Small shoes; small reviews: media treatment of children’s literature, Barbara Mabbett

It is a truth universally acknowledged that value of labour is associated with size of client: children’s nurses and teachers, for instance, are almost always paid less that those who nurse or teach people whose shoes and wallets are somewhat larger. It seems that this dismaying principle also applies to the reviewing of literature for children.

In New Zealand, most newspapers and some journals, such as the New Zealand Listener, regularly carry reviews of books for children, as does Radio New Zealand. New Zealand Books provides a page in about two out of three issues, and, as one would expect, gives more extensive and detailed attention than the other media. Why complain? Because even in the best of these instances, children’s literature receives short shrift when compared with the treatment of books for adults.

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In the preface to Only Connect (1980), the collection of readings on children’s literature, Sheila Egoff defined the aim of the compilers as:

to find selections that deal with children’s literature as an essential part of the whole realm of literary activity, to be discussed in the same terms and judged by the same standards that would apply to any other branch of writing. We do not subscribe to the view that the criticism of children’s books calls for the adoption of a special scale of values. We looked for insight and informed contemporary thinking.

 

What, then, are the terms and standards customarily expected in reviews of most branches of literary activity? The first requirement, surely, is for each item to be considered in its own right. In fiction, we anticipate an exploration of how the writer invites the reader into the narrative, and captures attention and engagement. We want to know if the book rings true; if it opens an imaginative door. We hope for comment on special qualities that the author brings to particular aspects such as the treatment of the setting in time and place; the credibility, integrity, development, and relationships of the characters; the richness, simplicity, or vitality of the literary style, and the sense of story. We appreciate some sense of the overarching theme, and the relationship between this book and other works by the author or other significant examples of the genre. And reviewers often cite from the book to exemplify their points.

I look in vain for these qualities in most of the reviews of children’s literature. This is not, I believe, because of the reviewers, and certainly not because the works they review are insubstantial. Rather, it is because children’s books are almost invariably reviewed in clusters – a “clutch” of titles, sometimes from quite different genres, is gathered together and each title is given “equal” space, often very limited. The morning hosts on National Radio talk for around fifteen minutes with the reviewer of an adult book – even one where both agree that it has little merit or interest – but allot the same time to discussing four or five works for children. An average of four children’s or Young Adult books is reviewed on one page in New Zealand Books. There is a case for discussing more than one title in an extended review, as drawing comparisons can illuminate the works in question, but this choice is only valid if the books are indeed comparable in quality, genre, and audience.

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There are now several university courses in children’s literature, so we have in New Zealand a number of excellent, perceptive critics who are able to consider new works in relation to historical, social, and literary perspectives. As children’s books are neither published nor purchased by the intended readers, but rather by adults on their behalf, I believe such informed reviewing has a significant role to play, both in raising the quality of publishing and in promoting understanding among purchasers.

In his contribution to Only Connect, John Rowe Townsend points out that adults are inevitably governed in their selections by a “complex social-institutional-economic equation”, which obliges them to choose what they believe the child ought to have, rather than necessarily what may please the child. Given our tendency to hope that books will convey a set of approved values, Townsend is especially concerned that we should be alert to the dangers of didacticism – of evaluating books by the wrong standards. He suggests that these standards have led us to “look on books as ammunition in the battle” for or against some cause: discrimination, injustice, animal rights or whatever. Townsend argues that “[i]t is not irrelevant that a book may contribute to moral perception or social adjustment … but in writing there is no substitute for the creative imagination and in criticism there is no criterion except literary merit.”

Picture books, which are especially important because they are the first books children encounter, are often seriously short-changed. In the cramped spaces available, they are “reviewed” in simplistic terms of “catchy rhythms”, “bright pictures”, or “good readalongs”. Yet they have an absolutely vital role to play in a child’s development: through the experience of handling and hearing picture books, children’s worlds are extended in concepts, language, visual imagery, emotion, and information. They recognise landscapes and creatures that they will never see; they hear the metaphors of the language and the story of the tribe. Diverse illustrative styles invite visual and imaginative exploration.

Gavin Bishop’s most recent title, Tom Thumb: the true story of Sir Thomas Thumb (2001), would reward thoughtful consideration by a reviewer. It is lavish, rich, and elegant, with opening double-page spreads setting a baroque stage for the magical retelling. The narrative of each discrete adventure, told in the uncompromising vocabulary of the traditional folktale, is framed and set apart from further double-page spreads elaborating on the bald text in exuberant and diverse styles. The detail in the illustrations invites further exploration, and could helpfully be compared with Bishop’s other work, including the picaresque tale of the sheep, Bidibidi, the clear, sharp style of The Three Little Pigs, and the stylised, bold retelling of Maui and the Goddess of Fire.

It is remarkable too that in spite of the deserved publicity and praise for Lynley Dodd’s adventures of Hairy McLary and his friends, the only extended examination of her achievement I have seen focused on the stage presentation. It could be timely to reflect on the special quality of those tales – her dogs, cats, duck and so on are shown as real animals, with no hint of anthropomorphism: not for them the tidy pantry of Ratty, the burst buttons of Tom Kitten, or the pyjamas of the various little bears. Dodd’s dogs go on with their doggy lives, with no speech bubbles or intrusive authorial interpretations, and children are able to relate to them as they do to real animals, not as portrayals of childish virtues or mischief.

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It is rare to see substantial reviews of non-fiction for children, yet many children revel in information – “real facts”. They gather assorted bits of knowledge, just as they delight in assembling collections of shells or rocks or picture cards of All Blacks. James Britton, the English educationalist who has done much to extend teachers’ understanding of writing, devised the term “transactional” to describe the ways we write when we are “participants” – observing, recording, reporting, theorising, or classifying the world as it is. He contrasts this with the way we shape those observations, usually into “poetic” writing as fiction or poetry, when we stand back as a “spectator” and shape, adjust, and adapt our picture of the world, “improvising upon actual or possible experience” (The Development of Writing, 1973). Children are entitled to encounter a wide variety of excellent examples of the whole range of authors’ works, not just the storybook. Neither poetry nor any of the many styles of non-fiction feature among regular book reviews for children. If nothing else, the enormous popularity of the “Cross Sections” books should have alerted editors to the validity of having non-fiction books treated seriously in their reviewing pages.

I was much encouraged recently by an honourable exception in – where else? – New Zealand Books, which I hope is a harbinger of more substantial treatment: David Hill’s extended consideration of Jack Lasenby’s Kalik (August 2002 issue) and its place as the fourth and final volume of the Travellers quartet. Hill emphasised the changing landscapes, which establish and reinforce the mood and movement of the action, the crisp, image-packed sentences, and Lasenby’s gift for portraying characters who challenge readers to think about qualities such as leadership, loyalty, friendship – and betrayal. The travellers encounter fierce tribalism where people “have no sense of others as being like themselves” and lack the reverence for life that lies at the base of moral philosophy. Lasenby’s achievement could also be related to that of other writers, such as Sherryl Jordan, Philip Pullman, and even the iconic Tolkien. Lasenby is not the only New Zealand children’s writer who has earned a comparable place in the critical literature. Shortly before Christmas 2001, too, National Radio broadcast a series of fifteen-minute talks about individual stories for children, examining each in detail and exploring its place in our literary heritage. Of special interest for me was the analysis of Margaret Mahy’s The Haunting.

So now I have proof twice over that it can be done. We can have a reflective, perceptive analysis of a work for children that does justice to the vision and painstaking care of the author, and respects the child as a reader. As Margaret Meek wrote in The Cool Web (1977), “though the audience of children’s literature is juvenile, its matter is highly complex, potent, and a proper study for scholars.”

 

Barbara Mabbett is a Wellington educationalist, writer and editor, with a special interest in libraries and literacy.

 

 

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