CHILDREN's literature in Britain appears quite suddenly in the
15th century. Before that, there were oral stories of which we know
next to nothing, schoolbooks, and adult books that children
overheard or read by themselves. It was only in about 1400 that
adults began to write for children on a significant scale, and
children to write for themselves.
The explanation is the arrival of paper. This was the result of
a growing demand for reading - and also the solution. Texts could
be produced more cheaply and reach more readers, including
children. Paper brought about the invention of printing, and
printers quickly saw the demand for children's literature.
When Caxton opened his press at Westminster, in 1476, his first
list of books included four titles for children. Within a
generation, there were numerous books for the young: not only
religious and moral ones, but rattling good stories as well.
Since then, of course, the junior readership and the volume of
books to satisfy it have grown exponentially, and the subject has
acquired its own historians and critics. You may study it at
university, especially for a Master's degree, and go on writing
courses to create it.
In 1984, at about the time that this sort of study was taking
off, the Oxford University Press published The Oxford Companion
to Children's Literature, an admirable guide to the
Its authors, Humphrey Carpenter and his wife, Mari Prichard,
produced a work of immense range and scholarship, in a
well-designed and illustrated book. One still marvels at the
authors' breadth of research, and their attractive blend of
information and entertainment. It is a delightful volume.
THIRTY years on, Oxford has brought out a new edition to include
the likes of Michael Morpurgo, Philip Pullman, and J. K. Rowling.
Some disappointment here: it is odd to give the new editor, Daniel
Hahn, sole billing on the cover, and lead billing on the title
page, when most of the book is still the work of Carpenter and
Prichard. The just approach, surely, would have been to credit the
original authors, "updated" or "edited" by their successor.
The new editor confesses the need to slim down the earlier
volume to make room for the books and authors of the past 30 years.
This has involved the expulsion of the general accounts of
children's literature in France, Germany, Russia, and so on. We are
referred to an international encyclopaedia on these subjects. The
result is to reduce the Companion to a largely anglophone
And nothing can justify the loss of the illustrations: portraits
of writers and pictures from books. How can one discuss the art of
children's literature without representing it? The typography, too,
is plain, stating baldly that "This is a reference book, not a book
to read for pleasure." When one encounters ten blank pages at the
end of the volume, it is inexplicable that no room was found for
art in black and white.
So, if you still have an original Carpenter and Prichard, hang
on to it. The new edition is best regarded as a supplement, not a
replacement, although it still lacks a visual record of the artwork
of the past 30 years. The editor has done us a service by adding
the leading authors and works of this period; but, as we shall see,
a significant group of them has escaped his attention.
ALTHOUGH the Companion does not contain a history of
children's literature in Britain, browsing its contents shows that
the history has paralleled that of the culture of adult life.
From the 15th century to the 18th, there was a good deal of
religious and moral writing, reflecting the wish to maintain a
national Church. This went on alongside a robustly secular stream
of romances and stories such as Robin Hood, Guy of
Warwick, and Bevis of Hampton. There were plenty of
texts with which to escape from religion if you desired to do so.
The years around 1800 saw the rise of the novel, and a similar
development of original stories for children. Since this was also
an age of religious revival, many stories were used to instil
religious and moral values. Pride of place in this respect must go
to The History of the Fairchild Family (1818) by the
sternly Evangelical Mary Sherwood.
The children in her book are told that, since the Fall, they
"are utterly and entirely sinful" - a judgment that would have
astonished medieval theologians. When two young siblings quarrel,
they are whipped with a rod, deprived of their breakfasts, and
taken to the local gibbet to view the decaying corpse of a man who
had killed his brother.
As the 19th century wore on, there was a struggle between moral
fiction and pure fiction. Moral fiction made its mark through
"Reward Books", handed out at Sunday schools and aimed at cottage
children. Christie's Old Organ and Froggy's Little
Brother told of poverty-stricken waifs eventually rescued and
redeemed (Christie became a missioner).
Morality also invaded the early school stories, whose exemplar,
Tom Brown's School Days, set the tone by portraying a
reforming headmaster and the imposition of Victorian values on
Pure fiction, however, won hands-down in volume and longevity.
It established genres: the adventures of R. M. Ballantyne and G. A.
Henty; the fantasies of Lewis Carroll and Edith Nesbit; the animal
tales of Beatrix Potter and Kenneth Grahame; and holiday stories,
such as Bevis, by Richard Jefferies. These works were
models for much 20th-century writing.
Nesbit helped to establish the middle-class story, which reigned
from the 1920s to the '50s. The novels of Enid Blyton and Arthur
Ransome were apparently about ordinary children in the everyday
world, but the children lived in houses with cooks and housemaids,
and had access to boats and horses.
It took the social revolution of the 1960s to reintroduce raw
narratives of dissent and deprivation, not vastly unlike the
Victorian Sunday-school stories, but without their religious
RELIGION was much less visible in fiction after 1900. Stalky
and Co. (1899) has a prominent school chaplain, but the
stories of Jennings and Darbishire (1950 onwards), although also
set in a boarding school, contain no religious occasions. One would
not expect the writer of a thrilling adventure to introduce
religion, but it is noticeable that even authors who tried to be
wholly realistic did not allow this dimension into their
Ransome is such an example. After losing his faith in early
adulthood, he constructed an apparently real world without prayer
or Sunday observance. Even he, however, had to take account of the
calendar to avoid activities on a day when (say) shops or other
amenities were closed. In The Picts and the Martyrs, he
was faced by a great-aunt who might want to go to church. He
avoided this problem with a day-long rainstorm that kept her
securely at home.
In modern society, other kinds of the supernatural have invaded
religious space, especially at Hallowe'en. This has also happened
in children's literature, with stories of fantasy, magic, and
ghosts. There were such stories in the past, but they did not gain
the extraordinary sales and impact enjoyed by Tolkien, Pullman, and
Rowling since the 1950s. One detects here a narrowing of the gap
between fiction for children and adults. Rowling's books have come
out with covers to suit grown-up readers. Is this an aspect of the
late-20th-century tendency of old and young to do more things
ONE the less, religious literature for children is by no means
dead, and it is here that the new Companion is found most
wanting, since it has not updated its sections on "The Bible" and
on "Religious Instruction" since 1984. The reader is left with the
impression that there is no Christian writing after C. S.
So, on the Bible, no mention is made of The Action
Bible (2010), or The Barnabas Children's Bible
(2012), or in terms of literature the Teddy Horsley
stories for young children (1992 onwards), or the works of, say,
Jennie Bishop (2004), Kathy Lee(2005), or Ruth White (2009) for
their elder siblings. One cannot include everything, as the editor
admits, but religious literature for children is a flourishing
sector. It did not die out in 1900, or 1950, and it is surely more
creative and influential than the Companion is willing to
The need to acknowledge the presence of religion - or at least
of spirituality - in children's literature is important for another
reason. It enriches the works that embrace it. Authors who aim at
realism without spirituality enter dangerous territory. Children
are spiritual in their imagination, and sympathise with other
creatures, human and animal.
The danger can be seen by comparing Jefferies's Bevis
with Ransome's analogous Swallows and Amazons books. With
certain exceptions, Ransome's children lack spirituality (John and
Susan are particularly worrying in this respect), and come across
as rather dull and flat.
Jefferies, a more spiritual man, gave his hero depth through
spirituality: Bevis dreams and reflects on nature. When Sunday
comes on his unauthorised adventure away from home, he considers
whether he may shoot with a gun, and demurs because his Mama would
not like it. Victorian the setting may be, but it is more realistic
about a child's nature and reasoning than Ransome's.
THE DNA of children's literature is the familiar double helix in
which instruction entwines with construction, or advice with
adventure. Caxton's list of children's books had the first aim in
view: a guide to good manners, two moral fables, and a collection
of wise sayings. Within a few years, his successor, Wynkyn de
Worde, was issuing The Friar and the Boy, a rumbustious
story of a farmer's boy, a friar, and a stepmother punished by
having to break wind loudly in public. There is no moral but plenty
of fun, and this has been the counterpart to instruction ever
The helixes are consequently in tension. Religion and morality
have been attacking narrative literature almost from its
conception. William Tyndale, writing of Robin Hood and
Bevis of Hampton in the reign of Henry VIII, called them
"as filthy as heart can think, to corrupt the minds of youth
withal". Another Bible translator, Miles Coverdale, agreed: "Do
they not corrupt the manners of young persons?"
Similar battles would rage in later centuries over "penny
dreadfuls", or Enid Blyton's alleged banality and snobbishness, as
they have done most recently over Pullman's and Rowling's supposed
embrace of darkness.
The critics should beware. The history of children's literature
shows that the chief voice in the matter is that of children. It is
what they like that survives.
Professor Nicholas Orme's books include White Bird Flying
(stories for children), and Fleas, Flies and Friars
(children's poetry of the Middle Ages). The Oxford
Companion to Children's Literature, second edition, is
published by Oxford University Press £30 (CT Bookshop