Feature Articles

A REVIEW by Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin

(Poetry Ireland News, January/February 2005)

Celia Keenan and Mary Shine Thompson (editors), Studies in Children’s Literature 1500-2000. Four Courts Press, €45 hb, €24.95 pb

I have to declare an interest. As one of the people quoted on the back of the dust-jacket of Studies in Children’s Literature 1500-2000, I must be expected to be warmly in favour of its enterprise of writing critically about children’s literature and in particular about children’s books in Ireland. And for me personally the fact that one of the children’s writers celebrated is my mother could not fail to be a deep satisfaction. More even than that, I find in a book like this a pretext for happy reminiscence of a time when reading for pleasure was an inexplicably approved indulgence, when books were – and I find children’s books at their best still are – much less predictable than so much writing for adults, and one read on in blessed freedom.

What can be added to this freedom by academic study? Well, there is the sense of validation we get from seeing our favourite writings taken seriously, the new names to follow up – such as Aidan Chambers, who sounds interesting when briefly mentioned by Kimberly Reynolds, in an essay which argues densely and intelligently about the things young people actually read, not all of them labelled ‘for teenagers’, and the way some books that target the young are perpetuating banal stereotypes. There’s the thrill of seeing such a wide range of genres and audiences as is considered here, and registering just how enormous a subject children’s literature is. I am especially aware of how much it has helped me to have a sense of historical depth in children’s writing, though in a patchier way that one might have hoped. Amanda Piesse’s short essay on what children read at school in the English sixteenth century, and the distorted echoes of the curriculum in Shakespeare, interestingly raises many more questions than it settles, but it loses point by its isolation. I wish someone had written a few equally provocative pieces on the long period between Shakespeare and the Victorians. At least one might have hoped for something on Maria Edgeworth. But a book like this, emerging from a conference, will always cover the ground less evenly than could be hoped, and from the Victorian period onward there’s quite a lot of depth as well as range in the contributions.

About half of the essays have an Irish subject, and some of the less familiar material illuminates odd moments of imagined history, as when, in Carole Dunbar’s piece, the ‘wild Irish’ girl in L. T. Meade’s Wild Kitty is expelled, along with a ‘low and vulgar’ English girl, from the upper-class paradise of boarding school. A discussion of the Talbot Press’s religious books for the children of the emerging Free State (Mary Flynn) is juxtaposed with accounts of the imagined Irelands of Patricia Lynch (Margaret Burke) and Eilís Dillon (Ciara Ní Bhroin), where we can feel how the pressures that turned the Free State into the Republic impacted on young people’s reading. It is very good to have that study of publishing in Ireland in the crucial period of revival and independence; one only wishes that there had been an equally penetrating account of some later stages, perhaps analysing the forces that led Irish writers to seek publication abroad, or a look at how later Irish publishers contributed to the flourishing state of children’s writing today.

Irish children in these earlier periods were, and still are, reading well beyond Ireland. I was entertained by Declan Kiberd’a energetic account of his early passions for English school stories, as he took apart the motives of fictional characters and the responses of a Dublin schoolboy with equal gusto. And a more staid history of a different alien scene, David Rudd’s ‘Golliwog: genealogy of a non-PC icon’, shows the mutations of the (originally American) figure of the golliwog through the first two-thirds of the twentieth century with nice differentiations of period and attitude. Both approaches are true to the nature of children’s reading, where the child at times can be utterly soused in the medium of the story, needing no other walls to its world – while the same child perhaps on the same day is a suspicious reader, repeatedly startled into an awareness that the books are not just feeding out the line of the story, not even simply adding a moral or religious lesson; they are also reflecting, insinuating, nudging the reader into half-conscious beliefs and attitudes.

Some of the writers here take a direct approach to prejudice, for example against fat or skinny people, and to the erotic potential of children’s stories (Ann Alston on foreign versus traditional English food, Áine Nic Gabhann on voyeurism, or example in the work of Frances Hodgson Burnett). Desire and prejudice are everywhere in children’s literature, as they are in children’s lives, and it seems a pity to warn children’s writers off enthusiasm, colour and fantasy. In my experience children as readers can be sensitive, even queasy, about the texture of what they read, and yet can respond to the strong feeling and splendour of description, while recognising that at times they stand at a certain distance from the sources of the adult passion itself.

A book like this is attractive to the professionals, the teachers, librarians and academics who deal with children’s literature. But the rest of us, all of us who read as children and had the wit to ask questions about what the writers was up to, shouldn’t miss the chance to revisit those questions in our later lives.

Born in Cork, Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin is Associate Professor of English, Trinity College, Dublin. She has published poetry, translations and academic articles on the Renaissance and on Irish literature. Her latest books are The Wilde Legacy (edited, Four Courts Press, 2002), and The Girl who Married the Reindeer (Gallery Press, 2001).

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