What makes a children's classic? asks Griselda Heppel
Being a sucker for children’s books, I’m often drawn to those shelves in a bookshop – only to wonder how many well-established authors of a bygone era would have a chance of being published today. Take Enid Blyton; her stereotypical characters, mediocre writing style and gloriously un-pc assumptions about class and nationality would surely send her straight to the bottom of any slush pile. Yet 50 years after her death, her books still sell in their millions worldwide. Why? Because despite all these shortcomings (which earned her plenty of criticism even in her own lifetime), she knew how to craft a cracking good story, whether it be about a mysterious tree that played host to different magical lands, or about groups of children solving mysteries and going on adventures. She was, in short, a genius.
Blyton’s books will never achieve ‘classic’ status though because they aren’t ones you’d pick up as an adult to enjoy. Children’s books still in print half a century and more after written generally are so because they’ve become classics, possessing qualities that can be appreciated at any age. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Winnie the Pooh, The Secret Garden, the Narnia books, The Phantom Tollbooth… Until a few weeks ago, I’d have trusted any children’s book considered a classic to be worth reading, because its quality would shine through, no matter in what era originally published.
Then I picked up The Little White Horse by Elizabeth Goudge.
I am now going to upset all those people for whom – like J K Rowling – this was their favourite book as a child. I had great hopes of it, and in fact it starts well, with 13 year-old Maria being sent to live at Moonacre, a hidden estate in the west country owned by a distant cousin. It soon emerges that her destiny is to save Moonacre from the wicked marauding Men in Black and restore its prosperity. Unfortunately, the cosiness of the plot allows not the slightest frisson of danger. Everywhere Maria turns, deferential, rosy-cheeked villagers fall over themselves to help her; while the author’s use of authoritative male figures to curb her heroine’s natural curiosity and impatience as ‘unwomanly’ is more patriarchal than anything Blyton is guilty of. (All the more irritating when it’s clear this moral framework is needed as a plot device, to prevent Maria finding out clues too quickly.)
Would I have felt differently had I read The Little White Horse aged 8? Hard to say. I think I’d have quite liked it but not bothered to read it more than once. The lack of intensity, the ease with which Maria wins all hearts and dutifully performs the tasks set her – I can’t imagine her story would have gripped so much that it would become part of me.
Nor is it just a question of judging unfairly by modern standards. The Little White Horse was first published in 1946, 30 years after Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden and A Little Princess. Yet Mary Lennox and Sara Crewe leap out of the pages of these two books with all the strength, fighting spirit and clear-eyed ability to judge the flawed adult world of any heroine of a contemporary children’s novel. Compared with them, poor Maria Merryweather comes across as an engaging, obedient character, only too happy to be guided by all the (mostly male) adults around her. Yawn.