Reviews 2008

Popular Children’s Literature in Britain

Popular Children’s Literature in Britain. Edited by Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts and M.O. Grenby. Aldershot, UK and Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2008. xiv + 342 pages. £55 (hardback).

Dedicated to the late Julia Briggs, whose untimely death as it was in press robbed the world of children’s literature of one of its leading lights, this volume is a collection of sixteen essays whose literary subjects span more than six centuries. The editors acknowledge that the book was a long time in the making – more than ten years in fact – with many incarnations and a changing roster of contributors. When first conceived there could have been no final chapter on the Harry Potter series. Those whose contributions were withdrawn are credited with having nevertheless influenced the shape of the book, and their names are as eminent in their fields as are those whose work is represented in the published work.

Matthew Grenby’s general introduction highlights the difficulty in identifying how to assess what children’s literature has been truly popular, and indeed why certain books achieve popularity above others. The following chapters are then divided into four parts, the first two subtitled “Old Tales Retold,” looking at early material such as chapbooks and fairy tales, and “Forgotten Favourites,” a self-explanatory title for a reassessment of authors and series no longer popular. The third and fourth parts collect essays on very different topics, “Popular Instruction, Popularity Imposed,” looking at literature within popular education, scientific tracts and reward books, and the final part – “The Famous Three” - at the phenomena who were Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and J.K. Rowling. In addition to chapters by the editors themselves, the roll-call of contributors is impressive, including such well-known commentators as Brian Alderson (finishing and editing the initial work of George Speaight, who died in 2005), Dennis Butts, Kim Reynolds, Gillian Avery and Peter Hollindale, together with experts on very specific areas and authors, such as Kevin Carpenter on Robin Hood in Boys’ Weeklies, David Rudd on Blyton, and Judy Simons on Brazil’s influence on the school story.

Individually, the chapters make for entertaining and authoritative reading, extensively referenced and illuminatingly illustrated. There is no exhaustive bibliography, the section of “Further Reading” specifically stating that it contains no primary material, nor is it a complete catalogue of all the works cited within the individual essays. As a result, readers must rely on the annotations within individual chapters, which may be a source of irritation for some. Instead the contributors have drawn up some 200 titles, divided between the four parts of the main text, which will extend the reader’s knowledge of each topic discussed. The indexing appears to be generally accurate, if not exhaustive.

At the core of the book remains the unanswerable question of how to define and explain the popularity of individual texts. Many of the contributors also highlight the movement of a text from adult to child readership or vice versa, graphically depicted in the contribution on chapbooks, in which Grenby also questions the assumptions and unsupported statements which are too often found in scholarly argument. He cites, for example, John Simons and Gary Kelly, each of whom make categorical statements about the social class of children who read chapbooks without providing proof of their assertions – statements which Grenby considers very difficult to substantiate.

What emerges from the chapters in the first part of the book is the amazingly long life which Robin Hood stories, fairy tales and chapbook subjects have had through being adapted in style, content and medium of presentation through the ages to suit the child (and adult) audiences of different centuries. Notable in Part Two are the chapters by Elaine Lomax, which show Hesba Stretton’s work in a new light, and that of Dennis Butts on Barbara Hofland. Butts shows that Hofland was writing in the 1820s and 1830s what we would now label “crossover” novels, with which she hoped to instil virtues such as Decision, Moderation and Reflection (the titles of her novels of 1824, 1825 and 1826 respectively) in her young female readers. Part Three moves away from well-liked choices with young readers to consider those titles which were popular with adults directing the reading of the young, intending thereby to influence both their moral and intellectual education. The reception of these books by their young readers, Kim Reynolds asserts, is less easy to assess, but she concludes that these books created a vast commercial success for publishers, which in turn fostered the growth of a more imaginative children’s literature. In the great publishing successes of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries examined in the final part, the writers identify a variety of factors which have led to their enormous and lasting popularity, including product placement, the appreciation amongst young readers for the carnivalesque, and the security provided by series fiction.

Popular Children’s Literature in Britain is a lively, entertaining and scholarly collection, which takes us closer to seeing not only what has been popular reading with children over the centuries, but why it has become and often remained so throughout generations of young readers.

Bridget Carrington
Roehampton University, England