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.

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