What is a ‘classic’ children’s book? Should adults or children decide … or some combination of the two, perhaps, assisted by that most unpredictable of literary SATs, the Test of Time? We’ll be considering classic’ status and what it entails for a text in a special issue of BfK later this year. The reason I raise the matter now is that Lynne Reid Banks, the subject of this month’s Authorgraph, may well have written one.
No, not The L-Shaped Room. Hugely popular in schools though this continues to be, is it really a novel for children? A much better case could be made for The Indian in the Cupboard, first published in the UK in 1981 and now re-issued in paperback by Collins along with its sequels, Return of the Indian and The Secret of the Indian (see our front cover).
Margaret and Michael Rustin, writing about the trilogy’s first volume in their Narratives of Love and Loss (Verso 1987), insist it’s ‘of a quality to stand with the very best classic children’s books’ and go on to tell us why. It’s a pretty convincing argument. For a more down-to-earth view, though, see our centre pages where Lynne Reid Banks discusses this, and her other fiction, with Stephanie Nettell. ‘Writers work intuitively,’ she points out. `When I read long treatises about Omri being a substitute parent, enabling children to recognise the responsible caring role. I’m pop-eyed! I’ve discovered I do include messages in my books only because teachers arc always looking for them, but I simply aim to keep the narrative moving and the characters developing.’
Still, as our Authorgraph makes clear. there’s a teacherly side to Lynne Reid Banks as well. Perhaps it exists in all children’s authors, even those who deny it most hotly. Certainly a growing number of teacher-writers (or are they writer-teachers?) produce much eye-catching poetry and prose for today’s youngsters- from established talents like Wes Magee to comparative newcomers like David Leney or BfK‘s own Linda Newbery. So what’s the link between the two occupations? Do they feed off each other? Conflict with each other? Simply, or complexly, overlap?
Perhaps the best-known figure to lead this arduous double-life is Bernard Ashley. For an account of what’s involved, and how he copes with it, see pages 4-5 which give the background to his new series called ‘The Dockside School Stories’. Writers and teachers will find plenty there they recognise.
They’ll also recognise the force of Peter Dixon’s argument on page 21 where he exercises his ‘Writer Reply’ concerning an issue that’s beset children’s books from their very beginning: do they exist to enlighten or to entertain? Anyone who knows Peter’s own verse for children, or who has attended one of his famous courses on Art Education, will have encountered the Dixon Doctrine at first hand. Others had better be warned – especially if they’re of a nervous disposition.
Chris Sutcliffe and Steve Rosson are also familiar with what might be called the rude-in-tooth-and-claw aspect of childhood. On page 22, Chris writes about his pupils’ experience of judging last year’s Smarties Prize, with its attendant trip to the Big City, and the impact this had not just on his secondary school but on its ‘feeder’ primaries, too. And on page 23, Steve lays out the sort of information about being a school-librarian which never appears in a job advertisement. I first read this with a steadily arching eyebrow… till, halfway through, I realised… well, find out for yourselves.
Apart from their sense of humour and relish for children as they really are, Messrs Sutcliffe and Rosson share one other attribute that’s dear, I hope, to all readers of BfK: an uncomplicated love of books. So does the BBC’s Joan Griffiths. Teachers everywhere praise her hugely successful ‘Listening and Reading’ series on Schools Radio – but do they ever wonder what lies ‘Behind the Microphone’? Joan explains on pages 16-17.
Puffin’s Liz Attenborough rather likes books, too. Better than most, though, she knows they don’t grow on trees or spring fully-formed onto the shelf unencumbered by prior expenditure. That’s why she wrote in protest to BfK about our reviewers’ occasional carping at current prices. ‘Do they realise the costs involve?’ she asked. ‘Maybe not,’ replied your trusty Editor. ‘Why don’t you tell us?’ So she does, on pages 18-19. It’s essential data for everyone who chooses to confront the ever-shrinking book-budgets in our schools and libraries and the ever-handy alibi that it’s new books themselves which are somehow to blame.
Mind you, there are now fifty-or-so picture hooks which will have no trouble at all returning a profit, albeit, in some cases, belatedly. Bookshops everywhere report bonanza-time for the NFER’s tried-and-tested, or do we mean try-on-and-soon-to-be-tested, Ready Readers for the National Curriculum. Yes, BfK does have a view on this matter. And no, we’re not rushing to judgement before the official package arrives in March… but watch this space.