Boys and Girls Forever by Alison Lurie

Christina Hardyment resists the myth that children's authors are arrested in childhood
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The Independent Culture

Alison Lurie is a distinguished novelist of the emotional-domestic genre. The War Between the Tates still lurks as an unforgettable cautionary tale in the minds of a good many married - and divorced - couples. But she has never given up her day job as professor of English at Cornell, specialising in books written for children. She has edited excellent collections of fairy-tales and myths, and wrote Don't Tell the Grown-Ups, a collection of essays on such classics as Winnie The Pooh, The Secret Garden and The Hobbit. Her argument was that great children's books were healthily subversive, and deserved to live on as cultural metaphors in adult life. The authors of these "sacred texts of childhood" had "not forgotten what it was like to be a child".

Boys and Girls Forever is another collection of essays, most of which originally appeared in the New York Review of Books to mark a new biography or film. A fast, stimulating read, full of many brief lives and seductive quotations, it has been an expensive book to review: I have ordered several of the sequels to The Wizard of Oz and Haroun and the Sea of Stories, and am looking out for John Masefield's Martin Hyde.

But there are some oddities. Lurie writes too often as a superior rather than a sympathiser. The fastest way to a child's heart is through humour, and all the best writers for children have a highly developed sense of the absurd. It felt very curious to read an essay on the brilliantly surreal Tove Jansson and find only one passing reference to her "comic gift". Lurie, a consciously feminist academic, does not find Moominpappa remotely funny but sees him as an infuriatingly incompetent male, and wishes that Moominmamma would not be so soft with him. She is mystified by Jansson's unlikely characters, but misses the point of how Jansson gently uses them to nudge her young readers into sympathising with the different people they will meet through life.

As one would expect of Lurie, there is a good deal of celebration of girl heroes and regret over their absence. I'm sure this is just as it should be, though I can't remember ever caring as a child whether the characters I identified with were boys, girls or animals.

What worries me much more is the frame in which she presents her essays. The foreword declares that "gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way they are children themselves". Hans Andersen, Walter de la Mare, John Masefield, Dr Seuss, did not just "not [forget] what it was like to be a child", but remained childish, usually because they were arrested in their development by some trauma. J K Rowling is, more cautiously, "clearly on the side of children". Lurie's title is a pointed message: children's authors are boys and girls for ever.

Lurie is not the only critic to voice this view, but it is a piece of rubbish which needs to be scotched for good. I have interviewed many first-rate writers for children, and none has struck me as in the least arrested in childhood. That they find it easy to identify with children, and remember what it was like to be a child, is not at all the same as being "children themselves". On the contrary, they strike me as far more far-sighted and visionary than writers for adults.

Instead of being preoccupied (in a rather childish way) with the problems of adult life, they consider how best to pass on what they have learnt about the world to the next generation. Because they have powerful imaginations and strong sympathies, they come up with magnificent new myths which stay lodged in readers' minds for life. Some are relevant only for a generation or two, others endure for centuries. Respect, not condescension, is what they deserve.