‘Children’s fiction has a long and noble history of being dismissed,’ writes Katherine Rundell in this short but inspirational hardback. She cites Martin Amis who once said, ‘If I had a serious brain injury I might well write a children’s book.’ 😲 Instead of going on the attack, though, Rundell, a prize-winning author and Fellow of All Souls, Oxford, has chosen to write a wonderful rebuttal.
She shows how the best children’s books help us ‘refind things we may not even know we have lost,’ taking us back to that time when ‘new discoveries came daily and when the world was colossal, before your imagination was trimmed and neatened …’
As the Financial Times says, ‘It’s a very short book but it packs a real punch.’ It also covers a lot of ground – zipping through the history of children’s books (which, in English, began as ‘instruction manuals for good behaviour’), the importance of fairy tales (with their ‘wild hungers and heroic optimism’), the need for greater diversity of authorship (‘there is so dazzlingly much to gain’) and how library budgets should be increased (not ‘slashed’), along with lighter issues, such as the ‘bookworm’s curse’ of knowing a word’s meaning but not how to pronounce it.
There are many thought-provoking ideas here but one, in particular, made me pause: ‘… there are some times in life when [a children’s book] might be the only thing that will do.’
A few months ago a friend of mine, struck down by a neurological illness that had left her bedridden and unable to speak, had reached the point where people were questioning whether she’d lost her mind. In the past she and I had often discussed books and one day, not long before she died, I decided to read her one of my all-time favourites – Richmal Crompton’s William (1929). The chapter I chose was one in which 11-year-old William tries to distract a gullible woman from her gold-digging suitor by interrupting him with preposterous stories. Halfway through one of these, my friend opened her eyes and laughed. I felt the bond between us; it was a precious moment.
Another friend, who lived to 105, found life in a care home unbearably restrictive (she always referred to herself as an inmate). Her father had worked for Henry Ford – she’d met him as a child – and she’d lived an incredibly full life. Now she was mostly confined to one room, and books were a lifeline, especially certain children’s books. Even though she was 44 when Dodie Smith’s The 101 Dalmatians was published, this one was a favourite. Her reaction when I turned up with it was just wonderful.
This is how Katherine Rundell finishes her 63-page essay: ‘Go to children’s fiction to see the world with double eyes: your own, and those of your childhood self. Refuse unflinchingly to be embarrassed: and in exchange you get the second star to the right, and straight on till morning.’
How can you refuse?