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
Saturday 08 April 1995
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.
Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites
TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Peter Lik: The self-proclaimed 'fine-art photographer' whose work sells for millions
The best underrated Christmas movies from Love, Actually to While You Were Sleeping
Grace Dent on TV: The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies was a beautifully shot, immensely considered drama
The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, review: Jason Watkins is brilliant, but real victim Joanna Yeates is reduced to a footnote
Marilyn Manson denies involvement in shocking Lana Del Rey rape video
Nigel Farage: Me vs Russell Brand on Question Time – he's got the chest hair but where are his ideas?
Shock poll shows voters believe Ukip is to the left of the Tories
New era of cheap oil 'will destroy green revolution'
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Ukip founder Alan Sked and Nigel Farage 'begged Enoch Powell to stand as a candidate'
Ukip candidate jokes about 'shooting peasants' in racist and homophobic rant