BOOK REVIEW / Invasion of the earthlets

THE TREASURY OF CHILDREN'S LITERATURE Ed. Alison Sage Hutchinson, £19.95 Lucasta Miller enjoys a glorious new anthology

Children's writing has come a long way since its early days in the 18th century. The seven- to eleven-year-olds of 1786 had little choice but to make do with Mrs Trimmer's The History of the Robins, in which the hero, described by Nicholas Tucker in The Child and the Book as a "prig on wings," communicated only in moral maxims. "Oh, my dear father!" he trilled as he approached his sticky end, "Why did I not listen to your admonitions which I now find, too late, were the dictates of tenderness!"

Except in the case of traditional tales and nursery rhymes, Hutchinson's new anthology doesn't stretch this far back into history, which is perhaps a blessing. In any case, Mrs Trimmer would probably not have passed the strict quality control imposed by the editor, Alison Sage. This is very much a treasury of children's Literature with a capital L: only the really good, and by now canonical, stuff is allowed in. There's no room here for the Noddys and Mr Men and Postman Pats of this world, who can drive adults into carpet-chewing fits of boredom.

The anthology includes almost 100 separate pieces and is arranged in four sections according to age group, beginning with picture stories for tinies and leading up to extracts from classic novels such as Tom's Midnight Garden and Treasure Island. It is a beautiful book, crammed with illustrations, and it demonstrates the richness and variety of writing available for children today.

Take the animal tale, for example. As ancient as Aesop, it's a hoary old genre, but the tradition has been interpreted with extraordinary imaginative diversity, as is shown by the examples in this volume, which range from The Jungle Book to Anthony Browne's much admired but faintly repulsive apes. Some, such as The Wind in the Willows, are peopled - if that's the word - exclusively by animals. Then you get animals who talk to humans, like Charlotte Zolotow's Mr Rabbit, who looks disturbing and sinister in Maurice Sendak's pictures, with his long-legged, humanoid body. And there are humans who talk to animals - such as Dr Doolittle, who is shown here with his first patient, an irate, short-sighted horse, who's been prescribed a course of enormous pills by a hopeless vet, when what he really needs is spectacles.

In Jeanne Willis's Dr Xargle's Book of Earthlets, human babies themselves become like animal specimens, the subject of a Martian's lecture: "Earthlets have no fangs at birth. For many days they drink only milk through a hole in their face . . . When they grow a fang, the parent Earthling takes the egg of a hen and mangles it with a prong". The Martian's absurdist viewpoint and vocabulary have something in common with the nonsense of the Jaberwocky (also represented here), and the delight children take in the unusual or humorous use of language is also echoed in the deviant grammar of Roald Dahl's BFG, and the bizarre characters of Russell Hoban, who include Miss Figdet Wonkham-Strong, the maiden aunt in the iron hat who feeds her unfortunate nephew on "cabbage and potato sog".

For very young children, though, the everyday world contains enough magic of its own without the intrusion of the weird and wonderful. Ezra Jack Keats's A Snowy Day, with its beautiful Sixties graphics, takes the barest minimum of plot - a boy wakes up to find that snow has fallen during the night, he goes out to play, comes home and goes to bed again - and turns it into something poetic.

Unfairly, perhaps, anthologies always leave you wondering why your personal favourites weren't included, and I missed Babar, Orlando and Ferdinand, the bull who prefers smelling flowers to tussling with matadors. I also wondered whether an isolated slice of Ballet Shoes or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe would be quite so appealing as Mrs Tiggy-winkle in full: would the extracts have the desired effect of enticing children to go on to the full-length book? For me, though, reading short passages from classic texts had the effect of focusing my attention on the language, revealing, for example, that Frances Hodgson Burnett, inventor of the Fauntleroy collar, was anything but frilly in her prose, which is surprisingly un-Victorian in its economy and directness.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
    How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

    How to make your own Easter egg

    Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

    Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

    Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

    The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

    Cricket World Cup 2015

    Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
    The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing