Alison Lurie, unlike so many of those jumping on the suddenly high-profile bandwagon of children’s books just now, has a long and well-established interest in the field. All but one of the essays in Boys and Girls Forever have been published before as she has long been writing thoughtfully about why authors chose to write for children and has much that is revealing to say about it, although her definition as given in the Foreword is surprisingly simplistic: ‘It often seems that the most gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves. There may be outward signs of this condition: these people may prefer the company of girls and boys to that of adults … They are impulsive, dreamy, imaginative, unpredictable.’
Fortunately Lurie does not set out to prove that thesis in the essays and her curiosity about why children? leads her into her studying authors’ lives in general and childhoods in particular and what effects they have had on their writing, some of the social conditions that may have shaped their writing as well as consideration of different kinds of writing for children and why it appeals.
Perhaps inevitably, although overall Boys and Girls Forever is interesting to anyone concerned with children’s books, it is also extremely patchy. Its scope within thirteen brief essays is wide both globally – including the Moomintroll and his Friends and a study of Hans Christian Andersen and how he relates to his own story of The Ugly Duckling – and historically including a quick trawl through the history of illustrations. Perhaps it’s too wide as one can’t help feeling that Lurie’s knowledge of both children and children’s books is not quite as all-encompassing as she thinks. This means that some essays, such as Boys and Girls Come out to Play: Children’s Games which looks at the work of Iona Opie in the UK and Barry Thorne in the US, are disappointingly descriptive rather than analytic. She is rightly impressed by what the Opies achieved and understands its importance but doesn’t penetrate much below the surface. Similarly, in Is Anybody There? her study of Walter de la Mare she does little more than tell the story of his life – lonely, shy, late maturing, disappointed etc – drawing extensively on his biography without going much beyond it.
Where Lurie is first class is on the US writers whom she obviously knows better and whose cultural context she understands far more completely: L Frank Baum and why The Wizard of Oz was so ahead of its time; Dr Seuss and why The Cat in the Hat and its successors are not only the brilliant antidote to learning to read with their witty reinvention of the ‘barking at print’ texts but also offer powerful anti-establishment messages to the very youngest children; and briefly why Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon with its messages about nature embodied in its soothing night-time words has lasted over half a century. She is at her most cogent on Little Women, setting it strongly within the historical context in which Louisa May Alcott was writing. She points out the robust, and liberating side of the books which reflect Alcott’s own unconventional upbringing as well as highlighting important physical facts, such as much later menstruation, which explain why the March sisters are as young-seeming as they are. Such is her enthusiasm that one immediately wants to re-read Little Women and enjoy it for the strengths which have made it last rather than for the somewhat namby-pamby soppy thing it has somehow become in more recent times, especially in film.
Lurie as a critic and especially as a synthesiser of criticism is shown to greatest effect in her essay The Perils of Harry Potter. Here she covers an enormous amount of the ground – now so familiar – about the origins of the books and the later publishing history such as the effect on the best-seller lists. She also gives her own enthusiastic reading, and adds some snap-shots of the many different groups who love it, too, largely because they see their own small world within it. Pico Iyer in The New York Times Book Review related it to his own experience of Eton where ‘we were in an alternative reality where none of the usual rules applied’, while A O Scott writing in Slate thinks ‘being a wizard is very like being gay: you grow up in a hostile world governed by codes and norms that seem nonsensical to you, and you discover at a certain age that there are people like you.’ But Lurie is too objective to leave it at that and also covers the vociferous objections to Harry Potter and his world from the powerful lobby of US Christians although she makes short work of their objections.
Always highly readable, thoroughly scholarly (though it’s a shame no one picked up ‘Patrick’ Pullman in the proof and it’s surprising that there is no more than a passing reference to him) and at times offering new insights, Boys and Girls Forever is thoughtful and informative.