Critical commentary on books for children has taken a long time to establish itself as a distinctive sphere where different kinds of judgements: historical, social, cultural and political, in addition to what counts as literary and textual, may mix and meld. When in 1987, Margaret Rustin, a consultant child psychoanalyst, and Michael Rustin, a sociologist, brought their specialized insights to bear on particular texts that deal with the emotional development of children, they said the books they chose had ‘rarely been given the critical analysis they deserve’. Margaret Meek welcomes the long overdue reprint of the Rustins’ seminal book, Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction.
When Narratives of Love and Loss was first published it was Adèle Geras who commented on the way the Rustins had displayed ‘the importance of fiction in all our lives and the way in which it can help us to understand ourselves, our children, our innermost feelings and the worlds we all inhabit as social beings’.
Narratives of Love and Loss has been out of print for some time. A generation of students of children’s literature may have missed these close, careful and detailed readings of books generally regarded as distinctive texts in children’s literature in English. Most of them were written at the time of literary resurgence after the Second World War, when the psychological understandings of childhood were also affecting notions of child development and education. Now the book is back with the original text intact: an Introduction to the authors’ views on the ‘deep structures’ of children’s fiction, followed by readings of three groups of stories. The first has Tom’s Midnight Garden, the stories of Narnia, and Five Children and It, novels in which children are separated from their parents. The second group has four stories for young children, including The Dolls’ House by Rumer Godden. The others are The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks, A Dog So Small and The Battle of Bubble and Squeak by Philippa Pearce and Charlotte’s Web by E B White, all of which are linked in terms of the nature of children’s imaginative play. The third group, in which are: Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child, Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War and three stories by Paula Fox, deals with children’s encounters with the world outside their immediate families. The novelty in this revised edition is a postscript chapter on ‘The Inner World of Harry Potter’, which, in the views of the Rustins, shares with the stories they wrote about earlier, ‘a combination of imaginative creativity, with a sense of emotional “realism”’.
The Rustins also say that ‘the multivalent depth of meaning of these stories goes a long way to account for their outstanding quality’. At the same time they insist that they are not making a selection of ‘best writing’, nor creating a series of case studies. Their main concern is to join the insights of their professional expertise to their admiration for authors who tap into the emotional development of their readers. The writers say that their chosen authors have imagined situations and persons as if they were real, and claim that their commentaries are an extension of ordinary readers’ responses to works of fiction. My view is that they offer protocols of a particular kind of interpretation. They are experts in that skill, who invite their readers to read with them as they examine the nature and quality of the authors’ imagination and language. It is a very stimulating and profitable exercise.
One of the narrative devices examined in relation to children’s play is the creation of miniature worlds, where the change of scale lets the children’s author create metaphors for young readers to explore a wider, imaginary environment within the here-and-now of their lives. Godden’s doll characters give voice to their feelings in words which are new to young readers. In commenting on The Borrowers, where Arietty longs to enter a wider world than the one below the skirting boards, the Rustins find a rich resource of both social and psychological details to uphold their central arguments. Their detailed analysis of Mary Norton’s achievements in creating, from British cultural conventions, two parallel worlds and the boundaries between them, is particularly insightful.
The Rustins are equally at home with American stories of this same period. They are sure that it is possible for young readers to see, in imaginary, fictive worlds, the nature and workings of actual societies. In The Mouse and His Child, an epic allegory of immigrant homelessness, the incapacitated ‘wind-ups’ have no ‘territory’ to call their own. Throughout their frightening encounters with Manny Rat, a character from more ancient kinds of fairy tale, the Child exhibits the confidence and hopeful imagination that wins out in New World literature. While it is certain that young readers will empathize with the core notion of finding a home to belong to, Michael Rustin (I guess it is he) doubts whether the more oblique social and cultural references in the text come within the experiential range of readers under ten.
In discussing Charlotte’s Web, a story that unites generations of American readers, the Rustins concentrate on the part that language, notably dialogue, but also writing, plays in creating the tone and intellectual substratum of the text. Charlotte’s web-writing and her rounded speech forms are woven into the plot and the conflicts of the characters. Charlotte is seen as a ‘20th-century heroine’, by virtue of her ability ‘to respond through creative mental effort to the needs of her infants’. In contrast, the more dangerous situation of the boy in The Slave Dancer, presented here with its terrifying details of the trade in human beings, showed me how much of the sheer pain of the story I had, perhaps deliberately, forgotten, while the family conflicts of Carrie’s War were still easily recalled as I set my recollections of the plight of evacuees alongside the Rustins’ comprehensive interpretation of separation.
J K Rowling’s stories of Harry Potter are an up-to-date example of the kind of writing that first attracted the Rustins in the ’80s to explore the portrayal of the development of children’s inner lives in fiction. In their new chapter they admire the reinvention of earlier forms of fantasy writing, particularly the two co-existing worlds of Wizards and Muggles that Rowling has created, on Umberto Eco’s model, ‘down to the slightest detail’. They also commend the ways by which she recruits the imagination of her readers by calling up their memories of stories they have heard, seen or read, and giving them imaginative freedom to respond in ways already made familiar by the ‘special effects deployed in films and other media’.
The Rustins’ reading links the books as evidence of Harry Potter’s growth from the tentative new boy at Hogwarts to the experienced character who is bound to engage with the conflicting forces of good and evil. As an orphan, he is involved with both adults and his contemporaries as forces of support or threat. The strongest focus of the Rustins’ analysis is on the ‘richness and emotional power’ that lies in Rowling’s empathy with children’s unconscious emotional life. Their social awareness reveals how her images ‘condense sharp social commentary’. The example is the ‘sorting hat’, which allots new boys at Hogwarts to appropriate school houses in terms of their nature and potential, a kind of judgement that ‘is different from selection by family money, the geography of a city, and SATS results’.
The reappearance of this book fills a gap that we may not have noticed in recent writing about children’s books: their actual contribution to the maturation process of their readers. We may have become more adept in describing narrative structures than following authors in their explorations of what needs to be renewed in our understanding of young readers. The Rustins have taken up the challenge again at an important time.
Margaret Meek is Emeritus Reader at the University of London Institute of Education.
Narratives of Love and Loss: Studies in Modern Children’s Fiction by Margaret Rustin and Michael Rustin is published by Karnac Books (revised edition 2001, 312pp, 1 85575 269 7, £22.50 pbk).