Children's literature: How I wrestled with Gruffalos and Huck Finn and put together a new guide to the genre

In the age of the internet, how easy is it to produce a definitive reference book?

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The Independent Culture

Reference books are basically a terrible idea. I should know, I’ve just finished writing one. They are immediately out of date (mine is missing three very recent death dates), they have to compete with accessible and easily-updatable online sources for the attention of readers after a quick fact, and everybody is perpetually scandalised about what has been excluded or included.

Reviewers usually struggle to consider the whole “project” of the book, and instead pick at how preposterous its biases or omissions are, or focus on any factual errors the smug reviewer has been able to identify. Yes, it’s true, if you’re publishing more than half a million words, it’s possible that the odd trivial mistake will slip in.

And those half a million words! Think of that. That was what I undertook to deliver to Oxford University Press last year, as the manuscript of the new Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Half a million words seeking to cover the world of children’s literature for all ages in all periods. Not just the British stuff, either. I mean, what kind of idiot agrees to do such a thing?

Um, hello. (*waves sheepishly*) Mine is not the first, however. A little more than 30 years ago, Oxford University Press published their first Companion to Children’s Literature, written by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard; it’s a book I’ve used and loved for years. It’s erudite but also elegantly written; it’s full of character, and sometimes eccentric in its tastes and its judgements. (By which I mean I don’t personally always agree with it. One editor’s eccentricity etc.)  It covered children’s literature up to around 1982 – which is to say, a time when Roald Dahl was still writing, and Mary Norton, too. Joan Aiken and Philippa Pearce still had more than 20 years of writing ahead of them. J K Rowling was in secondary school. Since then, well, rather a lot has changed.

Harry Potter. Young adult fiction. The Gruffalo. The internet. My new book, then, was to bring the picture of children’s literature up to date. This meant keeping a lot of what Humphrey and Mari had in theirs, but changing it in parts and – most significantly, of course – adding more than three decades’ worth of news. It meant adding a brand new entry (1,584 words) on Harry Potter. Another on the Gruffalo. It meant adding an entry on Discworld, one on Emily Gravett, one on apps, and another on the late, wonderful Mal Peet. And about 900 more besides. It meant taking the existing entries on Gillian Cross and Kevin Crossley-Holland and others – early-career whippersnappers in the old edition – and giving them well-deserved long-view attention.

Which sounds all very well, I suppose. But begs two questions – how to choose whom to include (and by extension, whom to exclude), and what to say about them. Neither of those questions is as easy as I might have hoped.

The updated companion includes The Gruffalo

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature is a big book. It is not, however, infinitely big, so it cannot find room for everything. I thought – perhaps because I’m stupid – that compiling the list of what to include would be quite fun and probably not too difficult. You choose the best or most important people/ books, and include as many of them as you can, then you stop.

But, well – best, or most important? Even if there were any kind of objective measures of these things, there are many writers who are (I think) brilliant and critically acclaimed but not well enough known, and many who are (I think) pretty poor writers but whose copies sell in their zillions and who breed entire spin-off genres of – just say, for an entirely hypothetical example – vampire romance books; faced with the hard choice, which is more worthy of inclusion?

I’ve had an eye, in part, to what I believe will survive, the writers whose work will still be read in a generation’s time; but I know that these assessments will be partisan, too. I know that every decision will be, in fact. Any attempt, indeed, to paint a fair picture of the world of children’s literature, to make it representative, balanced and coherent, will of course only be describing a picture as it’s seen from my own particular perspective.

Which is the perspective of someone with expertise in some areas, but less in others; with an interest in certain kinds of illustrator or writer or book, and the occasional blind spot where others are concerned. I never imagined myself approaching this task with an agenda – it was important to feel this – but I must surely have one just the same.

The late Discworld author Terry Pratchett (Getty Images)

But I wonder, is that really a bad thing? Basic information is easy to come by. Reference books need to do more, these days, than merely tell you that Huckleberry Finn was written by Mark Twain and published in the US in 1885. There aren’t many people who would turn to a reference book for that kind of information, I think.

So they need to be full of colour and full of stories – did you know that Huckleberry Finn was meant to be published in the US in 1884, but was delayed because a disgruntled engraver tampered with the plates, adding a penis to one of the illustrations so publication had to be postponed while it was removed? – but it also needs, I think, an editorial voice.

In the Wikipedia age, reference books should embrace the fact that they have a kind of personal curation, that the entries on writers aren’t merely bibliographic lists but a kind of assessment, too, that they are evaluative, editorialised. (I hope there are also a handful of good jokes, perhaps.)

So my Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature often doesn’t merely tell you which books an author wrote when and what they’re about (though that’s important, too, and accuracy is vital), but how they fit together, and which works are the most accomplished, and what the flaws are, and who are the other writers in the same chain of influence; who I think is amazing but underrated, who produces work that may be massively best-selling but is also desperately derivative.


Aiming to give a snapshot which is, to the best of my ability, an honestly appraising one, which tries to overcome odd unreasonable bias where I’m aware of it, but not afraid to colour the hard data with analysis and occasional judgment.

Surely that must be what these books are for nowadays. Having got past the anxieties, I’d like it to be enjoyed not despite the fact that I’ve had to choose some people to include and some to exclude, but because of it, because those judgements and that individual attempt to present a coherent picture do themselves have value, too.