Reviews 2018

British Working-Class Writing for Children: Scholarship Boys in the Mid-Twentieth Century

British Working-Class Writing for Children: Scholarship Boys in the Mid-Twentieth Century. Haru Takiuchi. Palgrave Macmillan, 2017. 218 pages. £72.00 (hardback).

British Working-Class Writing for Children: Scholarship Boys in the Mid-Twentieth Century is part of the valuable series Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature. Haru Takiuchi assesses the contribution of working-class children’s authors active in the 1960s and 1970s to the reshaping of British writing and publishing for children. He examines three of what he describes as "scholarship boys" - working-class children granted a grammar school education. He looks at how they used their experience of middle-class education for the development of a literature that reflected working-class life. His premise is that this group was responsible for changing the prevailing attitude of publishers and the literary establishment to working-class readers. Although he references several such contributors, he focuses on Aidan Chambers, Robert Westall and Alan Garner, concentrating on works where the main protagonist is a working-class scholarship boy.

The book is divided into three parts – the first looks at class and children’s publishing, the second highlights the experiences of scholarship boys, and the final one looks at the role of criticism and reviewing. Takiuchi’s introduction provides an overview of working-class children’s literature and a brief analysis of class. He claims the three writers discussed in the book propagated the ideal of an integration of classes.

Takiuchi’s most significant argument is that the authors represented here did not just contribute to the writing of working-class children’s fiction, but that they also influenced criticism and publishing: in both cases their influence came from their other roles as teachers in state schools, librarians or journalists campaigning for books that reflected the lives of their working-class readers.

The second part of the book provides an overview of the education system and how it applied to working-class children in the context of Chambers' Breaktime (1978) and Dance on My Grave (1982). In this section, and in much of the book, Takiuchi relies on Richard Hoggart’s and Pierre Bourdieu’s work, including The Uses of Literacy (2009) and Distinction: a Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste (1984). Takiuchi proposes that the class cultural nature of the grammar school not only disadvantaged working-class students but also alienated them from their backgrounds. He asserts that this assimilation was a deliberate action to separate scholarship pupils from their origins.

Takiuchi then discusses Garner, whom he perceives as the most radical of working-class writers in this period: although Garner moved furthest away from his roots, he was the one who most fully re-engaged with them. Takiuchi explores Garner’s views on the results of his education, and the importance of his rural, working-class culture with its strong oral tradition. For Takiuchi, Garner’s Red Shift testifies to Garner’s awareness that the dominant culture imposes itself on other classes, and that it ensures that the dominated class supports its own domination.

Finally, Takiuchi turns his attention to the role of criticism in the formation of a canon of children’s literature. He asks whether the books praised by reviewers and critics are better, or they just meet their own standards and values, and those of the dominant culture and class they represent. Takiuchi reflects on Chambers’ contribution to this discussion and points out that it was the critical reaction to Garner’s The Owl Service (1967) that spurred Chambers to change the field of critical work. Takiuchi quotes Chambers’ recollection of his working-class pupils’ reaction to the book and his recognition that his pupils understood the final scene in a way that the middle-class reviewer could not.

Takiuchi undertakes a thorough analysis of The Owl Service and its reviewing and critical history. He believes that much of the criticism of the two male protagonists stems from critics not having taken into account the role of class in the novel. He examines this role in great depth, looking at the different classes of the protagonists, the effect of middle-class education on working-class Gwyn, and the class tension seeping into the underlying jealousy. He then looks closely at how criticism has dealt with the book, stating that although the class tension was perceived by reviewers, it was delegitimised through ignoring Gwyn’s class anger. Takiuchi believes that the ending is now seen as a personal conflict between Roger and Gwyn, and that this is where the reaction of Chambers’ pupils is more reliable than that of the contemporary and current reviewer.

Although overall Takiuchi’s book is a valuable contribution to the discussion of class in children’s literature, there are a few issues with it: this is a PhD thesis in the form of loosely connected essays including masterly coverage of the use of swearing in Westall’s The Machine Gunners (1975). However, little has been done to make it a coherent monograph. There are also several editing errors in the citations and there is no central bibliography, which this reviewer personally dislikes. There are also some passages where it is obvious that Takiuchi is not writing in his first language. Mostly, this means they are simply disjointed but may also obfuscate the author’s point. More historical context would have been useful, with further analysis of the education system. Finally, Takiuchi falls into the trap that he warns against – seeing these books from a middle-class perspective. He also makes the mistake of accepting the ideal of attaining middle-class culture, thus assuming working-class culture is in some way inferior.

Although the topic of class is not new, the strength of Takiuchi’s argument is his analysis of the writers’ contribution to children’s literature emerging from their cross-class experience. One of its most valuable attributes is in his use of the archives of Seven Stories and conversations with the writers, as he allows them to speak for themselves and to explain their motives and experiences. Finally, British Working-Class Writing for Children enables the reader to understand the true price these scholarship boys paid for their education. As Takiuchi points out, "bourgeois cultural dominance was a part of a system to tame the selected bright working-class children" (195).

Jane Rosen
Independent Scholar