Box Clever: Telling tales

A new BBC2 series aims to give an insight into the often blighted lives of six of the greatest children's writers

Some sniffy critics view children's authors in the same way that they view children: they should be seen but not heard. Children's literature has often been derided in haughtier critical circles. When JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings topped a poll for the Novel of the Century, for instance, a snoot of reviewers - is that the right collective noun? - queued up to pour scorn on the choice.

It is a state of affairs that exasperates Michael Poole, editor of An Awfully Big Adventure, a new BBC2 series on six of the best of children's writers: E Nesbit, Kenneth Grahame, Arthur Ransome, Tolkien, Dr Seuss and Roald Dahl. "Children's literature is sneered at because pompous intellectuals think that only things which are self-advertisingly serious merit any attention at all," Poole contends. "They are the same people who find any kind of popular culture difficult. Children's literature is not reviewed seriously - it tends to be the stuff of seasonal round-ups - so that entire world is kept from the view of lit-crit types."

That's their loss, of course. The best children's literature transports its readers as comprehensively as any Booker Prize-winning tome. "The children's books that have endured have created a world children feel they can inhabit, a world written for them in their terms," asserts Poole. "Writing down to children doesn't work. They have got good antennae for that, and reject it."

He marvels at the example of Roald Dahl. "He's the biggest thing in children's writing because he's bloody good," Poole enthuses. "A recent survey showed that nine out of 10 children's books borrowed from libraries were by him. Kids recognise in his books an anarchic, anti-adult world, which ridicules grown-ups. Kids find that liberating. It gives them a licence to poke fun and be scatological.

"Or look at Dr Seuss," Poole continues. "He conjures up a surreal, mad world in Fox in Socks and The Cat in the Hat where anarchy reigns. Arthur Ransome, too, in books such as Swallows and Amazons, dreams up a unique imaginative universe which takes children to a place they can't get to in any other way, while The Hobbit, by Tolkien, is set in a world where the author even invents languages especially for the reader."

Poole looked for two criteria when deciding which authors to include in this series. "The first was that they had made a positive contribution to children's literature and created a new genre. Second, they had to have had big enough lives to sustain a film about them."

The twist in the tail of An Awfully Big Adventure is that it reveals how the light in these books frequently emerged from great darkness in the authors' own lives. Grahame's son - on whom Toad in The Wind in the Willows was based - committed suicide, for example, while Nesbit and Dahl both had a child die. "A marked trend in all these people is that they became children's writers because they had unfinished business with their own childhoods," Poole reflects. "Their books were often the result of a struggle with stuff that's not very joyful at all. They show in a striking way how writers can transform certain experiences and turn them into something completely different.

"In their lives, they were dealing with difficulty, adversity, inadequacy, failure," he carries on. "If you look at their lives and work, there is a compelling link. The power of these books and their ability to stay in people's minds long after they've read them stems from the writers' need to transcend all the personal setbacks with joyful works. They present a world of optimism, which is why parents feel so nostalgic about them."

The featured authors are also notable for the way in which their books have universal appeal across the social spectrum. "One of the people we talked to for the series was Norman Willis, the former trade union leader," recalls Poole. "He's an absolute, fully paid-up Arthur Ransome fanatic. He says something along the lines of, `I was brought up in a grimy city, a working-class world, and imaginatively I wanted to be somewhere else. I didn't know Ransome's characters were middle-class; I just wanted to go on adventures with those children.' The best children's books cut across class boundaries."

Himself the father of young children, Poole is concerned about the future of children's literature. "This kind of big, classic children's book is under pressure because children's culture is fragmenting," he reckons. "Roald Dahl might be seen as the last of the line. A lot of the things children do have been dispersed into the world of video games and CD Roms."

The irony is that the closest many children may now come to these classic children's authors is by watching a television programme about them.

`An Awfully Big Adventure' starts at 6pm tonight on BBC2