The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature
Reviewed by Ernest Davis
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:5 (#346) in May 2011.]
The Cambridge Companion to Children’s Literature is a collection of sixteen essays in literary criticism of children’s literature, on thematic topics. There is also a chronology, mostly publication dates of major works, with an unusual focus on book production and printing technology; e.g. “1931, Jean de Brunhoff, The Story of Babar, an outstanding early example of offset colour lithography.” The essays are, for the most part, very well written, erudite, thought-provoking, and informative. The books discussed form a remarkably eclectic collection, spanning a broad historical range; there is much more on 18th and even 17th century literature than I usually see in this kind of collection. The one significant limitation is that, with occasional exceptions, only books first published in English are considered. Most importantly, the tone is, for the most part, appreciative rather than adversary; authors and illustrators are viewed as creative artists who are doing their best to produce worthwhile reading, rather than stooges of the Ideological State Apparatus.
Two of the essays, it seemed to me, are significantly weaker than the rest. “Animal and object stories” by David Rudd is, as far as I know, the debut of a new form of political correctness-based criticism; that of animal rights. In this view an animal story is worthwhile to the degree that it realistically portrays the suffering of animals at the hands of humans. Thus, Black Beauty and Arlene Sardine (about a sardine that ends up in a can) are given high marks, whereas Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows are scorned as hopelessly anthropomorphic. Whatever the ethical merits of this viewpoint, it does not, it seems to me, say anything valuable about animal stories as a literary genre. The second, Roderick McGillis in “Humor and the body in children’s literature’’, promotes two ideas: switching big and little is funny, and bodily functions are funny.
But the rest of the essays are all worthwhile, and some are excellent. Let me briefly discuss three that I found particularly interesting. Richard Flynn’s “The fear of poetry’’ finds much to bemoan in the way that poetry is currently written for, collected for, and taught to children. In his caustic phrase, “While we don’t need any more ‘Hoary Chestnuts: Poems Adults Think are Good For You,’ neither do we need any more ‘Because I Could Not Pick My Nose: Poems Guaranteed to Gross Out Your Parents.’” Flynn is particularly unimpressed with the poems of Jack Prelutsky, the current U.S. Children’s Poet Laureate, who is an example of the latter. Likewise, Flynn finds that the teaching of poetry in school tends to focus on writing poetry rather than reading poetry, and to favor such forms as free verse and haiku, which rarely interest children.
But Flynn’s essay seems to me stronger on the negative than on the positive side. We can all agree that the teacher who forbade her students to use rhyme in their poems because it “gets in the way of their self-expression’’ is some kind of relative of Dolores Umbridge. But I am not convinced, on the basis of this essay, that I would choose Flynn to put together a reading list for a fifth-grade poetry class. His consistent preference is for poetry which is “challenging”, which is fine up to a point, but obviously runs the risk of that you end up having the children memorize “The Wasteland” under the baleful eye of the Tiger Mother. Also, he hardly discusses the most common interaction of children with poetry, namely in the lyrics of songs; certainly a major omission in this kind of essay.
In her essay “Children’s texts and the grown-up reader”, U.C. Knoepflmacher is, strictly speaking, cheating; the essay has almost nothing to do with the title subject. Rather it is mostly a fascinating discussion of one of the strangest frames in children’s literature, the first chapter of The Borrowers, with its three levels of indirection (Kate hears the story from Mrs. May, who heard it from her brother) and its unreliable narrator. Knoepflmacher analyses Norton’s own account of how she came to create the story, the structure of the opening chapter, the information given throughout the story about the boy and about Mrs. May, various details from the text and the illustrations that either shed light or (deliberately) don’t fit; and she shows how these make the story both richer and more tantalizingly elusive.
My favorite essay, though, is “Picture-book worlds and ways of seeing,” by Katie Trumpeter. The conventional wisdom about writing survey articles is that, above all, you must avoid the trap of simply listing a lot of stuff. This article does just that, brilliantly. (In fairness, the article also has some general discussion, also very interesting.) It enumerates some hundreds of titles, authors, and illustrators — some classics, some I have heard of, most entirely new to me — with a succinct, precise, and vivid descriptions of their contribution to the art of children’s illustration; and I now want to go out and look at them all. “Beatrix Potter’s Tale of Two Bad Mice, Wanda Gág’s Snippy and Snappy, Marjorie Flack’s Angus and the Cat, and William Nicholson’s Clever Bill view the human world from the stance of mouse, dog, or tin soldier, sometimes bending or refracting perspective in the process.” “Madlenka … explores a single New York City block using differently scaled visualizations, from an aerial city map to 360-degree circular mapping … of each building. In the process Sís reconciles apparently disparate genres within expository picture books: sketchbook experiments in perspective and cross-section; city planning books; panoramas.” “William Kurelek’s A Prairie Boy’s Winter recalls … Depression-era rural poverty; yet the apparently monotonous prairie landscape proves visually rich, teaching the author to see and to paint. Kurelek’s semi-naïve tableaux record striking compositional conjunctures: fresh truck track on snowy road; skaters’ rigid, asymmetrical legs bisecting flat prairie horizons; snowfall, blizzard, or snowplough backdraft changing the quality of light; a woman bending over the fence, calling the pigs; transparent water becoming opaque skating-rink ice.” (I did actually buy a copy of Kurelek after reading Trumpeter’s description.)
Since this is Mythprint, I should add that there is little discussion of Tolkien — Bilbo is praised as an instance of a “non-macho” hero — and less of Lewis. But many other famous authors fare no better; the emphasis here is on thematic criticism rather than on criticism of individual authors and books. The essay on fantasy is unfortunately one of the weaker ones in the collection.