Once upon a time, children’s books were handed down from one generation to another: parents enjoying the very particular pleasure of sharing a piece of their childhood with their own child. And so ‘classics’ were born. Now, books are becoming more ephemeral and in order to save titles from total obscurity within five years or less, publishers are reissuing just about everything as a ‘classic’. Many are more ‘instant’ than ‘classic’, but does that all important word guarantee that these titles will stick around? Julia Eccleshare investigates.
Classics are the books that have lasted, building bridges between generations, tapping into constants of childhood and of parent/child relationships. From the nineteenth century, there are Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess and The Secret Garden, Lewis Carroll’s Adventures of Alice in Wonderland; American classics such as F.W. Baum’s The Wizard of Oz and Louisa M. Alcott’s Little Women, even Australian classics such as Norman Lindsay’s The Magic Pudding.
And, of course, there were many more. Many were essentially adults’ books about children and childhood which, in the absence of a defined literature for young people, became children’s books by default. Others were written specifically for children. Either way, most were fairly timeless so that it was the theme, the notion of childhood that remained and lasted, untrammelled by the external trappings of the time and place from which they came. This meant, too, that by the beginning of the twentieth century, even a few of the lasting books from Europe such as Eric Kästner’s Emil and the Detectives and later Paul Berna’s A Hundred Million Francs crept under the usually xenophobic barriers.
Solid good stories
All these books are, undoubtedly, good stories. In an uncrowded market, it is easy to see why they remained in print and continued to sell in large quantities. They were sold alongside contemporary titles, providing a solid spine to an ever-growing market. The reasons for the success of ‘old’ books are not hard to find. For adults, returning to a book from childhood is an unusually powerful way of tapping into a part of one’s life that is otherwise lost forever. While neighbourhoods change and schools get renamed, fields get built over and woods get chopped down, the magical experience felt when you read a particular story remains intact. Even just seeing the cover of a favourite book can rekindle feelings from childhood; sensations, memories and more. It is not, therefore, surprising, that adults like their children to enjoy the same books. It is the ultimate in reassurance.
Recommending what you know…
Additionally, how much easier to recommend a book that you already know and love. If you hover in any bookshop on a Saturday, you will hear parents encouraging their children to choose The Secret Garden, Heidi or even Treasure Island which many fewer adults have read than think they have. They won’t, for the most part, have caught up with Jacqueline Wilson or Malorie Blackman. They don’t know why Terry Deary’s ‘Horrible Histories’ have captured the imagination of contemporary school children or what makes Beverley Naidoo such a great commentator on social and especially racial issues of today’s society.
In terms of the market, too, there were good reasons why, for the three quarters or so of the last century, children’s books had such long lives. With fewer books published, the market was relatively uncrowded and the expectation was that a book would remain in print for a good many years while it established its place and built up an audience. For a good forty years from 1945 onwards, children’s fiction was published in hardback, initially for the library market. A few good reviews would propel a book a certain distance but the real test of its success came from how well it did once on the library shelf. If librarians backed it and children themselves adopted it, a book would become successful. There were loads of current titles finding their place, of which a few joined the handful of ‘classics’ being passed down from one generation to another.
Now, books, like many other things, are becoming more ephemeral. In order to save titles from total obscurity within five years or less, publishers are reissuing everything as a classic. Many are more ‘instant’ than ‘classic’, but that all important second word seems to guarantee a certain quality that will give a book a new chance. The economics of this make good sense: when Puffin, who were first off the mark, launched their Puffin Modern Classics series they found that the sales of the titles were incremental. Published in a slightly larger format than usual and with an Afterword which gave some insights into the story, their sales did not detract from the sales of any other editions. Learning of this, other publishers quickly followed suit. Everything was to have a life as a ‘classic’ or a ‘modern classic’. In principle, this was an important recognition that the publishing of the last thirty years of the century was every bit as rich as that produced in the proceeding decades which are often described as ‘the golden age of children’s publishing’.
What is a classic?
But what gives a book the right to be called a ‘classic’? Surprisingly, some of the books that seemed striking when published and have been hailed as glorious masterpieces are much less impressive when looked at again, especially when seen against what is published today. Children’s expectations have increased dramatically in the past thirty or forty years; not only in terms of the subject matter they can stomach but also the kind of writing they can read and enjoy. The over-enthusiastic and slightly breathless adventures of the sixties can seem distinctly dusty nowadays, and contemporary children should certainly not be despised for enjoying the literature of their own period as much, or more, as that which was written for their parents.
Publishers have interpreted ‘classic’ in any number of ways, mostly depending on what books they have on their backlist. Puffin’s first sweep of titles took in only books which had been consistently good sellers for at least fifteen years. Thus Clive King’s Stig of the Dump, Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword and Mary Norton’s The Borrowers were obvious choices. Gradually, the length of time was reduced to ten years but Puffin remained true to the ideal of proven success with most of the titles having sold in the region of a million copies each – which is an unassailable yardstick. As a result, their Modern Classics remain a distinctive and coherent list, with all the titles having been striking books in their day and most standing up well, thirty, twenty or even only ten years later.
The Oxford University Press, too, have an excellent backlist. Having let the paperback rights go for many years, they have now successfully retrieved some of them allowing their Oxford Children’s Modern Classics ‘to bring together the best-loved novels of the twentieth century, by some of the most distinguished authors, for a new generation of children to enjoy’. No time or sales proof here but certainly some of the best known post-war authors; Rosemary Sutcliff, Leon Garfield, Philippa Pearce, K.M. Peyton, Geraldine McCaughrean and Gillian Cross and with their best titles, too. In large format and with well-spaced, new typesetting, they look good.
Less fruitful pickings?
Other publishers, partly because their backlists have less fruitful pickings, have been far less scrupulous about what classic really means. Rounding up titles under a series heading ‘classic’ gives the opportunity to bring languishing titles back into print. Often these are good books that certainly deserve to stay in print but, that alone doesn’t make them ‘classics’. All too often, they rely on the tag to con readers into thinking that ‘classic’ must mean ‘good’ because it has proved the test of time. But, if the book was originally published only a few years before as in the case of Faber’s reissue of Virginia Ewer Wolff’s Make Lemonade as a Faber Children’s Classic, it hasn’t proved anything. (As it happens, this is a very good book, worthy of a second bite at the cherry but not, by any normal definition, a classic.) Conversely, just because a book was published a long time ago, it is not necessarily a classic. Take Walter Farley’s horsey adventure, The Black Stallion, which appears on the Hodder Modern Classics list. First published in the US in 1941, though it only seems to have reached the UK in 1957, it is not in the front line, even of horse literature. Why was it chosen? Without guidelines for defining classic, the whole thing becomes arbitrary and personal. I feel much happier with the other outsider on the Hodder list, A. Rutgers van der Loeff’s heartrending Children on the Oregon Trail, translated from the original Dutch, because it was a book which I loved especially as a child. But surely to earn the sobriquet ‘classic’ should be more than a matter of personal taste? Hodder’s other recent Modern Classics are William Mayne’s Ravensgill and Helen Cresswell’s The Beachcombers. Mayne and Cresswell are excellent writers and both have certainly been at it a long time. Indeed Helen Cresswell has, according to the press release, been ‘in print for 35 years!’ The exclamation mark giving away the surprise this induces in current publicists. But are they classic Mayne/Cresswell titles or classics of their different genres? In Mayne’s case, Ravensgill is one of his mid-career titles – 1970 – which, at the time attracted no special attention while the quote from The Times Literary Supplement on the publicity handout that Mayne is ‘the master in contemporary English writing for children’ (a misquote, anyway) was coined for The Member of the Marsh (1956).
Egmont, whose list has been intelligently groomed and fashioned both around series and as author led promotion, are latecomers to the classic market. Classic Mammoth is designed to ‘stand witness to the outstanding strength and variety of Mammoth’s heritage’. A noble sentiment. They have been careful not to be too time specific by claiming only that ‘some … have been favourites for generations’. Though all of them are said to possess a ‘timeless quality that will ensure that they remain favourites for generations to come’. All of that is fine and the list is good but can classic really be applied equally to The Wind in the Willows and The Animals of Farthing Wood? The one has certainly proved its worth by lasting almost one hundred years while the other has only just topped twenty and most of its success, I suspect, lies in its adaptation, twice already, for TV. Perhaps it was the need to have ten titles that proved to be Mammoth’s undoing as the other eight, the first three of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s ‘Little House in the Big Woods’ series, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk and The Box of Delights, and three great animal stories – Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’s The Yearling, Enid Bagnold’s National Velvet and Dodie Smith’s The Hundred and One Dalmatians – certainly have lasted well and will probably go on doing so.
Faber’s Children’s Classics make no claims in terms of time. They are their ‘best-known and loved children’s titles’. Well, some of them. The ones that they have the rights to. Gene Kemp’s Charlie Lewis Plays for Time is a smashing story but it is not The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler which sits proudly on the Puffin Modern Classic list. Luckily, they do have the rights to Russell Hoban’s carefully crafted and formed fantasy, The Mouse and his Child (and it is on the Puffin Modern Classic list, too) and Lucy M. Boston’s poetic fantasy ‘Green Knowe’ series though it is a little mysterious that the first two titles in their Classic series are the first, The Children of Green Knowe and the third, The River at Green Knowe . Was the second, The Chimneys of Green Knowe, somehow lacking in classic status? Catherine Storr’s Marianne Dreams, a psychological fantasy thriller, was radical at the time and thought provoking. It was never, sadly, ‘best-known’ or ‘best loved’ so one can only hope that it will now become so. To claim that either Peter Carey’s The Big Bazoohley or Derek Smith’s Frances Fairweather – Demon Striker is a classic when they are only six and five respectively and in both cases have only fairly modest readership seems to me to be pushing it, though Antonia Forest’s boarding school story Autumn Term, still going strong after 50 years, is certainly a classic school story, if nothing else.
Collins Modern Classics are ‘all tried, trusted, best-selling stories’. And good they look, too. Striking jackets unite genuine and disparate best-selling titles such as Lynne Reid Banks’s playtime fantasy The Indian in the Cupboard, Judith Kerr’s war time memoirs When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit, Alan Garner’s The Owl Service, Beverley Naidoo’s Journey to Jo’burg and P.L. Travers’s Mary Poppins. All have justly earned their inclusion in this series.
Languishing on backlists
For publishers, the ‘classic’ series are a way of giving a lift or boost to titles which are languishing on backlists and getting lost in bookshops amidst the welter of new titles. Readers need to beware being too easily seduced by ‘classic’ marketing and pick their way carefully, understanding exactly on what premise each list is based. But there are titles that publishers let go and which would be consigned to oblivion were it not for independent endeavours. Jane Nissen Books is a new imprint whose purpose is ‘to bring back into print some very special children’s books that have been unavailable in recent years’.
Jane Nissen’s successful record as the editor of many prize-winning authors has equipped her well to choose a small number of once successful, now neglected titles from the twentieth century. Not aiming for best sellers, she has selected books which have previously appealed to bookish children and which, she hopes, will do so again. With introductions by authors who have loved these books, too, as with Anne Fine whose enthusiasm for T.H. White’s Mistress Masham’s Repose as a child made her almost believe that he had written it especially for her; or Philip Pullman who endorses B.B.’s Brendon Chase as ‘teaching valuable lessons about nature’ as well as being ‘a ripping yarn’ while also pointing out that B.B. couldn’t punctuate. These two, alongside the other two launch titles, Alison Uttley’s The Country Child and Eric Linklater’s The Wind on the Moon have all dated gracefully. With no pretence at modernity, they are excellently conceived adventure stories with all the old-fashioned overtones that implies. Not classic, necessarily, but of the kind of quality which will ensure that they linger in the imagination of any child who reads them.
Choosing which recent titles to bolster with classic status will always be ad hoc with publishers justifying inclusion on which ever criteria suits their list. At its best, it is a publishing policy which will allow at least some of the outstanding books to last and to become firmly established in a short term market place. At its worst, it distorts the nature of what children read by keeping going too many ‘timeless fantasies’ at the expense of vibrant contemporary literature.
Julia Eccleshare is the children’s books editor of The Guardian.