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.


Sandra Horn said…
I have read quite a few stories by Elizabeth Goudge, and have gone back to some, and always wish I hadn't. It's like those sticky, sickly sweets you don't really want but do eat. Strange!
Susan Price said…
Griselda, by a really odd coincidence, I came across a copy of The Little White Horse in my newly re-opened local Barnado's shop. I'd never read it but so many friends had raved about and been surprised that I'd missed it, that I thought I would catch up.

At first I was charmed -- I think the writing of the opening chapters and the world created is undeniably warm and charming. I can see why friends were so keen on it, I thought.

But the more I read, the more I agreed with you and Sandra. Nothing happens! Whenever anything threatens to oppose our oh so charming heroine and hero, it's immediately and very easily overcome. With, as Griselda says, lots of forelock tugging and curtseying. There is none of the reality or danger that you find in, say, the Narnia books.

The villains of the piece, the Black Men -- Well! What exactly is their great sin, apart from not agreeing with the lord of the manor? They reminded me of the points Jan Needle made so well, in his 'Wildwood' about the 'wicked' stoats in 'Wind in the Willows.'

And the lecturing and hectoring of the heroine that she is not to be 'curious' and not to be 'aggravating.' I was so surprised by it that, at first, I assumed it must be ironic. As the story went on, it was surely going to demonstrate that curious and aggravating is the only way to be. But no. The writer evidently intended this as wise advice to her female readers. Do not ask questions. Do not aggravate by impertinently asking questions.

I have to say the book disappointed me a lot. I can only imagine that my friends were so charmed by the charming early chapters that they forgot all about the rest!
Nicky said…
I've been thinking about this a lot, so this is a very timely post. How much tension does a book need to work with children? Received wisdom is tonnes but some books work because they are safe and nothing much happens. (Not an easy sell that these days) Really interesting post.
Susan Price said…
I know what you mean, Nicky. My 'The Drover's Dogs' was turned down by publishers because it was 'too quiet.' I don't think, personally, that a book has to have lots of danger/fights/explosions/near-death experiences to be absorbing but I think you have to feel that something has happened in the sense of puzzles being solved, a success attained, an attitude changed. And it has to deliver what it promised. If a book dangles the promise that a favourite toy will be refound after being lost in the park and it eventually is, then that can be a gripping, absorbing story.

But I felt that The Little White Horse promised much more than it ever got around to delivering. There was loads of cosiness and charm but the promised adventure never really arrived. Everything was too easy and the cosiness was, in the end, stifling.
Peter Leyland said…
I enjoyed reading this Griselda. My grandson (8) reads lots of Enid Blyton, Secret Seven and Famous Five. I remember well The Adventurous Four, and I loved The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne and the Katy books by Susan Coolidge. I wonder how these would be viewed today?
Eden Baylee said…
Oh wow, now I feel old! I've not read Elizabeth Goudge. Perhaps it's because her books were not taught in Canadian schools when I was attending.

Still, based on your post, I'm now curious to learn more about her. :)

Griselda Heppel said…
Susan,that is extraordinary! You and I both happening to pick up a copy of The Little White Horse, thinking we'd be in for a treat, and then both being sadly disappointed for exactly the same reasons. I was prepared for a wave of outrage from fans of the book, so your opinion - and that of everyone who's kindly commented - is most heartening. I agree that its popularity must be down to the atmosphere of charm and cosiness. I also wonder if the date it appeared, 1946, was significant in that after 6 years of war, adults were longing to give their children unthreatening stories of pure escapism with a carefree, wholesome aura.

Peter, that's great that your grandson loves Enid Blyton. She really knew how to make children feel they're having a thrilling adventure. To my shame I never read Coral Island (perhaps that should be next on my list) but I loved the What Katy Did books. In fact Jacqueline Wilson, also a fan, has updated the story with a Katy who doesn't make a miraculous recovery from her accident. My first thought was no, that's a travesty... but now I see that a more realistic view of disability is needed in children's books. And Wilson is such a great writer, she will have done a brilliant job.

Thanks all, for your comments!
Sue Sims said…
I'm on both sides. I loved The Little White Horse as a child, but never encountered any of Goudge's other books till adulthood: twee sugar lumps with honey. But I still enjoy The Little White Horse, and can only assume it's the nostalgia factor. And Wiggins and Wrolf.
Susan Price said…
Griselda, I think you're probably on to something when you mention the date LWH was published. After all those years of war, uncertainty and rationing, the book's sweetness must have had a big appeal. And the opening, where the scene is being set, is immensely appealing and charming -- it's only after that, where you expect the story and characters to develop, that everything slumps.

Sue Sims - Wiggins is a great character, one of the best in the book. Come to think of it, several of the characters are lively and likeable -- but then the writer doesn't do anything much with them.

Popular posts

A Few Discreet Words About Caesar's Penis--Reb MacRath

The Year of Just Being There: Dipika Mukherjee looks back at 2016

Close Reading | Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose | Karen Kao

A Week of Three Libraries -- Julia Jones

Why Would You Vote for Peter Duck? You Don’t Have To -- Julia Jones