ONLY a person of exceptionallv morbid disposition would care to compile statistics on the number of man-hours that go into the making of the average juvenile. There is nothing haphazard about the children’s book industry. Authors sweat, publishers advise, salesmen confer, artists toil, and educators advocate. Even so, the initial purpose of any book designed for children is frequently lost sight of: the response to the perennial cry of “Tell me a story!”
This has been brought home to us with particular sharpness just now because we are in receipt of a reissue of Andrew Lang’s Orange Fairy Book.
As juvenile-writers ourselves, we are humbled. Fairy stories, it seems, have everything: the ever inventive forces of evil countered by the even more inventive forces of good, the rhythmic repetition which never slows the story, the artistry which never offends with a dull moment. In a fairy story there is always something going on.
Undoubtedly it was the fact that the ancients were not too choosy about what did go on which cast the brothers Grimm et al. into disrepute during the early days of the child psychology era — twenty-five years ago. Sensitive adults shuddered at the happy endings in which the hero performed the ninth-century equivalent of encasing the villain in concrete and dropping him into the East River. They felt — in many instances correctly— that it might be better if children read stories in which their own, less highly spiced experiences were confirmed, their horizons enlarged more gently and in the proper directions. All this was excellent in intention, but unfortunately the result was a flood of books long on detail and completely emasculate as to plot.
Once, at the age of seven, we received a book which, from the progressive-school standpoint, should have been a real killer. It was charmingly illustrated, and we opened it with enthusiasm. It began with the story of a little girl whose mother had just said that it was time to get up. This seemed to us an auspicious beginning and we waited avidly for further developments. Well, Mother took off the little girl’s nightgown. Then the child had a bath, brushed her teeth, and finally dressed. That was the end of the tale. The others in the book were on the same order, and we were tearful with frustration. This book is still in print and the other day, wondering if we had been abnormally thrill-hungry in our early youth, we read it to a seven-year-old of our acquaintance. At least we read until she remarked in exasperation, “For heaven’s sake — doesn’t anything happen? ”
This state of mind applies to all but the tiniest readers, who are largely dependent on illustrations, and even they prefer books like The Three Little Kittens or Peter Rabbit to one which is all about eating your oatmeal.
Now, having pointed out the case against too much good taste and the practice of feeding the young mind on tepid pablum, we will reverse ourselves and lodge a complaint against Mr. Walt Disney.
No one will deny that when Mr. Disney is on his own he is a sensitive and inventive artist, but lately, perhaps badly advised, he has taken to hopping up old favorites and his taste has forsaken him. He selects a classic which has been doing all right for generations, and converts it into a series of seven-color prat falls. We were particularly outraged a couple of years ago by his treatment of Uncle Remus, which had delightful illustrations — and an abridged and vulgarized text. We read it to our children and then followed it up with our own smudgily illustrated personal edition. The children preferred the latter, indicating that Joel Chandler Harris probably knew what he was doing in the first place. Now comes The Adventures of Mr. Toad — a book filled with fascinating pictures and a text which should be captioned “What We Done to Kenneth Grahame.”
The quality of the various categories of books on the fall list has also reversed itself. As a rule, books for the very little have been abundant and excellent, while many of those for the middle years and teen-agers have been doubtful. This year, for some inexplicable reason, we found few enthralling picture books, but were pleased and impressed by the caliber of the older juveniles, particularly those for the teens. Several houses, notably Macrae-Smith and Doubleday, have published serious novels which, though listed as “Juniors,” differ in no way from adult books, save that they are far better written than the average lending library romance. These books are socially and politically sophisticaled in the best sense of the word; that is, the authors have not attempted to adjust reality to the presumably tender sensibilities of the young. This is particularly true of Sarah, by Margueritte Harmon Bro, a beautifully accomplished book by any standards. We were pleased, too, to see that The Saracen’s Head, by Osbert Lancaster, and Look Out for the Ostriches, by Jan Juta, have been issued as juveniles.
We have listed here the books which seem to us the best out of the large number received, but it must be understood that we are limited as to space, and it is with regret that we have had to omit many excellent books. Anyway, these were our first choice. The age grouping is, of course, only approximate. Much depends on the individual child.