DJ Taylor: Let's forget about imposing our tastes on our children

The trouble is that the roots of this list of 'great books' lie in adult nostalgia

Thursday 24 April 2014 05:59

The debate about "classic" children's literature comes round as regularly as the Victorian muffin man. Like the Victorian muffin man, it usually has a determinedly retro air.

And so, hearing about the list of 35 all-time greats devised by the children's laureate Michael Rosen and his predecessors, I wasn't in the least surprised to find that only five of them were published in the last twenty years or that a fifth dated from the nineteenth century. The average bookshop browser might imagine that we inhabit a kind of golden age, stalked and illuminated by such newly-arrived masters of the form as J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman; the experts, curious to relate, think different.

In many ways a skim through the chart produced by messrs Rosen, Morpurgo and Blake, and Mesdames Fine and Wilson is a rather bracing experience. Founded on the principle of piling them high and selling them cheap, modern bookselling is also, inter alia, primed to uphold mainstream orthodoxies, and a top of the range pundits' selection short on amber spyglasses, where the Death Eater no longer roams, has a beguiling tang of novelty. Wonderful, too, to find Jacqueline Wilson plumping for such classics of the genre as Louisa M. Alcott's Little Women and E. Nesbit's The Railway Children, as well as votes for 1930s highlights like T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone and Noel Streatfeild's Ballet Shoes.

And yet, eyeing up the list and wondering how it might go down with its target audience, I saw instantly that it harbours all the faults that commonly attach themselves to exercises of this kind. Notwithstanding Michael Rosen's proud claim that he tried all his selections (including Oliver Twist) out on his own family, it is a roster compiled by adults of the kind of books adults think children ought to read – rather, that is, the kind of books that children want to read themselves. The musical equivalent, you fear, would be a gang of middle-aged rock critics temporarily let loose in the pages of some young person's pop paper and informing their black-clad readership that Sgt Pepper and Dark Side of the Moon were the defining albums of the epoch.

There is no getting round the prescriptive element in any adult/child engagement with literature, because its roots will nearly always lie in adult nostalgia, the grown-up seeking to recreate an experience which may have its origins in books but frequently transcends the confines of literature altogether. I remember Auberon Waugh once explaining how his father, very keen on the idea of reading aloud to a captive audience, used regularly to regale his brood with selections from Richard Jeffries' Bevis, the Story of a Boy (1882), a fine old Victorian anachronism that produced yawns all round. Evelyn, delighted with it as a pre-Great War schoolboy, merely assumed that the torch could be endlessly handed on.

In much the same way, none of my children could ever be got to take any interest in Richmal Crompton's Just William or Enid Blyton's Famous Five series, which feature here. It is not that the social settings and the behavioural assumptions have changed and that the monocultural plinth on which they rested has been blown into fragments, simply that the circumlocutions - the three pages of banter that precede William's owning up about the smashed window, the Blyton children's stylised chat – have begun to grate.

On the other hand, I have yet to meet a 21st-century child who didn't like Beatrix Potter: elemental artistry, you see, an immensely pointed wit peering out from beneath the surface archness, terrific economy of style, and, whenever Mr Tod or Samuel Whiskers slink on to the scene, a whiff of the genuinely sinister. The same point could be made of Laura Ingalls Wilder's run of Little House books. The setting might be post-bellum Dakota, and the attitudes to subjugated native races a touch unreconstructed ("Ma hated Indians" etc) but as Francis Spufford demonstrates in his wonderful The Child That Books Built, the moral dilemmas invoked – is it fair that the storekeeper in The Long Winter should try to make a killing out of wheat that Almanzo Wilder and Cap Garland have risked their lives for when everyone is starving? – have a universal force.

Going back to the laureates' "Best of", it would a splendid idea if this theory of superannuation could be tested out by way of some sales figures confirming which titles go down best. Meanwhile, there is a keen pleasure in the thought of Noel Streatfield and TH White crowding out a series of bookshop tables usually given over to little books of farting, full-frontal snogs and exploding underpants. And there I am again, making that fatal grown-up's mistake of trying to impose my tastes on younger readers, rather than encouraging them to work out what they like for themselves. One of the great unwritten rules of parenthood, 16 years' experience of that state insists, is that no child ever read a novel because the twinkly-eyed opinion former by the bookcase told them that they ought to.

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