Should the TLS review children’s books?
By MICHAEL CAINES
Should the TLS review children's books? Because it certainly used to – and here, at the editorial office, we still irregularly receive a few "books for the young", as they were sometimes called when the TLS did carry such reviews. There's nothing we can do with them now, however, since the responses to two reader surveys in the 1990s led to such reviews being discontinued. I wonder what readers think twenty years on.
The question is prompted by the British Library's new free exhibition in the Folio Gallery, Picture This: Children's illustrated classics, which opened last Friday, and which features some children's classics (as if talking about fortysomethings' or pensioners' classics is the norm) that the TLS did review.
One of the earliest reviews of all, for example, in issue no. 38 (October 3, 1902), took note of Kipling's "healthy, humorous, quite unmawkish" Just So Stories, and makes the point that "No writer of a book for children but lets slip something of his views on education"; does the same hold true today for the likes of Michael Morpurgo, Michael Rosen, J. K. Rowling et al? The reviewer also took a liking to Kipling's own "vigorous" illustrations in black and white, which Kipling himself would have preferred to see in colour. Uncoloured, however, "every line is full of humour and spirit", as in this view of the Elephant's Child in the grip of the Crocodile's "musky, tusky mouth":
Autograph printer's copy of "The Elephant's Child", Just So Stories. Illustrations by Rudyard Kipling © British Library Board
The paper later caught up with Roald Dahl's James and the Giant Peach and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory simultaneously, in 1967, enjoying both very much, although finding the writing in Charlie "more frantic" and "attention-grabbing" than in James. The verses were good, though. "Good illustrations, too." (Above is a "re-illustration" by Michael Foreman from the 1980s.)
On the same page, incidentally, there's a single sentence thumbs-up for Ralph Steadman's Jelly Book, demonstrating a traditional method of testing out an adult opinion against those of younger readers:
"If the children at Westminster Children's Hospital (to whom this book is dedicated) laugh as much as two boys of five and seven have at this, all hospitals had better invest in a copy . . . ."
But spontaneity of response isn't the only test. In an appreciative account of Moominland Midwinter, nine years earlier, Edward Blishen marvelled at the language Tove Jansson and her translator Thomas Warburton used, such as her description, on the second page, of night as being "deep and expectant", and a blizzard as "a bewitched whirl of damp and dancing darkness". "Very difficult indeed", Blishen judged, "for many sevens and eights: not easy, for many nines and tens." But if children needed adult assistance with the book, the adult might be pleasantly surprised, too: "there is always a sense", he wrote, "in which a commentary on real life is implied; especially, here, in the wonderful skiing Hemulen, who is the clumsy hearty set down among creatures more shy and private than himself".