We are living through dangerous times, I think we all agree. Environmental disasters, virulent diseases, extremist politics, hate crimes, the threat of war, increasing disparity between the haves and have-nots. Anybody who suggests the future is rosy, that we are heading towards sunlit uplands, is an arrant fool — or else takes the rest of us for fools.
So this is a time when we should be channeling our outrage into more than just speaking out, maybe direct action or agitprop, right? We should be actively resisting, demonstrating, doing all in our power to turn hearts and minds in favour of benevolence and communitarianism, surely?
But what do I find myself increasingly doing as each day’s depressing news headlines impinge on my consciousness? I’m immersing myself in children’s fiction. Is this mere comfort reading? Escapism? Burying my head in the sand? Or is there a more profound, if perhaps unconscious, impulse behind this pattern?
Of the six titles completed and reviewed this year, three mightn’t be classed as adult fiction (though that’s not to say more mature youngsters wouldn’t enjoy them). Along with a couple of other ‘serious’ novels, I’m currently reading three children’s titles simultaneously — Tove Jansson’s Comet in Moominland, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden and Joan Aiken’s Is. (And I’ve even — finally — started perusing Eleanor Fitzsimmons’ recent biography of Edith Nesbit, another celebrated children’s author.) What’s going on?
Here’s what I think is going on. While philistines could well say these works are sheer fantasy, what with friendly trolls, time travel and alternative history, I say that these themes aren’t primarily what these books are about. The Jansson book, first published just after the end of World War II, was inevitably bound up with the fears arising from the conflict and the hopes following it. Pearce’s 1958 novel is acknowledged as being about understanding between generations. And Aiken’s 1992 fantasy, the latest of the Wolves Chronicles I’m examining, probably reflects the author’s feelings after a decade of Thatcherism and its social, especially class, divisions and economic disparities.
For the readership the books were originally aimed at doubtless they were entertaining, but for all their superficial fantasy they also portrayed a reality — the threat of nuclear holocaust, the nature of authoritarian parenting, the evils of totalitarianism — that could upset any rose-tinted view that assumed that all was right with the world.
And that’s why it’s so important that children read, have access to books, to libraries, to classrooms where such fiction is held in esteem. For here, without the bitter pill Victorian novelists forced children to read, are deeply moral narratives. Here there may be crises to face and wicked antagonists popping out of the woodwork; but there won’t be the piety that accompanied too many tales from the 19th century, stories in which the protagonist suffered calamities and atrocities with a reverential quietude and passivity, accepting the fate that a noble sacrifice might offer.
No, as the 20th century proceeded the protagonist (other than the gung-ho British bulldog type who might show natives and the lower classes his superiority with feats of derring-do) would increasingly exhibit humanitarian values and a sense of compassion, combined with a bravery that wouldn’t require outstanding physical prowess or a privileged education. Nesbit’s children’s books are regarded as marking a sea-change from the piety of Victorian and Edwardian literature written to improve children to a more realist yet sympathetic fiction written with their innate sense of fairness in mind.
I generalise of course. But think of the classics that stand the test of time: in the main they are the ones that are based on moral outrage against injustice, war, deprivation, waste, greed, and so on. Whether the scenario is small-scale — family-based, perhaps, maybe in a school — or of epic proportions, stretching across continents, such narratives share the values of many traditional fairytales: standing up for what’s right, and recognising responsibilities.
In an era when most of our daily news stories concern the apparent success that arises from cheating, bullying, lying, exploitation and abuse, and when much contemporary adult fiction seems to end in tragedy or at the very least ambiguity, is it not important for all our sakes to counter that with alternatives? I don’t mean the saccharine endings of romcoms or the impossible triumph, against all the odds, of plucky outsiders over supervillains in the apocalyptic final reel; I’m thinking instead of the child hero who learns to do what is right because…
Well, just because.