . One feels inclined to ask how they can be intelligent, if they are so ready to switch their minds off when they are not actually working.’
Hollindale comments: ‘As I write, current affairs are dominated by anxiety about the ills and crimes of children. None of the heavyweight papers I have read, nor the politicians I have listened to as a model Warnock adult, have given me remotely as intelligent an insight into these troubles as does the moving demonstration of mens sana in corpore sano, the diagnosis of psychosomatic illness, the celebration of therapeutic play, the castigation of parental neglect, the proof of redemptive power in constructive motivation, which I find in The Secret Garden . These are not simple matters, but child readers can register them, and so in more sophisticated ways could Warnock’s students.’
But if children’s literature is a way of presenting metaphors of states of feeling as well as exploring the conception of self and the possibility of imagining the selfhood of others, is this really a process that, pace Warnock and Holden, ceases to apply once adulthood is attained? The need to denigrate children’s literature as something childish or unintelligent, speaks volumes about the adults who do so who appear to need to draw a line under their emotional development when they become ‘grown-up’. By so doing they deny the lifelong process of revisiting and reframing the great developmental themes that recur throughout life and which first find external imaginative expression in literature for children.
Twenty Years of Books for Keeps
This issue of Books for Keeps marks our twentieth anniversary year and it is an opportunity for me to pay tribute to Richard Hill, its co-founder, together with Angie Hill and its designer, Alec Davis, whose tenacity and dedication have ensured that this journal has not only survived the vicissitudes of the marketplace but continues to maintain its independent stance. To mark this birthday issue we are delighted to publish an exclusive interview with Salman Rushdie on, amongst other things, his book Haroun and the Sea of Stories .
* Signs of Childness in Children’s Books by Peter Hollindale, Thimble Press, 0 903355 44 2, £8.95 from Lockwood, Station Road, Woodchester, Stroud, Glos. GL5 5EQ (tel: 01453 873716). It was reviewed in BfK 109.