Children’s Literature – Then and Now

Writing tutor Adam Lively delves into stories from childhood and explore their relevance today.

Like most people, my formative experience of reading fiction came as a child. There were not many children of my age in the small Oxfordshire village where I grew up, and I spent a lot of time alone – reading or playing solitary games in the fields around our house. Often the two were intimately connected: my reading would inspire fantasy games in which I elaborated on what I had read, putting myself at the centre of the action. During long summer holidays I would roam the undergrowth, stick in hand, re-enacting and out-doing the adventures of John, Susan, Titty and Roger in Swallows and Amazons. Many weightier books have passed through my hands since then, but though many of these may far surpass Swallows and Amazons in psychological depth, beauty of language or ingenuity of construction, few can match it in terms of the spell that it cast over my mind.

One of the joys of returning to reading children’s books later in life is the opportunity it affords to catch an echo of that profound absorption we experienced when young. I recently re-read Wind in the Willows for the first time in many years, and for a few wonderful hours was swept up once more in the companionable, bustling life of the riverbank, in Toad’s madcap escapades, in Ratty’s mystical yearnings for the Wide World. But at the same time, an adult perspective can bring in to focus elements of the narrative that may have completely passed us by as children. In the case of Wind in the Willows, I was struck this time around by the nature-worshipping paganism that reaches its climax in the strange “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” chapter, when Ratty and Mole come upon the god Pan on an island in the river. Like many Edwardian intellectuals, Kenneth Grahame looked to classical mythology to fill the void left by the death of a Christian God.

Children’s literature can be read simultaneously at many different levels. Children’s authors do not just address children – they also address their own “inner child”, or an idealised image of what they think children should be, or the adult who will often be reading the story alongside the child. The history of children’s literature, from its origins in the eighteenth-century to today’s world of Harry Potter and dystopian “young adult” fiction, presents a fascinating panorama of society’s changing attitude to children and childhood.

In the Introduction to Children’s Literature summer school course, while drawing comparisons with contemporary trends, we will focus primarily on classics of the so-called “Golden Age” of children’s literature – works such as The Water Babies, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and The Hobbit. For in these works we find both the first stirrings of a distinctively modern conception of childhood and the child, and also enduring examples of the imaginative richness that writers can attain when they throw off the shackles of adult realism and responsibility, and return to a world in which an Oxfordshire field can be a jungle, and a stick can transform itself into a cutlass.

Writing tutor Adam Lively delves into stories from childhood and explore their relevance today.

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