on 15 July 2003
Alison Lurie supports the statement that, the authors who write most successfully for children write not as an adult talking to a juvenile audience, but as the child in themselves. Surely this is the secret behind the internationally stardom achieved by Hans C. Andersen, Louisa M. Alcott, L. Frank Baum, J.K. Rowling and many others discussed in this book. Lurie explores some significant aspects of the lives of the writers whose books are still popular today, but also of others, such as Walter de la Mare and John Masefield now considered old-fashioned by many contemporary critics.
In each short chapter dedicated to a writer, Lurie gives fascinating aspects of their life and, in some instances, she makes a connection with their literary work. We learn about L. Frank Baum’s emancipated female’s characters in his Wizard of Oz books, inspired by Matilda Gage, his mother in law who was an active member of the feminist movement and who encouraged Baum to send his first manuscript to the publishers.
Other chapter explores the Moomintroll books by Finish author Tove Jansson where Lurie makes and interesting comparison to the Milne’s Winnie the Pooh stories; The are also whole chapters dedicated to the Dr Seuss’ books; Harry Potter; Salman Rushdie’s Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Other sections deal particularly with fairy tales, children’s games, poetry and illustrations in children’s books. Disappointedly enough this last section is mainly devoted to illustrators of fairy tales and predominantly on Maurice Sendak and does not give a balanced perspective of the work of many artist, such as, Tenniel, Shepard, Garth Willimans, Gorey and many others who would have deserved, at least, an acknowledgement. This chapter would have also benefited by the inclusion of black and white or colour illustrations. On the other hand, we should realise that these articles are ‘reflections on children’s classic’ and don’t intend to be a comprehensive study on the subject.
This is a work of scholarly study on a subject that has been written abundantly in the past. Lurie needs to be praised for bringing into life unknown aspects of these authors and to give update information in line with the most recent biographical and critical studies carried out on the subject. The author makes reference to American and English edition of the books and there are many other international classics that have not being covered here, nevertheless the selection is significant and it offers an interesting insight into the books studied and the lives of the writes mentioned. There is a comprehensive bibliography of primary and of secondary sources of books and journals that the author has consulted in writing this book.
Lurie, a Professor of English Literature at Cornell, takes the opportunity to present a series of essays on children's classic literature ranging from discussions of Harry Potter to the works of Walter De La Mare. The work is eminently readable and strikes a balance between talking about the author, their life, their critical reception and their philosophies, and the works themselves. There is a good balance here between European, English, Scandinavian and American literature which works very well.
Lurie's style, despite her fearsome academic references is not intimidating at all and these are quite chatty, informal essays which even a rank novice to the world of children's literature could take on board with ease. She is clearly passionate about her subject and her interest and enthusiasm shines through.
One of the most interesting things for me is that Lurie is an American and her knowledge of the genre of her own country's writers is naturally more comprehensive. Her essays on Alcott and Frank L. Baum spring to mind in particular. Her writing on English writers is not deficient by any means and she has some thought provoking things to say, but there are little gaps in her knowledge which show up, particularly in her chapter on childhood games in the playground. She is the first to acknowledge this, and I don't raise it as a criticism, more as an observation.
I think the weakest of her chapters is on Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books, which feels rather rushed and unfinished in places. The result as a whole though is a fascinating book which is well written, well balanced and should be of interest to anyone who is in the process of rediscovering children's literature as an adult.
This book has dated a little since its publication in 2003. Telling readers about J.K. Rowling's early days in poverty, writing in Edinburgh coffee shops, is no longer necessary and, as another reader has noted, she seems to miss the point about Tove Jansson's Moomin series. Lurie appears more at home discussing American writers like Frank Baum (22 pages) rather than European ones (11 pages on the Moomins). Although perhaps with the success of Wicked, it's time for an Oz update! Overall, I found quite a few things to enjoy. However, since there are only 14 essays, it's a fairly slim volume and, if you have read the books discussed, you find you already know much of what is said.
on 6 July 2005
I love children's stories but have never really explored them in depth. This book is the perfect introduction. It is a pleasant, easy read, with lots of insight into the world of children's literature. A good introduction to the field.