Writers for adults, writers for children - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


44. Writers for adults, writers for children


Marian Allsobrook


The study of children’s literature is usually thematic or generic; it is rewarding, however, to compare authors’ adult texts with those addressed to their child readers. Here a few preliminary paragraphs will selectively survey some English writers of the past, eminent but seldom hailed for their texts for children. The discussion will then address the wider field, in which authors of significance, but less often regarded as authors for children, will be identified; inevitably, there is some overlap with ‘crossover’ books, which move between audiences.

I shall also stress the transformation of what is written for children in English, by those who are translated or who bring other cultures to their writing in English. This remarkable feature is made possible by the distinctive and differentiated forms of the English language, both within the United Kingdom and beyond. Writers who are born in cultures where English dominates, or who converse bilingually or trilingually, or who settle in parts of the world where the global language prevails, bring new energies, figurative possibilities and inventive achievements to the medium which increasingly accesses other worlds to young audiences. English accommodates myriad forms of itself, as this chapter aims to establish. Issues of cultural hybridity and cultural mobility are inscribed in the texts of those who relocate or regularly use scattered homes, or are exiled. The resulting innovation, through collaboration, performance and presentational ingenuity, has transformed the consciousness of younger readers and of supervisory adults.

In part, this transformation has achieved a stronger sense of identity and worth, empowering children of mixed or diverse cultures. Among those responsible for this sea-change, Langston Hughes, Toni Morrison, Leila Aboulela, Hanan al-Shaykh, Benjamin Zephaniah, Buchi Emecheta, Vikram Seth and the Abedayo group of writers for adults and for children will be discussed. As an example of a literature in which samples of adult texts are selected for children, embodying a literary canon for the next generation to absorb, there will be some consideration of Nepalese texts. As in so many cultures, the dominance of what is available globally for child readers in English tends to inhibit the emergence of texts written specifically in that country for a young audience. The strong moral substance of the Nepalese texts selected for pupils reminds us of the supervisory adult’s role in the process; these are texts chosen for schoolbook use, as lesson material, hugely influential, although the child is not free to select the reading matter.

Philip Pullman makes an important claim for children’s books: that they address the moral issues so often evaded in recent adult texts (Parsons and Nicholson 1999: 117; Chrisafis 2002: 13). Any retrospective sweep of the Western tradition of writing for children demonstrates the way in which the moral, philosophical and social concerns of writers who wrote primarily for adults are reflected in their work for children, and how significantly authors in the adult field have enriched children’s literature.

Writers of adult texts, from the time of Chaucer, have written for children, although the momentum quickened in the eighteenth century, as revolution in Europe and North America shifted awareness of relationships between powerful adults or masters and those they controlled. Child-rearing and the parental role became matters of concern as the concept of parenthood was debated. The strong moral content of a child’s book enabled Mary Wollstonecraft and other professional female writers of the eighteenth century to gain credibility and be received as legitimate, rational writers. Although the desire to divert and entertain was strong, it had to be balanced by moral earnestness. However, the feminised code had emerged a generation before Wollstonecraft and her female contemporaries gained professional status.

In England, Samuel Richardson produced three early works for young readers, apart from his Aesop (1740), including Letters of Advice to a Nephew (1731), while he experimented with printerly innovations which extended meaning on the page, anticipating the inventive techniques employed by modern authors for children, particularly in picture books. He also authorised miniaturised versions of his three great adult novels. The Paths of Virtue Delineated, or the History in Miniature of the Celebrated Pamela, Clarissa Harlowe and Sir Charles Grandison (1756) dispensed with the epistolary form, while retaining the use of dramatised episodes. Richardson’s novels kindled a consuming interest in Europe for sixty years among writers busy on translation, parody and prequel. G. Lessing, translating Richardson’s Aesop into German in 1757, acknowledged feminised codes when praising Richardson’s knowledge of the education of the human heart and of the promotion of virtue. Richardson’s collaborative literary production must have been unique. Eagleton characterises him as the ‘ engagingly modern deconstructionist adrift in an infinity of texts’, and describes his texts as ‘plural, diffuse kits of fiction’ (Eagleton 1982: 21-2), the result of a process of ceaseless revision responding both to readers and to fellow authors. If, as McKillop suggests, one of his achievements was to make domesticity interesting, the women writers who followed and admired him were significant in achieving recognition for the children ‘discounted from history for centuries’ (Inglis 1981: 83).

Drawing upon personal experience of revolutionary Paris, Mary Wollstonecraft gave value to the depersonalised poor, recognising the unacknowledged nobility of their endurance. In Original Stories from Real Life (1791), she emphasised children as literary characters; she reworked a translation of Madame de Cambon’s Kleine Grandison (1780) as Young Grandison (1790), introducing new scientific material into the fictional boyhood of Sir Charles Grandison, constructed for children. Arnaud Berquin, also exploiting the iconic status of Richardson’s hero, produced A History of Little Grandison a year later.

The extent of Mary Lamb’s collaboration with her brother Charles has been underrated: she wrote several of the Tales from Shakespeare (1807). Similarly, Maria Edgeworth’s role as novelist for child readers has been insufficiently recognised. Praised by W. B. Yeats in 1891 as the most ‘finished and famous’ Irish novelist, she proves herself ‘a thorough mistress of multiple discursive practices’ (Myers 1992: 139). She produced the first sociological fiction and initiated not only the regional novel, but also prototypes of several genres of American women’s writing, the female Bildungsroman and narratives of manners and customs. Her Castle Rackrent (1800) influenced Walter Scott, who produced one text specifically for children, Tales of a Grandfather (1827-30), a history of Scotland and of France.

Two years after her celebrated Frankenstein, Mary Shelley wrote Maurice, or The Fisher’s Cot (1820), first published in 1998, for children; like her mother, Wollstonecraft, she addressed the child’s experience in her fiction about a range of parenting roles, as a child moves unwittingly towards reunion with those who had lost him.

Both these writers resemble Dickens, in that a major writer’s work for children, his A Child’s History of England (1852-4), is probably his least familiar work. Dickens also used the fairy tale inventively, defending it against propagandist exploitation by the illustrator Cruikshank, champion of temperance. In his Child’s History he builds a conspiratorial alliance with the young reader, who is encouraged to view history through the individual lens superimposed by Dickens; barbarous tendencies attributed to the Irish reflect authorial bias.

Dedicated to the son of the actor Macready, Robert Browning’s poem The Pied Piper of Hamelin (1842) tells a story that the poet’s father had already narrated. More recently, Terry Pratchett has invoked the tale as the basis for The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents (2002).

Mark Twain reworked more disparate elements from widely diverse sources, generating important new forms of fiction through parody of Shakespeare, burlesque and use of the vernacular. Influenced by Bret Harte’s ‘new realm of discourse’, the world of hard-living, subversive vagabonds (Ruland and Bradbury 1991: 192), he exploited new possibilities, incorporating ‘ stretchers’, tall tales of mocking and ironic dialect. His writing drew upon regionalism and the rapidly changing world of the industrialised spread of population and wage slavery, once the two coasts of the USA had been linked by rail in 1869. Twain interrogated American culture in burlesque in the adult fantasy A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court (1869) and in the classic boy’s story The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876).

Less to the taste of the American public, Thomas Hardy’s commissioned fiction for children failed to find publication for some ten years. Our Exploits at West Poley (1883) eventually appeared in The Household in 1892. As in Twain’s adult fiction, man is dwarfed by a landscape which inscribes the secrets of the human condition. Hardy empowered his two boy heroes to seize destiny and redirect it (a stream generating mill-power in two villages); in their exploits they explore the organic subterranean world of the caves where nature’s supremacy is challenged. Hardy chose a secret place to attract young readers and his protagonist, Steve, possesses the fatal ingenuity of Henchard, the mayor of Casterbridge, written at the same period. Hardy’s proto-cinematic devices, or visual compositions, capture all the tensions present in each narrative.

Both Oscar Wilde and Rudyard Kipling have made important contributions to children’s literature, Wilde drawing upon the fairy-tale tradition and Kipling in part upon the fable tradition. Wilde composed fairy tales for his sons, believing this to be a father’s duty. He read Kipling to them and told them of huge disconsolate carp in the lake which would not stir unless called in Irish. The redemptive patterning of tales like The Happy Prince and The Star Child (1888) are reflected in De Profundis (1905). Kipling, remarkable for his wide-ranging output and for his achievement as a modernist, provoked differing critical responses. Wilde rated him ‘a genius who drops his aspirates and our first authority on the second rate’. J. M. Barrie criticised his coarse journalese, calling him ‘the man from nowhere’ in 1890. Yet T. S. Eliot recognised him as a major writer in 1919 and Henry James acknowledged his appeal. To Chesterton, the Just So Stories were ‘a great chronicle of primal fables’, their animals ‘walking portents’. Brecht admired and copied Kipling and C. S. Lewis identified him as primarily the poet of work, bringing to literature new areas of language (Green 1971: 59-60).

The character Psmith started life in P. G. Wodehouse’s school stories, but proved so popular that he was relocated in adult fiction. T. S. Eliot’s cat personae in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939) celebrate the secret, devilish dimensions of the creature. Like children, these characters inhabit their own sub-culture at odds with dominant values. A relish for naming and for terms of address permeates the text, which extends rather than reworks the fable form.

Drawing upon cultures beyond Europe, as professional journalists like Kipling, John Masefield and Arthur Ransome also wrote for children. The modernist features of their work have attracted interest more recently. Hunt recognises classic patterns of displacement and closure (Hunt 1991: 131) in Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons series (from 1930). In the 1938 edition to his Old Peter’s Russian Tales (1916), Ransome wrote that ‘fairy stories ... live for ever with a life of their own’, deprecating his role as editor. In his stories, wise fools succeed and innocents outwit the evil ones, such as Baba Yaga, the terrible witch with her iron teeth and appetite for children’s flesh.

Some of that territory is shared by Isaac Bashevis Singer in his Yiddish stories. As journalist and writer, Singer has portrayed Jewish life in adult texts and in four volumes of stories for children (such as Zlateh the Goat (1966)). Fascinated by the process of translation, Singer often reworks medieval superstition, employing a dangerously unreliable devil-narrator in many of his adult stories. In an essay ‘Are Children the Ultimate Literary Critics?’ he acknowledges the child’s ability to judge the merits of a narrative. Among the reworked biblical tales, the festivals, witches, animal fables, letters, recipes, oaths, verses and prayers, resound the multiple voices of Polish peasant communities and of Jewish culture, especially the combined spirituality and vulgarity of the shtetl.

The substantial and varied achievement of Langston Hughes has in recent years received due recognition, although his collaborative work and significant writing for children are insufficiently promoted. One of his final works (unfinished) Black Misery (1967/1994), offers the child an artefact designed to express the racial tensions that black children live with. Using white text on black pages, each facing black on white illustrations by Arouni, Hughes traces the experience of rebuff and unease in an analysis of misery, representing the black child’s dismay in a society ordered by white American assumptions. Hughes claimed the prime function of creative writing was ‘to affirm life, to yea-say the excitement of living in relation to the vast rhythms of the universe’ (Hughes 1967/1994: Afterword). His verse for children, as in The Sweet and Sour Animal Book (1932), is part of his negotiation of the boundaries between serious and light verse. A humorous verse alphabet, its animals are disconcerted, or are denied the stereotypical attributes: the bee fails to find honey in papier mache flowers; the horse who used to pull the fire-wagon has been replaced; the inventive language potently describes the ‘smothered rage’ of a caged lion, the ‘wisdom bumps’ of the camel and the ‘quackle’ of the goose. Popo and Fifina (1932), co-written with Arna Bontemps, is set in Haiti, where the spirit of adventure is safely grounded in secure familial structures and a verdant island landscape. Haiti was chosen as an environment nurturing positive models of collaborative black endeavour, craftsmanship and appreciation of nature. (Grace Nichols, in her adult novel Whole of a Morning Sky (1986), similarly portrays Guyana outside Georgetown as an idyllic environment for children.) Hughes devoted much of his life to establishing an audience for his black American literature, as a versatile member of the Harlem Renaissance. Writing for children, he sought to shape the consciousness of the next generation and affirm their creative potential; Popo and Fifina was his first novel written specifically for children. Work and play are given balanced treatment: domestic tasks, carpentry and Popo’s first experience of work contrast with games and kite-flying (the red star, ‘like a wish or dream’, proudly defeats a rival kite when their cords are tangled). The moonlit episode of ‘Drums at Night’ allows Popo to join older youths and adults in the ‘deep vibrant music’ of the drums, a glamorous, not sinister, experience for the child. The shared contentment is emphasised. Bontemps, as an academic who promoted black folklore and literature, here fosters a reader-friendly inclusive quality. Both writers sought to inform the American reader about the Haitians, also of African origin, and validate their culture.

Hughes, the Black Laureate as he was called, challenged conventional boundaries of literary genre, of geographical or political origin; in this, and in his strong moral sense, he is an interesting counterpart to Ted Hughes, whose preoccupation with nature, legends of creation and inclusiveness marks a commitment to encouraging child readers, child writers and those who teach children. He reworked the animal fable in two significant forms: Meet My Folks (1961) ends hauntingly with a vision of a more symbiotic relationship between future generations and nature. The much more ambitious What Is the Truth? (1984) presents a mosaic collection of poetic fables interspersed in a portentous dialogue, affirming the Creator’s presence in all living forms. In Ffangs the Vampire Bat and the Kiss of Truth (1986), he creates a promising fable character, Attila the fighting cock, whose brief adventures usher in the unfortunate Ffangs. A revenge fable element is discernible in Crow (1970) and in some of the Moortown poems (1979), both for adults. Ted Hughes uses several of the Moortown poems in his children’s collection, Moon-Bells and Other Poems (1986). In his novellas for children, The Iron Man (1968) and The Iron Woman (1993), bewildered child heroes meet monstrous, but (generally) benign challenges to a global threat that adults disregard. Though the ferrous couple are allowed a mutual polishing, Iron Woman remains barren and clumsy, an ‘ecological fantasy’ rendered ‘too didactic’ (Alderson 1993: 31). The Iron Woman contains austere illustrations, rather adult for a children’s book; these contrast with the large-scale, soft-edged pictures of What Is the Truth? which suggests a child’s close-up view of living forms.

Most of Sylvia Plath’s work, including The Bed Book (1976) for children, was authorised for publication by Ted Hughes. Plath addressed some of her most famous poems directly to her own children, such as ‘You’re’ and ‘Morning Song’, while others voice a mother’s thoughts: ‘Nick and the Candlestick’, ‘For a Fatherless Son’, ‘Words for a Nursery’. The Bed Book invites the child, who is directly addressed, to range imaginatively in fantastic bed-vehicles. Plath explores a child’s inventiveness within domestic adult restraints in humorously affectionate rhymes, which allow the child reader all the tricks and treats of adventure with a reassuring circularity of bedtime narrative structure. The It-Doesn’t-Matter Suit (1996) evokes Plath’s Germanic parental heritage in both the illustrative style of Rotraut Susanne Berner and the character of the tale. Plath reassures the reader that the inevitable pecking order is capable of rewarding the youngest member of the family; the relish, energy and humour of her narrative style make this an entertaining addition to children’s literature.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories (1990) celebrates the power and importance of storytelling, clearly addressing a dual audience with its protest against ‘Silence Laws’. Its exuberant vitality renders solemn didacticism elsewhere quite inert by contrast. The teasing game played by Salman Rushdie with his reader, so conspicuous in Midnight’s Children (1981), is evident in the children’s text. Significantly, the first publication of Haroun by Granta, without illustrations and with plain covers, indicated its relevance to adult readers. More recently, the Viking edition (1999), lavishly illustrated to reflect the fertility of the text, characterises it as a children’s book. Haroun employs bold patterns of opposition and refraction: Sengupta, the shadow people, the dark factory ship and web of night in turn confront the radiant source, the brimming stream of Rashid’s story-telling. In Midnight’s Children, Rushdie’s Shandyean resonances are clear in the pervasive sense of the instability of the text and in the narrator’s preoccupation with his nose; Haroun is similarly allusive, though its fields of reference are more popularly accessible. The living and transforming power of Logos, the word, is most ironically affirmed in the case of Haroun’s creator.

Like Rushdie, Buchi Emecheta came to Britain and as a writer drew upon her own cultural heritage to write for adults and for children. She interrogates the legacy of slavery in Nigeria, and in The New Tribe (2000) addresses the British-born Nigerian experience. The Bride Price (1976) and The Slave Girl (1977), like The New Tribe for adults, take the viewpoint of a youthful protagonist, enabling the text to appeal to teenagers and young adults. In her control of the narrative and development of characters with strong human appeal, Emecheta informs her diverse readership about the cultural legacy of Nigeria, the psychological hinterland shaping the consciousness of her central characters. The New Tribe traces an adopted child’s experience of white English family life, incorporating reference to Olaudah Equiano’s The African (first published 1789); until Chester has visited Nigeria and distinguished dream from reality, he is troubled by his complex parentage. The dual setting, at first and finally in England, within which the definitive experience of Nigeria is framed, offers the reader a powerful Bildungsroman. Chester’s relationship with his adoptive parents and his search for his biological patents are enhanced by the presence of an adopted white sister, who has her own difficulties to manage. The novelist affirms the value of opportunities available in Europe, however uneasy and painful the transition. Emecheta’s ironic sense shapes her narrative, in which the child or teenage perception is focalised, breaking down a rigid distinction between her ‘adult’ texts and her children’s books, which include Titch the Cat, Nowhere to Play, The Moonlight Bridge and The Wrestling Match. In Destination Biafra (1982), she writes from a woman’s viewpoint about the Nigerian civil war; as an academic with her own publishing company, she has produced an autobiography and a futuristic novel about an untouched African village community, Rape of Shavi (1983).

As Langston Hughes and Buchi Emecheta undoubtedly wished to record in literature the customs, values and stories of those of African origin, so that young people would have a sense of a legitimate heritage and place in the world, at the same time there has been a desire to provide a literature for that audience which is relevant, engaging them as readers. A family-based group of writers and publishers exemplifies the collaborative achievement in the black tradition of literature and orature, the Adebayo family, based in London. Diran Adebayo’s Some Kind of Black (1996) represents the experience of an Oxford undergraduate who negotiates new relationships with his family, peer group and social contacts. The tensions between his student concerns and the dynamics of street life, domestic anxieties, political activity and consciousness-raising groups are skilfully managed; as in The New Tribe, the central character’s bond with his sister is a powerful element and parental expectations affirm the importance of education as the route to fulfilment. This novel offers the teenage reader a strong story, although it is marketed as an adult book. It interrogates police perceptions and assumptions, while council projects for improved integration, such as ‘Proud Minds of Tomorrow’, receive ironic treatment. Diran Adebayo draws upon autobiographical material in his contribution to another adult text, Sons and Mothers (1997). In ‘The Quality of Mercy’, he contextualises a son’s relationship with his mother and her sudden, untimely death. Yinka Adebayo recognised the potential audience for children’s stories drawing upon black experience in Britain. He has now written a series, The Drummond Hill Crew. The titles target the young black audience and the dialogue engages the young reader for whom the language is shaped: a glossary of terms initiates the general reader, direct address is used in the explanation of the vocabulary and the register is exuberant. Alliterative and colourfully figurative terms give the text a zestful pace. The Glamma Kids, From Boyz to Men, Ragga to Riches draw on conventional sub-genres within the school-story category; the issues, however, are adroitly chosen: the girl who pretends to be a celebrity and is found out; hidden treasure with a touch of magic. What refreshes familiar narrative elements is the textuality: the linguistic rituals of the class-teacher, songs, clues, recipes, advertisements, letters, an archaic diary. Yinka Adebayo is motivated by the knowledge that a generation of increasingly alienated and marginalised youngsters needs books that address its own experience. A younger brother, Dotun, is a partner in the X-Press, which publishes adult fiction, children’s books and cultural texts, including The Drummond Hill Crew series.

These writers, through performance, interview, school visits, awards and television success, gain a much wider, diverse audience; like Benjamin Zephaniah, they will be drawn into the Establishment of literary activity and orature. Their views, their contributions to committee work and educational projects like the Story Garden in Stratford, London, E15, promoted by Zephaniah as a patron of Discover, are a networking endeavour which reaches out to identify and capture child audiences who might not follow conventional bookshop routes to reading.

Zephaniah established himself as a performance poet and through that success engages with a range of educational programmes appealing to children. He travels for the British Council, writes adult poetry like Too Black, Too Strong (2001) and has shown sustained commitment to human, child and animal rights, working with children in South African townships and recording a musical tribute to Nelson Mandela. He is strongly influenced by Jamaican culture. In the Preface to Too Black, Too Strong, he surveys the heritage culture of Britain, addresses Britain’s diverse ethnic history and draws attention to problems of racial inequality. Then he says, ‘Let’s go global.’ As a poet who won’t stay silent, he affirms that he lives ‘in two places, Britain and the world’; he sees his duty as a poet to question and explore the state of justice in the world. He extends the word ‘black’ to include all those oppressed by racism and injustice. ‘My “strong” is the strength that we get when we stand up and get counted’ (Zephaniah 2001: 11-13). Poems like ‘Nu Blue Suede Shoes’ and ‘The Approved School of Reggae’ speak to the marginalised of any culture, employing the linguistic register that has popularised his poetry for young audiences in collections such as Talking Turkey (1994) and Funky Chickens (1996). However, his two novels for that readership, Face (1999) and Refugee Boy (2001), about a boy from Eritrea whose parents are tragically caught up in conflict in Africa, employ a much more formal, standardised English, perhaps to dignify the young hero’s courageous facing of problems that would daunt secure adults. Zephaniah’s narrative material is compassionate; his plotting - perhaps because of publishing strictures - tends towards rushed closure, particularly in Refugee Boy, where major incidents occur in the last ten pages. Zephaniah ends the novel affirmatively and includes ‘Refugee Writes’, a punning verse that appeals for compassion and tolerance. Details of the Refugee Council are also provided (2001: 293). Zephaniah’s We Are Britain! (2002) celebrates the diversity of Scottish, French- Melanesian, Hindu, Chinese, Kurdistan Muslim, Welsh, Croatian-Hungarian, Irish, Jewish, Sikh and Caribbean children. Each child’s family, hobbies, way of life and friends are represented in photographs, poems by Zephaniah and biographical text. In the Preface, he suggests that children can, by reading the book, ‘almost see the history of the whole world’ (2002: 1). Here he encourages inclusivity of approach, adaptability and a sense of living in an integrated community.

It is easy to appreciate Zephaniah’s special regard for Shelley, who defined poets as the unacknowledged legislators of mankind; another favourite for Zephaniah is Mervyn Peake, whose work for children as illustrator and author has been neglected, though his artistic influence is evident in the work of modern cartoonists and designers. Born in China, Peake produced Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor in 1939 (re-issued in 2001, with an Afterword by his son). Peake’s other works for children include Shapes and Sounds (1941), Rhymes without Reason (1944), Letters from a Lost Uncle (from Polar Regions) (1948) and The Glassblowers (1950). Peake also succeeded as illustrator of such children’s books as The Hunting of the Snark (1941), an edition of the Grimms’ fairy tales (1949), The Swiss Family Robinson (1950), both of Carroll’s Alice books (1954) and one of his own childhood favourites, Treasure Island (1949). He illustrated a compilation of nursery rhymes, Ride-a-Cock-Horse (1940). During this period he completed his Gormenghast trilogy (1946-59), for which he is chiefly recognised as a writer. From this adult text, the publisher Hodder extrapolated material for Boy in Darkness (1996), Titus Groan’s journey from Gormenghast, illustrated by P. J. Lynch. A note indicates that the story was first published in a collection entitled: Sometime Never: Three Tales of the Imagination. The universal, timeless power of Peake’s narrative vision here is nightmarish. His brilliantly idiosyncratic portrayal of animal and human characters is evident in Captain Slaughterboard; the lovingly inventive design of the whole book, with ‘handwriting’ print and captivating decorative detail, cheerfully endorses an adaptable tolerance, which the captain ultimately achieves after first oppressing his crew-members and scheming as coloniser to abduct the Yellow Creature and exploit him as a freak. The captain is won over by the island habitat and by the creature itself; the upbeat ending shows the captain’s companionable adaptation to a very different way of life. Along the way Peake introduces a memorable menagerie of invented creatures and a highly individualistic crew.

Many of the Western texts considered here have interrogated European traditions from afar and in the light of other cultures in order to move on. As examples from Nepal will show, the role of authors who write for, or seek to influence children, is of another generic order, though the moral imperative remains a constant factor. Discussion is limited here to a few notable writers from the last century.

Lekhnath Pandyal (1892-1965), the ‘pearl among the poets’ or ‘Kavi Shiromani’, sought reform in society and, although his poetry was not directly addressed to children, he is currently studied in schools and his poetry, such as Indradhamu [Arrow of the God Indra], features in school textbooks. Yudha Prasad Mishra (1907-90) is also studied in the classroom; his work is concerned with nature, patriotism and the need for change, achievable through the individual’s contribution to society. Laxmi Prasad Devkota (1909-59), the ‘great poet’ or ‘Mahaa Kavi’, wrote poems for readers of all ages; some of his texts are compulsory study at secondary-school level. The tensions caused by exile, broken health and censorship did not obstruct his academic and reforming career. The work of the ‘poet of the era’ or ‘Yug Kavi’, Siddhi Charan Shrestha (1912-92), such as Amma (Mother), is also enshrined in school textbooks; topics include social revolution, patriotic vision, nature and compassion for the poor. Some of his most famous poems are Tirmi Tara [Twinkling Star] and Mero Pratibimba [My Shadow]. Devraj Neupane (1947-) believes that the child reveals the man; he is notable for his autobiography of childhood, but he also wrote essays, songs and poems. He is an outstanding author of children’s poems and features in most Nepali school textbooks. The significance of the contribution made by these writers is many-featured; the impulse to usher in social reform motivated most of them and caused them hardship in some cases. They also wished to express their response to nature, to rootedness in their homeland and its peasantry. The individual child tended not to be their consciously targeted reader, but their influence led them to be canonised in the pages of school textbooks. That influence inevitably colours the consciousness of decades of pupils in Nepali classrooms.

The work of translators of children’s books sustains scholarship: Denys Johnson-Davies extended the audience for books from Arabic cultures. He is the translator of Hanan al- Shaykh’s A Bird in the Hand (1984), an appealing story of the henna-painted bird on the child’s hand; while the child sleeps, the bird takes adventurous flight. The magic realism of the text is matched by the subtly jewelled pastels of the illustrator Najah Taher. Hanan al- Shaykh enjoys a considerable reputation as a novelist for adults: The Story of Zahra (1986), Women of Sand and Myrrh (1989), Beirut Blues (1995) and Only in London (2001) explore the ways in which cultures can be displaced and relocated, creating a little Chinatown or Beirut. A segment of a culture, here Arabic, is sutured into the composite of a cosmopolis, like London. In Only in London, Samir experiences the severe dislocation just after an air flight to London when he passes through a district where shops display their Arabic character: ‘Come in ... We speak Arabic’ (23). Hanan al-Shaykh addresses cultural ironies, the experience of exile and perceptions of Englishness colliding with ancient ethnicities in her delicate, humorous adult texts.

Winner of the Caine Prize in 2000 (for writers out of Africa), Leila Aboulela, novelist and short-story writer, would not describe herself as an author for children but, like Diran Abedayo, in her figural or internal focalisation can adopt the youthful viewpoint. In her collection Coloured Lights (2001), the story ‘Tuesday Lunch’ is told by a Muslim child at a British primary school. Nadia, aged eight, reads the school lunch menu and chooses a pork pie. The poem ‘My Mother’s Friends’, again with a child’s perception, is a strikingly animated portrayal of a roomful of women observed by a child; prose pieces, ‘Aeroplane’ and ‘The Judge’, have also been written for child readers. Leila Aboulela’s first novel, The Translator (2000), about a mixed marriage set in Glasgow, has been praised for its ‘restrained lyricism’ and eloquently refracts British life and forms of the English language. She accompanies Hanan al-Shaykh in offering the adult reader refreshingly affirmative ways of seeing and thinking. Both authors have been self-effacing about their work for children, which deserves a wider audience. These writers infuse their work in English with the wealth of another language and culture, identifying new areas of readership in minority or marginalised groups, but also engaging British-born or English-speaking readers.

New territories also engage Vikram Seth, whose writing ranges from work for children, again so far receiving scant attention, to poetry, the novel in verse, The Golden Gate (1986), translation and travel writing. Most readers know him for his novel A Suitable Boy (1993); From Heaven Lake (1983), however, records travels through China and Tibet, urging a better understanding between different cultural groups, while presenting the author’s exploration of his own appreciative response to those he meets. In Beastly Tales from Here and There (1993), Seth reworks animal fables from Asia and Europe, as the title implies. The Foreword directly addresses a readership that certainly includes children, and Ravi Shankar’s illustrations reinforce the appeal to a younger audience. In the ten tales, ingenious rhyming couplets establish pace and subversive humour; of the two from Greece, ‘The Hare and the Tortoise’ is familiar from Aesopian versions; Seth’s hare, however, is ‘hot and heady’, given to incessant trivialising on her mobile and a ready victim of the celebrity cult. Her lipstick graffiti, satin shorts and sampling of magic mushrooms bring her down (1993: 43-55). The last two tales, which came to Seth directly ‘from the land of Gup’, allow him to satirise further fame’s lure: the nightingale becomes addicted to applause and suffers a fatal decline. In ‘The Elephant and the Tragopan’, creatures form a committee to ‘outmanoeuvre man’ and ensure a future for the planet despite man’s predation. ‘The Bigshot’ wants guaranteed water supplies, reminding the elephant that ‘the operative word is votes’. Bigshot’s son, Smallfry, saves the Bingle valley from the dam, although the tragopan is martyred in the struggle. Child readers would approve the heroism of Smallfry, understanding the issue of whether or not the tragopan consciously sought celebrity status as a martyr (1993: 98-117).

Earthcare, as the Canadian publishers Douglas and McIntyre categorise their books for children that address environmental issues, reflects the perception of fable-writers, who see in creatures the qualities that enhance our self-knowledge. In Margaret Atwood’s books for children spanning more than twenty years, the child’s response to nature is predominant. Up in the Tree (1976) playfully explores in verse the discovery of the two child characters that nature provides friendship and shelter; Anna’s Pet (1980) introduces the child reader to the different habitats that creatures need, if they are to flourish. The central character visits her rural grandparents, where she learns that certain creatures do not make good pets; finally she takes a tadpole back to her city home, knowing that ‘it’s hard to keep anything for ever’. This book is co-written with Joyce Barkhouse, in the Kids of Canada series. In 1995 Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut appeared, subverting the traditional narrative of the spoilt heroine, whose absurd posturing is affectionately ridiculed in the outrageous textual alliteration. This contrasts strongly with Atwood’s first two titles for children, in which the narrative voice could be that of a child, learning to read.

Whereas these children’s books were written in parallel to Atwood’s publication of adult texts over the span of her career, some established writers produce a book in response to an issue, or in collaboration with adult offspring, as in the case of Toni Morrison. Morrison’s son Slade (when he was nine years old) illustrated her celebration of children’s innocent ingenuity, The Big Box (1999), in which, in vigorous rhyming text, she advocates appropriate freedoms for children, whose parents can be too protectively controlling. Three children, Patty, Mickey and Sue, are boxed in, within doors that open only one way; instead of contact with living, breathing things, they endure virtual or artificial realities. The child characters are responsible, dutiful, but are told by adults that they can’t handle their personal freedom. Adult approval, depending upon compliance with this restrictive code, is challenged when the children escape from the box and ecstatically encounter porpoises, rabbits and real trees. As in the case of so many texts considered here, the rooting of the characters, both adult and child, within the context of the whole range of life-forms, of negotiating sustainable relationships with those forms, is central and determines the meaning in moral terms.

The reworking of the Crusoe myth by Michel Tournier in a text for adults, Vendredi ou les limbes du Pacifique (1967) [Friday or The Pacific Rim] and its parallel text for children, Vendredi ou la vie sauvage (1971) [Friday or the wild life], provides not only material comparable with the numerous Robinsonnades that emerged in response to the original Defoe text, but illustrates the author’s techniques in addressing each audience. A further bonus for the critic is Tournier’s insistence upon the central character’s need to achieve integrity in relation to his fellow-human and his environment. Playfully, through role reversal, Vendredi initiates his colonial master into alternative ways of living, through which Robinson’s anguish is relieved. Renewal, negotiation and diminution of restricting boundaries supersede absolute control.

Despite the richness of the interplay between work for adults and for children, publishers continue to omit reference to an author’s work for children in the indexes of biographies; biographers and critics routinely dismiss from their inquiries the role of texts for children when assessing that author’s significance. Coming through this discussion, there should, however, be a strong sense of the close, often intimate bond with a specific child reader that brought the text into being. This awaits systematic attention, although a little work has been done on Roald Dahl and his short story for adults ‘The Champion of the World’, in Kiss Kiss (1959) and the novel for children, Danny the Champion of the World (1975) (Shavit 1986: 43-59; Chambers 1985: 38-40).

Looking at these authors who include texts for children among what they write, we find that they often choose such works to inscribe the importance of story-telling; from such texts emerge voices insufficiently heard elsewhere, voices of those displaced or exiled. While the dynamics of cultural encounters or collisions may be explored, the grace and humour of human experience are part of the celebratory text that the author better known for adult writing chooses to construct for a specific child or for a young audience. The texts that are created for children shape the consciousness of the next generation; in addition, they derive significance from their expression of the semi-autonomous cultures which have always existed alongside the dominant culture. This is a striking feature of the texts created by writers who have settled in English-speaking countries or chosen to adopt the language for the expression of their cultural experience. The thimble measure of the text for children may be slight, but the infusion amply evokes the author’s cultural largesse.



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Inglis, F. (1981) The Promise of Happiness: Value and Meaning in Children’s Fiction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Myers, M. (1992) ‘Daddy’s Girl as Motherless Child: Maria Edgeworth and Maternal Romance: An Essay in Re-assessment’, in Spender, D. (ed.) Living by the Pen: Early British Women Writers, New York: Teachers College Press.

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Ruland, R. and Bradbury, M. (1991) From Puritanism to Post-Modernism: A History of American Literature, New York: Viking Penguin.

Seth, V. (1993) Beastly Tales from Here and There, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Shavit, Z. (1986) Poetics of Children’s Literature, Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Zephaniah, B. (2001) Too Black, Too Strong, London: Bloodaxe.

- (2002) We Are Britain, London: Francis Lincoln.