callmemadam (callmemadam) wrote,

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Intent Upon Reading or Guilt-Free Kidlit

I have just read Intent Upon Reading, by Margery Fisher, in a reprint of the revised edition, printed in 1967. It is rare to find an important and influential critical work which is itself as easy and enjoyable to read as a novel. As the author says, 'the real motive for criticism should be the exchanging of favourites, the recommendation Try this, it’s good '.

She herself read almost everything and claims to have read every book read by each of her six children. It is refreshing that she thinks it perfectly normal for adults to read children’s books, quoting with approval C S Lewis’s dictum that 'a children’s story which is enjoyed only by children is a bad children's book'. She also appreciates the importance of rereading (as does Lewis, see his essay On Stories) and takes it for granted that adults and children will do this. She writes of Tolkien and C S Lewis as contemporary authors, remembering Tolkien as a lecturer from her own Oxford days. At the time the book was published the Chalet, Abbey and Jennings series were all still uncompleted.

Mrs Fisher’s book was intended as a guide for librarians, teachers and parents, so each chapter ends with a long list of recommendations. It must be these which led Victor Watson to describe the book (in Reading Series Fiction), as 'a history of a lost literature'. Certainly, scanning the lists one sees many familiar names and titles but few books which are still in print. For me, the most interesting chapters are those dealing with school, pony and theatre stories and adventure stories. It is interesting to compare critical (and fair) judgement then with collectability now. From the 'silliness' of Angela Brazil to the fossilised formulae (the author's judgements) of Brent-Dyer and Oxenham, traditional school stories get short shrift. There is praise for Antonia Forest and Mary K Harris, both still well known, but who now has heard of The Young Netball Player, Jane Plays Hockey, or Pam Plays Doubles, which are also recommended? Anthony Buckeridge is rightly considered very funny but Jane Shaw seems to have passed the lady by. Noel Streatfeild and Pamela Brown are highly praised (I think she just liked Pamela Brown) but Lorna Hill doesn’t merit a mention. Pony books she finds too socially exclusive but enjoys some books by Christine and Diana Pullein-Thompson. Notably absent from the lists is Ruby Ferguson, whose Jill series, still popular today, is ignored.

Ronald Welch must be the currently most expensively collected writer of children’s historical fiction. He is mentioned here for The Gauntlet but far more space is devoted to Geoffrey Trease and Rosemary Sutcliff. Trease is a personal blind spot: I can’t stand him. Rosemary Sutcliff is responsible for my choosing to study history so I owe her but I must admit that, apart from Simon, I enjoyed her books more as a child than I do now. Cynthia Harnett is still quite popular but where today is Hester Burton? Many of her books are listed here but she is little read now, possibly because, unlike Welch, she didn’t write a series.

Although this is a book of serious criticism it is bound to be subjective when the author (quite rightly) emphasises the enjoyment to be had from reading. When she writes of Kipling, Arthur Ransome, William Mayne and Monica Edwards, critical judgement and personal taste coincide, as they do for many other people. Idiosyncrasies creep in though. I was charmed to see an honorable mention for A Stepmother for Susan of St Bride’s by Ruth Adam, a childhood favourite of my own but not very well known. The best recommendation I can make of this book is that first, it made me long to reread as soon as possible The Wind in the Willows, Alice, The Borrowers, Beatrix Potter, Tom’s Midnight Garden, Emil & the Detectives, The Otterbury Incident and other favourites. Secondly, I am going to go through each list compiling another for myself of the many unfamiliar titles which sound so promising.
Tags: children's books, literary criticism, margery fisher, rosemary sutcliff, ruth adam

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