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?
On the second question, no two readers would ever agree.
Let’s try some definitions. ‘Books written by dead people’ was suggested by a group of ten-year-olds, but when asked for some examples they suggested Tom’s Midnight Garden, The BFG and The Snowman. But their judgement was not as confused as it seems, for they clearly knew that the word ‘classic’ in its many contexts almost always suggests an excellence surviving from a past age. That’s not a bad idea to begin with: a children’s classic is a book whose popularity has survived the age in which it was written. And I would add that such a book does not simply endure like a fossil in a glass case, but is constantly re-made and improvised upon so that its qualities and its appeal are transformed and revealed to new generations of readers.
But I know there are doubters who point out that whether a book is continually re-issued has more to do with the economics of publishing than with a serious concern for young readers. For if publishers re-issue attractive books from the past, well-meaning adults can hardly be blamed for buying them.
Take Alice, for example. The two stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, were published in 1866 and 1871/2 and they have been in print ever since. Yet it’s undoubtedly the case that more copies are purchased by adults than read by children. But children did read Alice in the past. We can generalise from that and suggest that no children’s book has become a classic unless it was first enjoyed by a whole generation of young readers. It may be true that the status of the two Alice stories as classics is today sustained by adult conviction, but it was established in the first place by the commitment of children.
Our secondhand-bookshops are full of the abandoned relics of an age devoted to didacticism upholding the pieties and properties of the Victorian middle classes. Their instructional authority was reinforced by the fact that most of those stories were given as Sunday School prizes. So what a breath of fresh air Alice must have brought to those Victorian nurseries! Here was a young heroine who did what little girls were not permitted to do: she spoke her mind and turned didacticism the other way round. It is the adults who get corrected and rebuked. In a world of lunacies and cruelties, Alice is brave, forthright and intelligent. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have been analysed by mathematicians, philosophers, clergymen, Freudian psychologists and literary historians, and their views have helped to confirm the books as enduring children’s classics. But they would not have become classics in the first place if the children of the 1860s and 1870s had not taken Alice to their hearts.
Subsequently the two stories have attracted the imaginative inventiveness of illustrators, from Tenniel and Rackham to – most recently – Anthony Browne. A children’s classic is repeatedly brought to life afresh by later artists, not only illustrators but also dramatists and directors of film and television. Stories are made into plays – or, in the case of Peter Pan and Wendy, a play is made into a story; or they are made into full-length feature films (The Railway Children, The BFG, Danny the Champion of the World), or adapted and serialised for television (Tom’s Midnight Garden, A Little Princess). A characteristic of the classic children’s story is its capacity to offer from within itself new meanings and fresh emphases while retaining its original integrity. I am cautious about proclaiming that too confidently, for I have in mind the example of Beatrix Potter, whose books are like tiny fortresses resisting all attempts to meddle with their self-contained completeness.
I believe our literature is composed of the books we set aside for re-reading. If that’s true of individuals, it is probably true of the whole culture. The great children’s classics are those books our national consciousness cannot leave alone. We keep re-making them and reading them afresh. While it is certainly true that thousands of British children have not read them, the two Alice stories have become part of the language. Children who have never opened the books know about the Mad Hatter’s tea-party, the Queen of Hearts and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. All children who have access to the full cultural possibilities of the varieties of language in our country have access to those images, whether they’ve read the books or not. The classics are part of our national vocabulary – metaphors, perhaps – reverberating in the wider cultural language which we all share (though not equally, more’s the pity). Eeyore with his melancholy burst balloon and empty honeypot is an idea, an enactment of meaning, more subtly dramatic than any abstraction could ever be. And so are Ratty and Mole remonstrating with the impossible Toad; and Wendy and the Lost Children in their underground house; and the foolishly trusting Jemima Puddleduck.
I’ve tried so far to explain children’s books in terms of their popularity and significance to the culture. But have they any recognisable characteristics in common? I believe they have.
Among the thousands of books written for children, there appears now and again one which, through some mysterious alchemy, the author has transformed into a metaphor expressing the ways in which children and adults love one another. Children’s classics are love stories.
Lewis Carroll was the first to do it. His two stories are not simply stories for children, or stories about Alice Liddell; they express and embody his love for her. There is no doubt that he loved her – he told his readers about the effect she still had upon him:
Still she haunts me, phantom wise,
Alice moving under skies
Never seen by waking eyes…’
Perhaps the stories – especially the second, written when she was no longer a child – were for him a treasuring-up for the future of his memories of her. There is no sentimentalising, just a sustained, witty and affectionate tribute to her good sense, which is at the same time a story – a gift-for her.
Every adult who has loved a child understands that the intimacy which can exist between them has within it a potential poignancy. We may set it aside and refuse to think about it, but we know that loving a child is menaced even more than other relationships are by the processes of change. An intimacy with a child is never an equal one because there is an acute difference of understanding: John Burningham’s Granpa knows more than his grand-daughter about the future and its likely outcomes. Granpa is a wise book; it arises from that intimate space that an old man and a little girl create between them. For adults, such spaces are beset with expectations of sadness and loss. Furthermore, their . inarticulate dynamics can involve fear, nostalgia, longing and perhaps sexuality.
The analysis of these dynamics must be left to psychologists and social historians. But I believe the stories we regard as classics have this in common: they are born out of that sensitive and problematic area of need and longing. They continue to appeal to us because it is an area that is at the heart of family life. Any good novelist, I suppose, could write about it. But a children’s classic is not just about a love for a child; it is simultaneously a story for the child, an acknowledgement and welcoming of the child. The great children’s classics are stories for children powered by an adult’s sense of loss. They enact the relationships they serve.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess is overtly a story about a little girl’s courage and generosity in humiliating circumstances. But the scenes which have the greatest emotional power are those when Sara says her last goodbye to her father, and when the Indian Gentleman arrives to restore her father’s wealth and reputation, and offer himself as a surrogate. The novel is at a deep level a story of a little girl’s loss and recovery of her father – an unlikely series of events but profoundly satisfying. It has a great deal in common with E Nesbit’s The Railway Children. Here is a tale of trains and tunnels and porters, but what makes an ordinary story into an extraordinary classic is that it’s driven by another, deeper, story about a daughter rescuing her father. This is a tale of passionate wish-fulfilment – and if you think ‘passionate’ is too strong a word, re-read the chapter in which Bobbie is re-united with her father at the railway station (or watch your video of the film). In just that brief episode, an authorial yearning surfaces and becomes visible.
Most of the classic tales started as stories for real children. This brings us to Peter Pan and Wendy, The Wind in the Willows, the two Pooh Bear books, and the tales of Beatrix Potter, and in the case of J M Barrie and A A Milne we know that the adult’s love for the child was problematical. C S Lewis wrote his books for real children too, but, although they have achieved a cult status, especially in the US, I do not think the Narnia books are classics. Despite his undoubted brilliance as a storymaker, Lewis’ conception of children is distant and narrow. The perfect union of an adult’s love and a storymaker’s tact is to be found in the best of the Swallows and Amazons stories; Arthur Ransome’s affectionate respect for his half-real, half-imagined, children is everywhere felt and nowhere proclaimed.
I believe Tom’s Midnight Garden is a classic. Furthermore, it exemplifies exactly what I believe the great classics have in common. It has no hint of authorial distress, or sadness, but it is a story about old and young, and how their mutual – but different – needs come together in the form of story. In this narrative, both are participants, though one is more in control than the other. The old woman becomes young again in the storying of her memories – but not perfectly, and not for long. Although Philippa Pearce allows no cheating of the realities of time, in her making of the narrative past, present and future lose their firmness, and the difference of generations is only a difference, not an apartness.
Hattie needs the story because in old age .her childhood has come to seem important; Tom knows little of that – he needs the story because he is lonely. In Tom’s Midnight Garden, it is implicitly acknowledged that the child and the adult regard the story with equal seriousness but from different perspectives. For a child, a story is an inviting signal from further along the road; it satisfies immediate needs and predictive interests. But for the adult who’s telling it, a story can never be a sign of what lies ahead. The great classics are written by people who understand that difference, and who know how to write a story which welcomes and respects it without making a fuss.
I believe that the classics are stories which appeal, differently, to both children and adults because they arise out of the love that can exist between them. In the very best – as in Philippa Pearce – the writer’s firm authorial tact protects the child-reader from an adult’s understanding of time and change. A great classic is simultaneously a joyous greeting and a valediction. Tom’s Midnight Garden ends with a goodbye.
I know this account leaves many questions unanswered and I propose to be honest about that. In particular, several of Beatrix Potter’s stories are surely classics – but I cannot accommodate them in the account I have tried to give. There are other anomalies too. Is The Wizard of Oz a classic? And if your answer is Yes, are you thinking of the book or of the film? Can a poem be a classic? Or an anthology? Can a continuing sequence of stories (Rupert Bear?) earn classical status? Can a novel for young adults become a classic? (I think not – they are usually too remorselessly self-conscious and explicit.) Then there are the great novels which were not written especially for children – Robinson Crusoe, Jane Eyre, David Copperfield, Treasure Island – what about them? And Rosie’s Walk is probably as familiar to infants today as the First Chapter of Genesis was in the seventeenth century – is it, or will it become, a classic? I leave you with one more question: Roald Dahl is (after Enid Blyton) the most popular children’s writer at present; so which of his novels, if any, do you think deserves to become a classic?
Victor Watson is a Senior Lecturer in English, specialising in children’s books, at Homerton College, Cambridge.
For information on Alice, see the Authorgraph (centre- spread) and for The Wind in the Willows, see Margery Fisher’s selection (page 28) Treasure Island editions are given with Shirley Hughes’s article (page 24).
Tom’s Midnight Garden, Philippa Pearce, Oxford, 0 19 271128 8, ££7.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.4049 1, £2.99 pbk
The BFG, Roald Dahl, ill. Quentin Blake, Cape, 0 224 02040 4, £5.95; Puffin, 0 14 03.1597 7, £3.50 pbk
The Snowman, Raymond Briggs, Hamish Hamilton, 0 241 10004 6, £7.50; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.350 1, £3.99 pbk
Peter Pan and Wendy, J M Barrie
Reproduction of 1921 edition, ill. Mabel Lucie Attwell, Hodder, 0 340 24629 4, £16.95
Ill. Jan Ormerod, Viking, 0 670 80862 8 £9.99; Puffin, 0 14 03.2007 5, £2.50 pbk
Collins, 0 00 191130 9, £4.95; 0 00 692905 2, £1.95 pbk Mammoth, ill. Chris Riddell, 0 416 11782 1, £1.95 pbk
Knight, retold May Byron, ill. Mabel Lucie Atwell, 0 340 55657 9, £2.99 pbk
The Railway Children, E Nesbit
Ill. Dinah Dryhurst, Pavilion, 185145 700 3, £10.99
Heinemann, 0 434 95456X,.£10.95; 0 7497 0551 5,4195 pbk
Collins, 0 00 692972 9, £1.95 pbk Puffin, 014 035.005 5, £2.25 pbk
Danny the Champion of the World, Roald Dahl, Cape, 0 224 012010, £7.95; Puffin, 014 03.2287 6, £2.50 pbk
A Little Princess, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Puffin, 0 14 035.028 4, £2.50 pbk
Granpa, John Burningham, Cape, 0 224 02279 2 £5.95; 0 224 02731 X, £3.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.841 4, £2.50 pbk
Puffin publish The Wizard of Oz, L Brank Baum, 0 14 035.001 2,£2 .25; Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, 0 14 035.072 1, £2.50; and Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronze, 0 14 035.131 0, £2.50.
David Copperfield comes in paperback from, amongst others, Penguin, Oxford and Collins.
Rosie’s Walk, Pat Hutchins, Bodley Head, 0 370 00794 8, £6.95; Picture Puffin, 0 14 050.032 4, £2.99 pbk
Pooh Bear books are published by Methuen.
Beatrix Potter titles are available from Frederick Warne.
The Chronicles of Narnia are published in various editions by Collins.
The Swallows and Amazons stories are available in hardback from Cape and in paperback from Puffin.