Books for Children / What, Holmes, no trace of us?: Anthologies

IF ANYTHING can be said with confidence about children and fiction, it is that they are repelled by the stuff which sets out to improve them. In choosing 44 of the 'best' original stories for children from the past 250 years for The Oxford Book of Children's Stories (OUP pounds 17.95), Jan Mark has selected 10 samples from the years 1749 to 1864, each of which fails on this count: in fact, 'The Ill-Natured Boy', 'The First Theft' and the other early stories turn out to be almost unreadable today, even by an adult with some social or historical curiosity. Their faults are prescriptiveness, bad writing and a sneaking antipathy towards the child audience itself. If these 10 really were the best stories from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries, one grieves for the starved imaginations of the young contemporaries of Jane Austen and Dickens.

But a child's imagination forages where it can. There have always been plenty of folk tales available - fantastic, frequently terrifying, peopled with implacable and amoral monsters and filled with the dark forces that children wish to understand through narrative. Children have always required stories about their own most urgent concerns: the nature of justice and the limits of perceived reality.

These are the two central themes of Alice in Wonderland, the first great original children's book in English, not published until 1865. An imitation of Carroll by Christina Rossetti, 'A Party in the Land of Nowhere', is included here, but it is a leaden piece compared to the light, sure touch of the master.

Yet, allowing for a few such exceptions, once the children's story passes the watershed of Carroll its quality perks up considerably. The Oxford Book gives us a nice variation on 'Sleeping Beauty' by George MacDonald, and Louisa May Alcott's amusing story of role reversal between adults and children, 'The Children's Joke', which anticipated Anstey's Vice Versa by 11 years. There is an animal tale from Kipling, a fantasy from E Nesbit, a creepy Walter de la Mare story and an adventure of William Brown by Richmal Crompton. These are all wonderful children's writers whose work has stood up to the erosions of time and taste. But, on the evidence of this anthology, adults' high-minded tendency to write down to children survives, and titles brought out under modern PC guidelines suffer from the same crippling defects as the forgotten moralisings of Alicia Catherine Mant and Charlotte Maria Tucker. Indeed, Jan Mark's selections faithfully reflect the tradition. Of the two stories belonging to the present decade, one is a truly dull effort about a boy who is good at embroidery while the second, from Australia, features a 16-year-old empathising with his convict forebears. Both reek of a condescension and hidden didacticism.

Moreover, none of the really popular exponents of this century are represented, presumably on literary grounds. So out go Frank Richards, Enid Blyton, Hugh Lofting, Anthony Buckeridge, Roald Dahl and Alan Ahlberg - yet the book still does not find room for Oscar Wilde, Conan Doyle, Saki, Dickens, A A Milne, Mervyn Peake or the excellent Richard Hughes. Nor are there contributions from many good contemporary writers: Margaret Mahy, Florence Parry Heide, Ted Hughes or Terry Jones. There is still much to enjoy in the Oxford Book, but its selection is hardly based on the tingle factor.

Besides this, a trio of well-illustrated, well-written fairy-tale anthologies have been published this autumn. Koshka's Tales: Stories from Russia (Kingfisher pounds 9.99) are retold and illustrated by James Mayhew. Koshka is a feline Scheherazade who wages, through the power of story, a long-distance duel of wits against the most formidable witch in all Holy Russia, Baba Yaga Bony-Legs. Mayhew's writing is direct and well paced, and his wonderful framing illustrations contain echoes of Chagall.

The Orchard Book of Magical Tales (retold by Margaret Mayo, pounds 10.99), each from a different country, has similarly inventive and evocative pictures by Jane Ray. Mayo's idiomatic text is good, too, full of energy and understated wit. It is just right for reading aloud to under-sixes, and excellent private reading for six- and seven-year-olds.

The Faber Book of Golden Fairytales (ed Sara and Stephen Corrin, pounds 10.99) contains 28 variations on the theme of gold-lust, chosen for fluent readers by two highly experienced anthologists. Several of Stephen Corrin's intelligent versions of the Greek myths are included among the traditional tales. There is a surprisingly accessible contribution by John Ruskin, some of Grimm's hypnotic folk tales and good stories in the fairy-tale tradition by Wilde, Farjeon, Richard Adams and Joan Aiken.

Any of these three could emerge from the Christmas wrapping paper and last well beyond the summer.