Children’s books: whose pick?
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
There’s a nice mini exhibition of E. H. Shepard’s illustrations for The Wind in the Willows at Nymans, a National Trust house in Handcross, West Sussex. The house previously belonged to the Messel family, originally from Darmstadt in Germany. Shepard was a friend of the family and visited Nymans in the early 30s, and may have found inspiration from those visits to the house.
The Times, in its mania for lists (see my recent post on Waugh in Chagford), recently compiled one of “The 50 books that every child should read”, in which The Wind in the Willows came 3rd. I have to confess that when I reread the book not so long ago I found it rather disappointing: meandering to the point of tedium. But that’s by the by. These lists, on this occasion the work of seven experts on children’s literature, cry out to be picked apart, of course.
My first objection would be to the word “should”: says who? It smacks of the “this will be good for you even if you don’t enjoy it” mentality; I only say this because I took soundings close to home and came up with an alternative list of books (so I’m doing it now . . .): absent, wrongly in my view, were The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Charlotte’s Web or The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White, Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies, Walkabout by James Vance Marshall, anything by Lauren St John, Michael Morpurgo, Enid Blyton (yes, I’m afraid so – golly!), the Lemony Snicket books, Cornelia Funke and – weirdly – Hans Christian Andersen.
And what topped the Times list? The Hobbit, of course. There was just one book, Matilda, by Roald Dahl (whom, I have to confess, I’ve always found wilfully zany, but I can see the brilliance if not genius). Beatrix Potter gets just one entry: The Tale of Peter Rabbit; for sheer terror, The Tale of Samuel Whiskers (“ . . . make me a kitten dumpling roly-poly pudding for my dinner”) might have been a better choice. No Edward Ardizzone? Shame.
Elsewhere on the list are the too-weird-for-my-taste Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster and The Wolves of Willoughby Chase by Joan Aiken, which features wolves in C19 Kent – come off it! The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier, the story of three children’s struggle for survival in Nazi-occupied Europe, is by common consent a great book, as is the closer-to-home story of survival Goodnight Mister Tom by Michelle Magorian. But it’s a pity no room could be found for the Morris Gleitzman books Once, Then and Now about a ten-year-old Jewish boy in occupied Poland.
But I’m now falling into the trap of picking “ought to be read” books. Perhaps the best thing for adults/parents is to suggest titles gently, and for them not to show disappointment if their own childhood favourites fail to find favour. These kinds of lists always have as many supporters as opponents (on a melancholy personal note, I couldn’t help noticing the number of books that had passed me by as a child and parent and that I would probably now never read). Among the correspondence it provoked was one letter that caught my eye:
“What an ill-considered list. Top of the list? The cringe-making Hobbit, safe in his feebly imagined olde worlde 'Shire', surrounded by Oxbridge dons – I mean 'wizards' – quaffing real ale and smoking pipes while defeating those horrid proletarian Orcs. All the other usual suspects: the creepy Maurice Sendak, loved by Freudian parents, loathed by children; The Wind in the Willows, only redeemed by its illustrations; Roald Dahl, despite his being forced on children by film and musical makers. Just check the falling sales and borrowing figures for those books. Almost every title in the list is what an adult imagines a child ought to read. No Jacqueline Wilson?”
Strong stuff. The letter-writer? Ralph Lloyd-Jones, a librarian from Nottingham. He should know.
And, for what it’s worth, what did the TLS make of The Wind in the Willows back in 1908? The review is worth quoting, as they say, in full: