Reading to Imogen, his granddaughter, Alan Taylor was struck by how many of the best children’s stories originated in Scotland. First published in the Sunday Herald we are reprinting it here to mark the start of Scottish Book Week on Monday, 21 November.
MY mother’s name was Janet and my father’s was John. At primary school, the first books I was given featured two children who to my amazement were also called Janet and John. They were English, ordinary and middle-class, and their adventures and conversations were innocent, simple and banal. Likewise, the books’ illustrations did little to stimulate the imagination. Thanks to the wonder of Wikipedia, I now know that the series was based on the Alice and Jerry books in the United States. These were first introduced in the UK in 1949 with the same artwork and text but with the names of protagonists changed.
Janet and John’s heyday was the 1950s, which was when I first came across them. The books were typical of the ‘look and say’ method used to teach reading and their subject material was designed to chime with children’s experience and psychological development. ‘There is nothing perplexing, artificial or outworn,’ reassured the publisher. Believing them to be about my parents when they were young, I had a stronger incentive to read than most of my classmates and it was not long before I graduated to other, more complicated and more interesting books.
In our small school there was a wooden box of books which was dragged into the classroom once a week and on which keen readers descended like ravenous refugees. More important, though, and more formative, was the public library. When I was first introduced to it I cannot remember. If it was by my father – the family reader – or mother – whose every hour was taken up with domestic chores – I have no recollection. Perhaps I just stumbled into it one day by myself. What I can say is that it changed my life. Here were books about people and places, some real, many more imaginary, which in a few pages could take me back centuries or rocket me far into the future. I recall now those early, uncritical, open-eyed reading years as among the most carefree I have spent. In a sense, all the reading I have done since has been an attempt to recapture them, to reignite that youthful fire, to embrace a book again and be utterly, inescapably spellbound.
‘Nothing compares in importance with reading; it is of unparalleled significance,’writes psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim, whose book On Learning To Read should itself be required reading. ‘The child who enjoys being read to learns to love books,’ he adds. ‘Impressed by his parents’ interest in reading and their enjoyment of reading to him, the child studies with keen interest the stories that fascinate him.’
If anyone should doubt the veracity of this I suggest they try reading to a young child. Imogen, my granddaughter, is three and a bit, though she is uncomfortable with the ‘bit’. She likes, loves, being read to and needs no encouragement to gather up her favourite books for anyone to read to her. In the morning when she wakes, she takes several back to her bed and can sometimes be found reading to her fluffy friends and glass-eyed dolls. Of course, she can’t actually read yet. What she does is imitate me and others who read to her, making up the story as she goes along, pointing out things that interest her in the illustrations, asking her pretend children what they think of this or that. Moreover, she regularly visits the library where she picks books from a shelf and sits on a beanbag in a corner turning pages with adult intent.
It will not be long before words become recognisable to Imogen and she is able to connect one to another. When that happens a door will open and she will go through it and begin to form her own taste. Even writers who have little memory of their infancy seem to be able to remember what they first read and the impression it made on them. In surveys, the same titles keep cropping up: Peter Pan, The Jungle Book, Kidnapped and Treasure Island and A Child’s Garden Of Verses, The Princess And The Goblin, Black Beauty, The Railway Children, The Secret Garden, Alice In Wonderland, Grimms’ Fairy Tales, Winnie The Pooh, The Wind In The Willows and many, many more. Of these I read very few – if any – when I was a child. What I did read avidly was the Beano and the Dandy and the Hotspur, all of which poured from the Dundee presses of DC Thomson. Eventually, I graduated to Anthony Buckeridge’s stories about Jennings, a boy at an English public school, which I devoured as Jennings and his chum Darbyshire did whatever they could afford from the tuck shop.
Why at that stage I never read the ‘classics’ I cannot say. Of late, however, I have started to collect a set of them for Imogen, who may, of course, do as I did and avoid them, preferring less taxing fare. What strikes me today, though, is that so many of the best and most enduring children’s books were written by Scots: Robert Louis Stevenson (whose birthday this day is), RM Ballantyne, Andrew Lang, the great populiser of fairy tales, Kenneth Grahame, George MacDonald, JM Barrie and John Buchan, virtually all of whom came to prominence towards the end of the 19th century in what has been described as children’s literature’s ‘Golden Age’. The preponderance of Scots is curious and not easily explained. The maturity of the education system may have something to do with it as may the overweening influence of the kirk whose hellfire and damnation inspired preachers knew better than Stephen King how to scare the wits out of their cowering congregations. Never was the border between good and evil more starkly and vividly drawn.
All of the above-mentioned writers were brought up in the Victorian era when attitudes towards children were in flux and they were coming to be seen as individuals in their own right, capable of misbehaviour and even rebellion. Humphrey Carpenter, author of Secret Gardens, sub-titled A Study Of The Golden Age Of Children’s Literature, suggests that a novel by Catherine Sinclair may have been responsible for breaking the moralising mould. Holiday House, published in 1828, is set in and around bourgeois Edinburgh. The two main protagonists are a brother and sister, Harry and Laura, who may be five or six years old. They are explorers, innocents, anarchists, who are the bane of their housekeeper and their long-suffering guardian uncle who tolerates their naughtiness even when it nearly results in the burning down of his house. Sinclair, who was credited with outing Sir Walter Scott as the author of the Waverley novels, is commemorated with a monument near Charlotte Square, home of the Edinburgh International Book Festival. But while her novel was much read throughout the 19th century, she is by and large forgotten. Her influence, however, was immense. One of Holiday House’s readers, notes Carpenter, was Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, who gave a copy of it at Christmas 1861 to Alice Liddell and her sisters, shortly before he told them the story of Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. Another, surely, was George MacDonald, who would have been impressed by the manner in the which Sinclair incorporated into her story an element of fantasy, including fairies and giants.
Unlike her, MacDonald is recognised as the master of 19th-century fantasy literature, whose work has influenced a tradition that includes the likes of CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, not to mention Roald Dahl and JK Rowling. Lewis, for example, remarked: ‘I have never concealed the fact that I regarded him as my master; indeed I fancy I have never written a book in which I do not quote from him.’ Born in 1824 in Huntly in Aberdeenshire, MacDonald hailed from a family of Congregationalists who ran a bleaching business. He trained for the ministry but resigned after preaching a sermon in which he suggested that heathens might find salvation, a sentiment which his congregation found unpalatable. He and his wife had 11 children and in the 1860s he discovered he had a talent for telling them stories. The result was novels like At The Back Of The North Wind, The Princess And The Goblin and The Princess And Curdie. ‘I do not write for children,’ MacDonald insisted, ‘but for the childlike, whether of five, or 50, or 75.’
Certainly, he never talked down to children. His vocabulary can be testing and he is happy, for instance, to mention Herodotus en passant. Moreover the world he creates is one in which supernatural power and goodness co-exist, and can be frightening. In At the Back Of The North Wind, published in 1871, a spirit of the air rescues the hero, sickly Diamond, from a London slum and transports him on several magical nighttime journeys.
Who knows what a 21st-century child will make of MacDonald’s work. Some may be charmed by it while others may find it uncomfortable with its overt symbolism and its insistent didacticism. More to their liking may be those authors who eschew instruction and offer a vision of perfection, be it Barrie’s thrilling Never Never Land, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s secret garden, AA Milne’s ‘the Forest’ in Winnie-the-Pooh, and Kenneth Grahame’s river in The Wind In The Willows.
Grahame, who was born in Edinburgh in 1859, was the son of a lawyer with a fondness for alcohol. In 1897 he met a woman called Elspeth Thomson, who by all accounts bullied him into marrying her. In 1900, the couple had a son, Alastair, who was blind in one eye and was known as Mouse. Thereafter, the marriage floundered and foundered. Grahame, his biographer, Peter Green, remarked, was ‘shattered and repelled’ by adult sexuality, and ‘retreated even further than before into his safe, private world – a world … not of children but of animals.’
The result of this was The Wind In The Willows, published in 1908, which had its origins, as so many children’s classics had, in the tales of the riverbank he told his son. The river in question is the Thames but it could be any river. It was Grahame’s idea of Arcadia, of an idyll, a safe, rural place far from business and industry and people. Before devoting himself to writing, Grahame had worked at the Bank of England, living a quiet, respectable, routine-governed life. It is hard not to view the antics of Ratty, Otter, Mole, Mr Badger and especially Toad – ‘the motor-car snatcher, the prison-breaker, the Toad who always escapes!’ – as the antithesis of the life he had in the city, represented in the novel by the Wild Wood where danger lurks and only the fittest survive. Here, as Ratty pronounces, ‘there are a hundred things to know … passwords and signs, and sayings which have power and effect, and plants you carry in your pocket, and verses you repeat, and dodges and tricks you practise.’
Rereading Grahame’s masterpiece I was struck by how fresh it seems. The River is the characters’ home, the place they feel most safe and secure, and the fear that it might be threatened, might no longer be, is potent and scary. Children such as Imogen don’t mind suspense but they need to know that in the end all will be well, all will be resolved to their satisfaction. It is a thread that runs through all great children’s literature. Order, fairness, charity, concern for others, stability, the love of nature and the care of animals; these are givens.
In hindsight, we can now appreciate that JM Barrie, scion of Kirriemuir, was the successor to George MacDonald and Kenneth Grahame. Much of what he did in Peter Pan, which was first performed as a play in 1904 and published as a book seven years later, was not new – as Humphrey Carpenter notes, he was dealing with symbols that children’s writers had been using for more than half a century before him – but what he did was re-imagine it all through the prism of his own warped, stunted and peculiar personality.
Of all the great children’s books, I find Peter Pan the most difficult to swallow. When Peter says, ‘To die will be an awfully big adventure.’ a chill goes through me. Likewise I find the restoration of life to Wendy when she is shot by an arrow too blatantly biblical. Nor does the idea of not growing up appeal.
The story, of course, is an allegory of Barrie’s own relationship with the unfortunate Davies family whom he befriended and adopted. Some have suggested that Peter Pan himself is modelled on his creator, ‘eternally young in spirit’, as the American writer Alison Lurie puts it, ‘the ideal companion and daring leader in childhood games’. In the play and the novel every wish comes true and every dream is fulfilled. Reality, as we know, is not like that. Nor was it for Barrie and the ‘lost’ Davies boys on whom he based his fantasy. What is undeniable, though, is its enduring appeal to children who, when asked by Peter if they believe in fairies, go on clapping their hands until they are ready to fall off.