As public money for library spending began to be curtailed in the 1970s, publishers could no longer rely on steady library sales for their output. ‘Bottom line’ thinking began to rule. Meanwhile new social forces were also beginning to influence what was published for children. John Rowe Townsend explains.
In the 1960s the ‘second golden age’ of children’s books was still in being, but might with hindsight be better described as an Indian summer. The economic climate was still favourable; new writers and artists were emerging and were able to make careers out of working for the children’s lists. The criterion was literary or artistic merit. ‘Quality’ British books could expect to be published additionally in the United States, where the children’s editors were Anglophile almost to a woman and powerful enough to publish what they chose. In the early 1970s, recession hit both countries. Book prices went up but library budgets did not; printing runs grew shorter and it became harder to keep books in print. Eventually the recession lifted, but the halcyon days were gone. Books were a commercial product, the ‘bottom line’ became more and more the test, and short-term approaches ruled.
At the same time, social considerations were coming into play and the content and ambience of children’s books were being questioned. It had already been pointed out, by teachers and many others, that the traditional fictional family of white middle-class parents and two or three children was by no means universal, that children’s books with working-class settings were rare and that characters with black or brown faces were conspicuously absent. Realism, although the dominant mode in the United States, had been rather looked down upon in Britain: ‘The majority of genuine writers when writing for children turn instinctively to fantasy,’ remarked one commentator, ‘leaving the story of everyday life, with rare exceptions, to the second-rater.’
A few books with working-class settings appeared in the 1960s: Frederick Grice’s The Bonnie Pit Laddie in 1960, Bill Naughton’s The Goalkeeper’s Revenge in 1961, my own Gumble’s Yard in the same year, and Sylvia Sherry’s A Pair of Jesus Boots in 1969; and these scattered forerunners were to be followed by the socially concerned work, among others, of Bernard Ashley and Jan Needle. Nina Bawden, already an established adult novelist, turned to writing for children in the 1960s, and in A Handful of Thieves (1967) and many later books wrote with refreshing naturalness and shrewd insight about the adventures of ordinary children in (mostly) everyday settings.
Racism and Sexism
A great deal of heat was generated in the 1960s and early 1970s by charges and denials of racism in children’s books. The world has moved on since then; the debate on racial representation and portrayal continues, but (as recent correspondence in BfK indicates) in a generally temperate and constructive mood. One complaint which was undoubtedly justified was that British children’s books were failing to reflect an increasingly multicultural society. White writers and their publishers hesitated to enter what was seen as a minefield, though a few (Bernard Ashley with his first book, The Trouble with Donovan Croft in 1974, Marjorie Darke with The First of Midnight in 1977, and one or two others) stepped in and were not blown up.
A satisfactory solution to this problem however required the emergence of black writers and artists. Petronella Breinburg and Errol Lloyd were early arrivals on the scene as author and illustrator of the picture-books My Brother Sean in 1973 and Sean’s Red Bike (1975), and Errol Lloyd went it alone with his high-spirited Nini at Carnival in 1978. Arguably the most vigorous realism to be found in the 1970s was in Farrukh Dhondy’s story collections about mixed communities in East End at Your Feet (1976) and Come to Mecca (1978).
The winds of change that whistled through the 1960s and 1970s also included the demands of feminists for equal treatment of girl characters in children’s books and for the questioning of old sexist attitudes. Here again the world has moved on. My impression is that the campaigners won a clear victory, as can be seen by looking at the books around you today. Dominant or condescending fathers and brothers are hard to find except as figures of ridicule; women and girls are strong and self-reliant and are as likely as males to have the hero’s role. How far corresponding changes have as yet taken place in society is another question.
Historical Fiction and Fantasy
The genres of children’s literature in which British writers had traditionally excelled – historical novels and fantasy – survived in the chillier atmosphere that succeeded the golden age, but it was harder for new entrants to make their way, and much of the best work of the later 1970s and the 1980s was done by the established generation. Barbara Willard completed, with The Keys of Mantlemass in 1981, her sequence of novels that had begun eleven years earlier with The Lark and the Laurel and was set in the Sussex weald in the troubled times between the Wars of the Roses and the English Civil War.
In A Parcel of Patterns (1983), Jill Paton Walsh told the story of the Derbyshire village of Eyam, which heroically isolated itself to prevent the spread of the Plague in 1665. Peter Carter’s The Sentinels (1980) grappled with the murky realities of the last days of the slave trade; Ann Schlee’s Ask Me No Questions (1976) was concerned with indifference to sick and starving children in a Victorian institution for paupers, and Susan Price made her name as a very young writer with Twopence a Tub (1975) about the hardships of mining families in a pit strike. Geraldine McCaughrean’s A Little Lower than the Angels (1987), in which a boy plays an ambiguously angelic part in a troop of travelling players, presented a kaleidoscopic view of medieval England. Sadly, it has become more difficult for historical fiction to get published, and if published to stay in print.
Fantasy went through a prolonged post-Tolkien phase, and many ‘secondary worlds’ were created. No British writer equalled the ‘Earthsea’ quartet of the American Ursula Le Guin, which began with A Wizard of Earthsea in 1968 and was completed after a long gap by Tehanu in 1990. Diana Wynne Jones however created several such worlds, the most ingenious probably being the parallel England of Charmed Life (1977) and succeeding books about the master-enchanter ‘Cat’ Chant. Penelope Lively wrote a brilliant comic fantasy in The Ghost of Thomas Kempe (1973), in which an old rogue from the past pops up to make trouble in the present day. Anthropomorphic animal fantasy – ‘ourselves in fur’ – has a long history, to which Dick King-Smith has made a sustained contribution with The Sheep-Pig (original of the film Babe) in 1983 and many other titles. Most recently, high fantasy has been shown to be still very much alive by the success of Northern Lights (1995) and The Subtle Knife (1997), the first two volumes of Philip Pullman’s ambitious ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy.
Moral and Psychological Exploration
Of writers who came to prominence in the last quarter of the twentieth century, Jan Mark and Gillian Cross defy classification, having written well in several genres and for children of different ages. Realism of the tougher kind was here to stay. Janni Howker’s The Nature of the Beast (1985) portrayed the anger and frustration of a boy growing up in a collapsing industrial region. Robert Swindells in Stone Cold (1993) drew a grim picture of contemporary homelessness; Melvin Burgess’s Junk (1996) took the challenge to face facts, and dangers, as far as it had yet gone with a horrifying account of drug addiction. Anne Fine’s troubling The Tulip Touch (1996), about a child who appears to be actually evil, tested the limits of moral and psychological exploration in children’s books.
Writers from the Commonwealth enriched the fiction of the latter part of the century. Anita Desai wrote in The Village by the Sea (1982) of a family surviving precariously in an Indian fishing village faced by change. James Berry’s short stories in A Thief in the Village (1987) and The Future-Telling Lady (1991) brought the joys and longings of poor Jamaican children vividly to life. Jamila Gavin, in her Wheel of Surya trilogy (1992-7) told of two children’s trek through war-torn India at the time of independence, their arrival in England and later experiences in both countries. And Jamila Gavin wrote a near-perfect book for younger readers about two children and their naive but wise and loving grandfather in Grandpa Chatterji (1993).
Poetry and Picture Books
Allan and the late Janet Ahlberg, an author-and-artist team, rose quickly in the late 1970s to the front rank among picture-book creators. Each Peach Pear Plum (1978) and Peepo! (1981), both based on nursery games, were outstanding among books for the really small, and many other Ahlberg books brought humour and ingenuity to this genre. Anthony Browne, notable for visual wit and satire, confirmed a growing reputation with Gorilla in 1983 and Willy the Wimp (a chimp) in 1984, gently evoking fellow-feeling for fellow-species. His later picture books have been original, imaginative, and often intriguingly concerned with ideas.
Poetry moved from garden to street with the appearance of Michael Rosen’s Mind Your Own Business (1974) and later collections; other poets in the down-to-earth mode included Roger McGough and Kit Wright. Anthologies appear continually and do not usually make literary history, but A Caribbean Dozen, edited by John Agard and Grace Nichols (1994), was outstanding in featuring a strong team of poets from that region.
The Present Day
With the books of the later 1990s, we are in the realm of current affairs rather than of history, and I have not tried to bring this account up to the last moment. I am sorry to have omitted mention of many good writers and artists, especially more recent arrivals who have yet to build up a body of work. I am sorry, too, that because of limited space, I have paid rather scant regard to books reaching us from America and elsewhere. Time, and the test of lasting acceptability to children, will decide which titles will survive from the wealth of material available today.
Children’s books face many problems, including the uncertainties of the trade, cuts in school and library book budgets, and the ever-increasing competition from the electronic media; but they have survived earlier challenges and I believe they will survive the present ones.
John Rowe Townsend has been writing, and writing about, books for children and young people for many years. Three of his books – Gumble’s Yard, The Intruder and Noah’s Castle – have been serialised on television. His history of English-language children’s literature, Written for Children, published by The Bodley Head at £9.99, is in its sixth and, he says, final edition.