New developments - the twentieth century - British Empire builders and adventurers - Shaping boyhood - Forms and genres - children’s literature

Children’s literature

Part II. Forms and genres


26. Shaping boyhood


British Empire builders and adventurers


Dennis Butts


New developments - the twentieth century


The great scientific and technological changes which took place in the first years of the twentieth century had an enormous influence on the development of the boys’ adventure story. The invention of the motor car and particularly the rapid evolution of powered flight, with von Zeppelin’s airship of 1900 and Bleriot’s journey across the Channel in 1909, all began to affect the content of such stories. The outbreak of the First World War, with the advent of airship and aeroplane attacks, bombing raids and the emergence of flying heroes such as Billy Bishop and von Richthofen accelerated these developments.

Some of Herbert Strang’s books, such as The King of the Air (1908), tried to exploit the new technology. But the writer who reflected these changes most clearly was Percy F. C. Westerman (1876-1960); after writing historical novels in the manner of G. A. Henty, he began to introduce aviation into such stories as The Secret Battleplane (1918) and Winning His Wings: A Story of the R.A.F. (1919).

From now on, flying stories, with their formulaic elements of young hero, his introduction to the skills of aviation, and subsequent encounter with an enemy, whether in peacetime or war, became an important sub-genre of the adventure story. From the 1930s W. E. Johns (1893-1968) came to dominate the field, eventually becoming even more popular than Westerman. Johns had served as an airman in the First World War, and had experience of bombing raids and of being shot down and taken prisoner. When he eventually left the Royal Air Force, he began to contribute to magazines, and in 1932 published ‘The White Fokker’, his first story about ‘Biggles’, the nickname of the pilot James Bigglesworth, who was to become his most enduring creation. In the magazine stories collected in such books as Biggies of the Camel Squadron (1934), Johns successfully conveyed the way many flyers, with their strange mixture of flippancy and idealism, behaved during the First World War. When Johns had exhausted his war experiences, he turned his knowledge of aviation to producing more conventional adventure plots, dealing with the adventures of Biggles and his wartime companions as, for example, they foil criminals or search for treasure in the Brazilian jungle. But although Johns wrote primarily to give entertainment to his young readers, like earlier writers of adventure stories he was always conscious of the need to educate them too - ‘I teach a boy to be a man,’ he said, ‘I teach sportsmanship according to the British idea ... I teach that decent behaviour wins in the end as a natural order of things. I teach the spirit of team work, loyalty to the Crown, the Empire and to rightful authority’ (quoted in Trease 1965: 80). By the time of his death Johns had written over a hundred books about Biggles, who remains popular.

The ambivalence readers increasingly began to feel towards Johns’s books, however, is best expressed by the great Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o. Ngugi’s older brother ran away to join the Mau Mau army, which was formed to oust the British from Kenya, and was the subject of intense bombing by the Royal Air Force. Despite finding Johns’s books compulsive reading, Ngugi says,


in reading Biggles in the years 1955 and 1956 I was involved in a drama of contradictions. Biggles could have been dropping bombs on my own brother in the forests of Mount Kenya. Or he could have been sent by [his boss] Raymond to ferret out those who were plotting against the British Empire in Kenya. Either way he would have been pitted against my own brother.

(Ngugi 1992)


The events of the First and Second World Wars influenced more than the technical content of adventure stories. The massive loss of life, eclipsing anything seen in the nineteenth century, clearly affected society’s attitude to wars in general, and, after the shocks of the Somme and Gallipoli, Dunkirk and Singapore, many found it increasingly difficult to believe in the incontestable superiority of British arms. The growth of international organisations such as the United Nations, and radio and television’s revelation of the world as a global village, together with the swift liquidation of the British Empire from 1947 onwards, also removed the imperial basis of many enterprises. The ideology of an expanding and self-confident British Empire, which had underpinned the rise of the nineteenth-century adventure story, was gradually eroded, and its replacement by a troubled, multiracial and democratic humanism sought new forms of story-telling.

Despite the popularity of such writers as Westerman and Johns, even in the 1930s some writers had found it impossible to produce stories with the same formulaic confidence as their Victorian predecessors. Geoffrey Trease, for example, in such historical tales as Bows against the Barons (1934), had tried to write more realistically about ‘Merrie England’ and portrayed Robin Hood’s battles against the aristocracy as tragically doomed. Arthur Ransome (1884-1967) developed the tradition of the realistic adventure story created by Jefferies and Hardy by writing about the adventures that ordinary middle-class children might credibly experience, especially when sailing, in such books as Swallows and Amazons (1930). Katherine Hull (1921-77) and Pamela Whitlock (1920-82) followed suit with The Far Distant Oxus in 1937, a story set on Exmoor.

The historical story took on a new lease of life in the 1950s, perhaps inspired by Trease’s pioneering work. Gillian Avery, Hester Burton, Cynthia Harnett, Kathleen Peyton, Rosemary Sutcliff and Barbara Willard all produced interesting and often distinguished work, frequently taking different perspectives on history from earlier writers, and engaging with the lives of the underprivileged, for example, rather than the great and well-born. Rosemary Sutcliff (1920-92) chose a disabled hero in her Bronze Age Warrior Scarlet (1958), and Leon Garfield portrayed the life of an eighteenth-century pickpocket in Smith (1967). More recently Jan Needle has produced a powerful account of the navy in Nelson’s time from the point of view of two pressed sailors in his dark A Fine Boy for Killing (1979), while Philip Pullman has produced a superb quartet of novels with a late Victorian setting, the Sally Lockhart series, culminating in The Tin Princess (1994). Michael Foreman’s spirited re-telling of the quasi-historical Robin of Sherwood (1996) is also noteworthy.

The character of realistic contemporary adventure stories has also changed dramatically since the Second World War, for when total war came to involve women and children at home as well as men at the front, children were quite likely to become involved in dangerous events. Ian Serraillier’s The Silver Sword (1956) about the journey of a group of Polish children through war-torn Europe was an early example, and other writers such as Jill Paton Walsh and Robert Westall (1929-93) have also produced successful stories with Second World War settings.

As society has changed since the war, and adult fiction begun to deal with sex and violence more explicitly, so, too, have children’s books, narrowing the gap between ‘teenage’ and adult novels particularly. Authors such as Bernard Ashley and Farrukh Dhondy have dealt with racism in their stories, and children’s writers have also begun to deal with issues involving the Third World and problems such as terrorism. Ruth Thomas deals with the discovery of real-life crime within her heroine’s dysfunctional family in Guilty (1993). Gillian Cross has used the traditional framework of an explorer’s search for a lost Aztec city in Bolivia to discuss the values of so-called ‘primitive’ people in her Born of the Sun (1983), while Eva Ibbotson in her Journey to the River Sea (2001) uses similar material to explore personal values. In AK (1990) Peter Dickinson takes us inside the mind of a child guerrilla struggling to live in a country once part of the British Empire but now torn apart by civil war. Michael Morpurgo’s Kensuke’s Kingdom (1999) successfully develops the form of the Robinsonnade to explore such issues as survival and contrasting cultures. Nearer home, Catherine Sefton uses the political violence in Northern Ireland as the background to her tale of criminals in Along a Lonely Road of 1991.

The flying stories of the 1930s, which replaced the sea stories of the previous century, have now been replaced by tales of space travel set in the future. Although the use of the folk-tale formula, with a fearless young hero and the successful fulfilment of a hazardous quest, has almost disappeared from other adventure stories, being replaced by increasing social realism and psychological doubt, this pattern can still be found in much science fiction. Douglas Hill’s Planet of the Warlord (1981), for instance, describes the hero’s journey, with a female companion, in a spaceship across the galaxy, to find and destroy the warlord who annihilated his own planet.

While apparently dealing with civilisations of the future, however, many science fiction stories, such as John Christopher’s The White Mountains (1967) or Robert Westall’s Future Track 5 (1983), actually offer a critique of trends in contemporary society, and explore such issues as the advantages and disadvantages of new technology, or the needs of the individual as against the welfare of a whole community. Monica Hughes writes about the dangers her young Canadian heroine faces in Ring-Rise Ring-Set (1982) as her technological society struggles to deal with the problems of a new Ice Age, and in the process reflects her concern for a better relationship between science and nature. Louise Lawrence’s Moonwind (1986), another story about space travel, in which two teenagers win a month’s stay at the American moon base, is even more radical in its conclusion, showing Gareth preferring to die and join the world of spirit in company with Bethkahn, a female from another planet, rather than return to the materialism and violence of Earth. More recently, as the millennium approached, Jan Mark, who had already written such science fiction as The Ennead of 1978, produced a millennium story combining social and spiritual insights with a Swiftian invention and bleakness in her The Eclipse of the Century (1999).

Changes in British society in the closing years of the twentieth century were reflected in the growing importance of women writers and of girls as protagonists or equal partners within recent adventure stories. Along with the introduction of such themes as racism, the environment, and debates about the meaning of political freedom, they show how much the modern adventure story has changed from the self-confident, imperialistic and male- dominated tales of the Victorian age. Although opportunities for deeds of adventure remain, Western society is changing, and it is inevitable that adventure stories should reflect these changes.



Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1992) ‘Ambivalent Feelings about Biggies’, Guardian, 13 August.

Trease, G. (1965) Tales out of School, 2nd edn, London: Heinemann.

Ure, P. (ed.) (1956) Seventeenth-Century Prose, Harmondsworth: Penguin.


Further reading

Bettelheim, B. (1976) The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, London: Thames and Hudson.

Bristow, J. (1991) Empire Boys: Adventures in a Man’s World, London: HarperCollins.

Campbell, J. (1971) The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press

Collins, F. M. and Graham, J. (eds) (2001) Historical Fiction for Children: Capturing the Past, London: Fulton.

Fisher, M. (1976) The Bright Face of Danger, London: Hodder and Stoughton.

Green, M. (1980) Dreams of Adventure, Deeds of Empire, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

- (1990) The Robinson Crusoe Story, London: Pennsylvania State University Press.

- (1991) Seven Types of Adventure Tale: An Etiology of a Major Genre, University Park: Pennsylvania University Press.

Howarth, P. (1973) Play up and Play the Game: The Heroes of Popular Fiction, London: Eyre Methuen.

Jones, D. and Watkins, T. (eds) (2000) A Necessary Fantasy? The Heroic Figure in Popular Children’s Fiction, New York and London: Garland.

Kutzer, M. D. (2000) Empire Children: Empire and Imperialism in Classic British Children’s Literature, New York: Routledge.

McGillis, R (ed.) (2000) Voices of the Other. Children’s Literature and the Postcolonial Context, New York and London: Garland.

Propp, V. (1975) Morphology of the Folktale, 2nd edn, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Richards, J. (ed.) (1989) Imperialism and Juvenile Literature, Manchester: Manchester University Press.