Just over a quarter-century ago, John Rowe Townsend was invited by the National Book League* to put together an exhibition of ‘25 Years of British Children’s Books’ to mark the Queen’s silver jubilee. It was to be a personal choice of about 200 works of fiction, poetry and picture books by British and Commonwealth writers and artists first published during that period, and he was also to compile an annotated catalogue. But how many of his ‘golden age’ choices are still in print? John Rowe Townsend explores.
I took on the National Book League’s commission readily enough. I was then children’s books editor of the Guardian and had been involved in the field for many of the 25 years. It was an interesting time. The fifties, sixties and early seventies had brought a lot of talent into children’s books, publishers had become serious about them and appointed able editors, libraries had money, schools and colleges were becoming aware that they mattered. There was talk of a golden age. At the same time there were misgivings: how many children were actually reading these splendid books, and were there not issues, such as race, class and gender, that were not being properly addressed?
This uncertainty was the background to my choice, but couldn’t much affect it. The exhibition was retrospective; I had to look at what existed rather than what might have existed or might exist in the future. The criterion was literary or artistic merit, combined with accessibility to young readers. As no two people would ever make quite the same choices, I expected some disagreement, but there wasn’t much. The only adverse comment I can remember came from Brian Alderson, who objected that I had included books from both 1952 and 1977, and therefore covered 26 years, not 25.
The exhibition, so far as I could judge, was a success, and the catalogue sold out. Life moved on. But a few weeks ago, looking for something else, I came across a copy and was struck by the closing remarks of my introduction, which speculated on how many of the books in this exhibition would still be around in a further 25 years’ time: that was, in the year 2002. I had guessed about 10 or 12 per cent and added: ‘That, I think, would be quite a respectable figure. There is a practical limit to the number of books that can remain current. Most must die, to make room for their successors.’
Well, now we know which of these books were still in print at the end of 2002. And my guess was way out. If correct it would have produced a figure of about 20 or 25. Actually, of the 211 books in the exhibition, 87 had survived. That is over 40 per cent: a remarkable proportion, considering that all these survivors were at least 25 years old and some were pushing 50. Many of us complain about the short-term horizons of modern publishing, but there’s nothing short-term about that.
A varied pattern of survival
Looking at the survivors, and also at those that didn’t survive, shows a very varied pattern. Among creators of picture-books, the big names of the sixties and seventies – Blake, Briggs, Burningham, Hughes, and others – are still big names today; no surprises there. Rosie, in Pat Hutchins’s Rosie’s Walk (1968), struts her stuff across the page, a classic now. Edward Ardizzone is still around, represented in my selection by Tim All Alone (1956), last in the series that began back in 1936 with Little Tim and the Brave Sea Captain. But a sad casualty is Brian Wildsmith’s ABC (1962), which by its richness of colour and boldness of treatment struck a new and resounding note in picture-books. And gone are all three of the vivid picture-books by Charles Keeping that I chose: Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary (1967), Through the Window (1970) and Railway Passage (1974).
The weakest area of the 25-year period seemed at the time to be that of fiction for the middle age-group of children; the sevens to tens or elevens. And writing well for readers with limited experience and vocabulary is no easy trick. All the more credit, I thought, to those who achieved it. Among my choices, and still in print now, were Catherine Storr’s Adventures of Polly and the Wolf (1957), Ted Hughes’s The Iron Man (1968), Michael Bond’s A Bear Called Paddington (1958), Helen Cresswell’s The Piemakers (1967), Clive King’s Stig of the Dump (1963), Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians (1956), and – included with gritted teeth, because although brilliantly successful it was a book I personally disliked – Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Fiction for over-elevens – mainly novels – used to be divided, in my days as a review editor, for convenience into three broad categories: novels of present-day life, historical novels, and fantasy. In putting together the exhibition, I didn’t classify, simply including in alphabetical order of author the books I thought should be included. But looking at the catalogue now, I wondered how each of these groups had got on.
Fantasy, real life and historical fiction
And there is no doubt about which has come off best. It’s fantasy. By my count, 52 of the 211 books I chose can be described as fantasy, and 34 of them (two thirds) are still in print. Some of these are by now established classics: Mary Norton’s The Borrowers (1952), Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden (1958), Russell Hoban’s The Mouse and His Child (1969), not to mention books by Lucy Boston, Alan Garner, Penelope Lively, and quite a few others.
Stories of real life have a problem in competition with fantasy: the more accurately they represent contemporary manners, morals and ways of speech, the more likely it is that they will become dated. And realistic fiction was rare in the early years of the period. I counted 24 survivors, which is quite a good tally. Among them are Bernard Ashley’s The Trouble with Donovan Croft (1974), Sylvia Sherry’s A Pair of Jesus-Boots (1975) and Jan Mark’s Thunder and Lightnings (1976). But rather more of the real-life books have gone out of print (27) than have survived.
The real shock comes with the fate of books about the past. The traditional historical novel, in which a young protagonist’s endeavours and adventures are set against a background of actual historical events, seems to have crashed. Only three out of my choice of more than twenty books set in times before World War II are still in print: Rosemary Sutcliff’s classic The Eagle of the Ninth (1954), Cynthia Harnett’s The Load of Unicorn (1959) and K M Peyton’s Flambards (1967). But World War II, well within living memory in 1977, is now history and adds a handful more, with books like Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War (1973) and Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners (1975). Few of the Commonwealth writers I chose have stayed the course, and I was sad to find three good books by Australian Ivan Southall all out of print. Others by Margaret Mahy, a New Zealander, and C Everard Palmer from the West Indies are still around.
Poetry was rather thinly represented in the exhibition, which aimed to highlight new original work by individuals, not anthologies. Of the books included, most are still in print: Charles Causley’s Figgie Hobbin (1970), the Complete Poems for Children of James Reeves (1973), and two cheerfully disrespectful books of verse: Meet My Folks! by Ted Hughes (1961) and Mind Your Own Business by Michael Rosen (1974).
Obviously the books mentioned here, and the rest of the 87 survivors, are drawn from a limited pool. There are many more books by the same authors, and by authors who didn’t happen to be chosen by me, that are still alive and kicking. And that is to say nothing of the even older stalwarts from more than fifty years back. I’m glad there is life in the old timers yet. Modern children haven’t stopped needing them. Long may they stay around.
John Rowe Townsend is an author and critic.
* Now Booktrust.
Watership Down (Richard Adams)
Arabel’s Raven (Joan Aiken)
A Necklace of Raindrops (Joan Aiken)
The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (Joan Aiken)
Tim All Alone (Edward Ardizzone)
The Trouble with Donovan Croft (Bernard Ashley)
Carrie’s War (Nina Bawden)
The Peppermint Pig (Nina Bawden)
The Wombles (Elisabeth Beresford)
Patrick (Quentin Blake)
A Bear Called Paddington (Michael Bond)
A Stranger at Green Knowe (Lucy M Boston)
The Children of Green Knowe (Lucy M Boston)
Jim and the Beanstalk (Raymond Briggs)
Mr Gumpy’s Outing (John Burningham)
Humbert (John Burningham)
Figgie Hobbin (Charles Causley)
The Guardians (John Christopher)
The Twelve and the Genii (Pauline Clarke)
The Dark is Rising (Susan Cooper)
The Piemakers (Helen Cresswell)
James and the Giant Peach (Roald Dahl)
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (Roald Dahl)
My Naughty Little Sister (Dorothy Edwards)
Charlotte Sometimes (Penelope Farmer)
Spaces Hostages (Nicholas Fisk)
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (Ian Fleming)
The Summer After the Funeral (Jane Gardam)
Jack Holborn (Leon Garfield)
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (Alan Garner)
The Owl Service (Alan Garner)
Elidor (Alan Garner)
The House on the Brink (John Gordon)
The Load of Unicorn (Cynthia Harnett)
Bedtime for Frances (Russell Hoban)
How Tom Beat Captain Najork and His Hired Sportsmen (Russell Hoban)
The Mouse and His Child (Russell Hoban)
The Overland Launch (C Walter Hodges)
Helpers (Shirley Hughes)
The Iron Man (Ted Hughes)
Meet My Folks! (Ted Hughes)
The Sound of Chariots (Mollie Hunter)
Rosie’s Walk (Pat Hutchins)
Power of Three (Diana Wynne Jones)
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Judith Kerr)
Stig of the Dump (Clive King)
The Last Battle (C S Lewis)
A Stitch in Time (Penelope Lively)
The House in Norham Gardens (Penelope Lively)
The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (Penelope Lively)
Master of Morgana (Allan Campbell McLean)
The Man Whose Mother Was a Pirate (Margaret Mahy)
A Lion in the Meadow (Margaret Mahy)
Thunder and Lightnings (Jan Mark)
Uncle Red Fox (J Percival Martin)
A Year and a Day (William Mayne)
Earthfasts (William Mayne)
Ravensgill (William Mayne)
The Goalkeeper’s Revenge (Bill Naughton)
The Borrowers (Mary Norton)
The Thirteen Days of Christmas (Jenny Overton)
The Cloud with the Silver Lining (C Everard Palmer)
Big Doc Bitteroot (C Everard Palmer)
What the Neighbours Did and Other Stories (Philippa Pearce)
Mrs Cockle’s Cat (Philippa Pearce)
A Dog So Small (Philippa Pearce)
Tom’s Midnight Garden (Philippa Pearce)
Flambards (K M Peyton)
A Pattern of Roses (K M Peyton)
Complete Poems for Children (James Reeves)
When Marnie Was There (Joan G Robinson)
Mind Your Own Business (Michael Rosen)
A Pair of Jesus-Boots (Sylvia Sherry)
The Hundred and One Dalmatians (Dodie Smith)
Adventures of Polly and the Wolf (Catherine Storr)
Marianne Dreams (Catherine Storr)
Thursday’s Child (Noel Streatfeild)
Marassa and Midnight (Morna Stuart)
The Eagle of the Ninth (Rosemary Sutcliff)
The Lord of the Rings (J R R Tolkien)
Gumble’s Yard (John Rowe Townsend)
The Intruder (John Rowe Townsend)
The Elephant and the Bad Baby (Elfrida Vipont)
Fireweed (Jill Paton Walsh)
Goldengrove (Jill Paton Walsh)
The Machine Gunners (Robert Westall)
I Own the Racecourse (Patricia Wrightson)