Ask a random sample of ten children’s book experts to name their Top Ten titles for today’s youngsters and the odds are there will be about ten percent overlap and ninety percent divergence. I can offer these figures pretty confidently because that’s what happened back in March when Radio 4’s Treasure Islands undertook just such an exercise.-Well might Victor Watson (see page 4) begin his article, `I was relieved that the question I have to consider is: what makes a children’s classic?-and not: what are the children’s classics?‘ As Victor makes clear, he sees his response very much as a preliminary, ground-clearing exercise rather than a final stake-out of the subject.
This said, the very improbability of. agreement makes any overlap all the more interesting so we make no apologies for the prominence of the Alice books and Treasure Island in this `Classics’ issue – titles that, by common consent, mark a turning-point in the history of writing for children. Of course, you can rely on BfK contributors to attempt an unusual angle even on these much-considered works. On page 24, Shirley Hughes examines the ‘look’ rather than the literary merits of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous adventure story while, on page 27, Julia MacRae spells out why – if the book had been submitted to her publishing house–she’d have turned it down flat. Well . . . that’s nearly what she says.
Our Authorgraph (centre-spread) offers nothing less than a World Exclusive: the only interview with Lewis Carroll on record, here offered in print for the first time ever.
Readers sceptical of its authenticity are assured – hand-on-heart and broad grin firmly in place – that the piece was submitted to us by no less an authority than Naomi Lewis who is, as everyone knows, a fairy. Need we say more?
James Riordan, on pages 14-15, admits to less exotic sources in researching his impending update of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, one of those awkward narratives which achieved its reputation as a children’s book by default – the virtual absence, at the time of publication, of stories for children at all. What his piece makes clear is why the work deserves to survive in an age that’s more than corrected the omission. For the survival of classics can’t be taken for granted. Our non-fiction Editor, Eleanor von Schweinitz, was astonished to discover that almost all the books of C Walter Hodges are currently out-of-print, including his masterpiece Shakespeare’s Theatre which she celebrates on page 22. Is there a hint here for some enterprising publisher? Or perhaps for some packager of books-and-video cassette? These days, as demonstrated by Rachel Redford’s Audio reviews on page 13, we need to look at every possible vehicle for promoting the best books for children.
In the end, though, what counts is the quality of words and images on the page. Hence Margery Fisher’s annotated selection of current classics in print, on pages 28-30, where her personal enthusiasm shines through – and her confidence that, with a little help from their friends, here are titles which can and will survive. Of course, it needs to be the right kind of help. `The classics,’ she says, `should be tossed to children as interesting food to be sampled not virtuously but as sandwiches whose fillings might surprise them.’
Amen to that.
BFK/BFC AUTUMN COMPETITION FOR SCHOOLS
Can the children in your class (minimum group size six, but no upper limit) produce two pages of BfK – a double-spread of book-related writing based on any, or all, of our regular features?
Closing Date: 30th December 1991
Entries to: Books for Keeps, 6 Brightfield Road, Lee, London SE12 8QF.
The Prizes: A selection of brand new paperbacks and hardbacks valued as follows:
Infant Winners (Years 1-2) £500 Junior Winners (Years 3-6) £500 Secondary Winners (Years 7-10) £500 Plus overall competition winner-£2000
Entries must be reducible to BfK size for future publication, but otherwise may be hand-drawn or written, typed, computer-set or some combination of all three – let the children choose! See BfK 70 (September 91), page 23, for full details or send us an s.a.e. marked `Competition’.
Winners to be announced in our March 92 issue.