People might say that the English produce great children’s books because they are big kids who never quite grow up, especially the men. England has certainly created a large amount of books for children, with Enid Blyton being perhaps the most prolific writer for younger readers ever. But why is the literature so enduring? What continually draws new fans among children and adults to English children’s books in particular?
Part of the answer is that beneath the child-friendly devices of animal characters and magical creatures English children’s fiction contains subtle meanings and challenging ideas. The stories are adventurous enough to hold children’s attention and the suggestion of something more beneath the surface engages their intelligence. When an adult reads their child's books the same key aspects, although differently proportioned, are what they find interesting.
In a large amount of English children’s books these two aspects are provided by the use of the "questing" plot structure. The books follow a pattern where an event happens that forces the main characters to undertake a quest, journey or search for the good of all concerned. The aim of these journeys can range from missions of small, personal importance, such as Lassie’s struggle to return to her family in Yorkshire in Eric Knight’s Lassie Come Home to larger quests to save the world from evil. In Lassie Come Home the excitement comes from the epic journey to be faced and this is one of the main components of a quest based novel.
There is often also a more introspective search for personal development in narratives of individual importance, which adds depth to the story. These often focus on ideas of belonging or feeling different, that children can easily relate to. In Dick King Smith’s Dogfoot, a young pig is born with feet that seem strange to the other pigs. This strangeness leads him to an ambition to learn to swim and he is later called on to use his talents to save his family. This gives the book a personal quest, where the hero must become happy with himself and a more traditional quest in the journey to save his family.
Quests for individual satisfaction can often contain the intricate ideas that bring adults to children’s books. In The Borrowers, by Mary Norton, Arriety is different from other borrowers; she loves to write and has aspirations beyond her female role, as depicted by her mother Homily. Her personal quest for growth shows the reader that Norton’s tiny people represent more than an explanation for why things go missing. Borrowers are Norton’s vehicles for examining the relationship between classes, an important issue of her time. Arriety’s immediate family portray the differences in class with her father Pod as lower class, Homily as the aspirant who will always put her aitches in the wrong place and Arriety as the product of education in a working class family.
The Borrowers have their own class system, Homily’s relations live on the mantelpiece, but are ultimately an underclass to humans. In Arriety’s curiosity about humans and her interaction with "the boy" as she strives to secretly grow outside of traditional expectation she shows the troubled relationship between the emerging "educated class" and the gentry. After they form a friendship the boy harms Arriety and is then surprised and shocked that she has felt the hurt. She is angry and points out that of course borrowers feel pain. This exchange portrays the idea that the upper classes had long considered anyone lower than them a slightly different species. There are many documented occurrences of gentlemen denying that the poor needed entertainment or care for sick children because it was believed that they did not feel as the upper class did. Arriety’s anger comes from the fact that although a human has appeared friendly to her he has not really understood her at all. While class equality grew, genuine relationships between the classes were hard to create. The consequences of their friendship are disastrous for the whole tribe of borrowers. However it does lead Arriety and her family to their epic adventurous journey as they try to find somewhere to live and belong.
The most analysed example of the quest narrative in English children’s fiction is the Christian quest, as portrayed in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. This model is perfect for children’s literature, as it is almost a return to the Arthurian tales about knights, always popular with kids. Children’s books that follow the Christian quest model can be quite muscular, including large scale battles, heroism and the best action parts from the Bible. It expands on the small scale quest, appearing to give it more significance due to the consequences for the world if the quest should fail.
It might seem that the Christian quest is an antiquated form found only in the classics and replaced by the magical quest. However this form of plot was and is still used by later English authors. In Colin Dann’s Farthing Wood series, the journey to the park is a search for an ideal place that may not exist and the Great White Stag takes on the same just god role as Aslan in Narnia. The same feeling of a search for an unattainable Eden is present in The Song of Pentecost, by W.J. Corbett. In the Redwall series, by Brian Jacques, an obvious Christian quest narrative is displayed in most of the books. Martin is the ultimate Christian warrior and on his death becomes a legendary and inspirational figure, spurring on more Christian warrior displays. Jacques's books are full of battles to entertain but also contain messages about the different aspects of Christianity.
The magical quest features much of the same material as the Christian version, with battles between good and evil. The magical narrative simply has different heroes, villains and symbolism. It is almost a form of revisionist fiction. In the magical quest narrative the shifting, disturbing element of darkness that is present in much English children’s fiction, such as the books of Roald Dahl, is brought to the forefront. This dark aspect comes from the intense mixture of superstition, folklore and myth that forms the basis of British story telling origins.
This element works well in children’s fiction as it allows for the possibility of a particularly gruesome death for the villains. It also makes the conclusion of a story uncertain. Like adults, children don’t always want to open a book knowing it will end happily. As children grow into young adults earlier and earlier, they discard books that talk down to them or try to convince them of what their age group should like. A complex bit of tragedy or satisfying literary violence demonstrates than an author has acknowledged their need for respect.
Anyone who thinks the dark side of British children’s fiction is epitomised in the later Harry Potter books is quite definitely wrong. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series is eerie but ultimately too metaphysical to explain terror to its readers. In the Deptford Mice trilogy and the Tales from the Wyrd Museum, Robin Jarvis creates deeply disturbing magical missions for his characters. His combination of depraved evil forces, dark situations and an absolute disregard for the well being of his main characters make him the master of dark, magical children’s literature. Adventure is too tame a word for the substance of his plots and there is plenty for adults in his books, even before they start on the symbolism.
English children’s fiction continues to grow, and there are many categories that I don’t have space to mention here. With so much variety exhibited in the use of one plot structure and so many excellent authors available, it’s no wonder that English children’s authors continue to gain legions of devoted fans from all age groups.