Small Worlds - Children's Books for Grownups [web version - POST ASAP!]

Harry Potter' has taken the shame out of reading children's fiction. But what do books intended for children have to offer adults?

Feature by Katie Mathis | 15 Jun 2006
With the phenomenon of a certain bespectacled young wizard, it is easy to forget that Enid Blyton, Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis and A. A. Milne were once household names. The adventures of the Famous Five, of Matilda, of Pooh and Piglet and Eeyore, were read and re-read long before the gates of Hogwarts opened. In these comfortingly predictable worlds clever girls outwitted foolish fathers, thieves were thwarted, treasure discovered, and the intrepid heroes and heroines still arrived safely home in time for dinner.

Such worlds, however, were finite: Matilda lost her amazing powers, Christopher Robin went away to school – and despite Pooh's promise never to forget him, 'even if he lives to be ninety-nine, and even if he acquires an Education' the implication is that Christopher Robin will one day forget Pooh. Real Christopher Robins and Matildas also 'went away to school' and began to wade into the treacherous waters of Grownup Literature, leaving their storybooks in the irreverent hands of younger siblings. It was all too clear that you weren't supposed to take it with you.

Some of us went on exploring these Small Worlds, going on to discover Susan Cooper, Tove Jansson and Madeleine L'Engle, but admitting that you still enjoyed children's books was frowned on by scathing contemporaries almost as much as having written your name in Elvish runes on the front of your algebra textbook. What is most notable about the advent of Mr Potter is his suddenly shameless popularity. In only a short while the anticipation of parents and even childless adults for the latest instalment of the series has become as eager as that of any of the younger fans.

Clearly children's fiction offers something that adult fiction does not. Philip Pullman, author of the 'His Dark Materials' trilogy, is a 'children's author' who is widely read by adults. In debate with former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway at the 2002 Edinburgh Book Festival, Pullman denounced the "queasiness" with which modern writers of adult novels have avoided tackling the issues of 'moral conduct', as well as life and death, "leaving the work to children's fiction."

As adults we are supposed to already know the difference between right and wrong. An adult author trying to instruct us in morality would seem condescending and arrogant. But we read children's stories differently; we don't treat them with the same cynicism, we play along. We are all too eager to suspend our disbelief and grant them vast liberties. A children's book is a Trojan Horse full of witches, goblins and Hattifatners. You wheel it straight through the gates and then, when you're not expecting it, the wonders it contains come pouring out and trample down doors that you've kept firmly bolted since puberty, opening old toyboxes and reminding you how much fun it is to play. Also, as Pullman says, they remind you of the difference between right and wrong - yelling wisdom right in your ear - often pointing out the obvious, yes, but sometimes the obvious needs to be pointed out in a way you won't ignore, in a way that will get through your walls of world-weariness intact.

Dig out those old boxes in your parents' closet and you'll discover another world in there, a whole universe of Small Worlds, both comforting and frightening, familiar and shocking. If you treat it as an exercise in nostalgia be prepared for an ambush; the stories won't ever be quite what you remembered. There will be things you didn't understand the first time round, and things you understood perfectly at age six which are now incomprehensible. But you're never too old to go exploring (neither do you have to wait for children of your own). As Winnie the Pooh tells us, "the Forest will always be there, and anyone who is Friendly with Bears can find it."


Here are some of The Skinny's favourite children's books:

'The Ordinary Princess' by M. M. Kaye

Amethyst is a seventh princess. Destiny should ensure that she is the most beautiful of all her sisters, but her christening party is interrupted by the most unlikely Fairy Godmother. Dripping seaweed and water across the floor, Crustacea taps the cradle with her wand and declares "you shall be Ordinary!" Amethyst becomes 'Amy' – "for what could be more ordinary than that?" – her nose turns up, her hair won't curl and none of the Handsome Princes want to marry her. Amy runs away and becomes a maid in the neighbouring kingdom's castle, where she meets a young man called Perry who appears to be just as ordinary as she is.

A book to remind us that no one is ever quite what they seem (with full supporting cast of kings, queens, cakes, talking ravens and a 'Committee for the Hiring of Suitable Dragons').


'The House in Norham Gardens' by Penelope Lively

In snow-strewn Oxford a girl finds her great-grandfather's diaries, and begins to dream of strangely-painted shields and shadowy figures who think she has something which belongs to them. Visions begin to mingle with the waking world. Clare becomes ill, seeing sun-scorched forests clustering on the staircases of her house, when outside Oxford appears trapped in a perpetual winter. Then she finds a trunk in the attic…

The overwhelming presence in this book is Time itself, layers of the past and present overlapping until there is only uncertainty, never entirely resolved.


'Guilt and Gingerbread' by Leon Garfield

From an author better known for juvenile spy-fiction comes this unexpectedly dark fairytale. A young man out to seek his fortune meets an elderly woman, who promises wealth and marriage to a beautiful princess on one condition – he must first bring her the princess's heart. A blackly-comic rigmarole follows, in which the heart is cut out… but must be replaced by something else or the girl will die.

A grimly moral little book about beauty and wealth and withered youth, and how to exist when your heart has stopped beating.

(Published by Jane Nissen Books. Out Now. Cover Price £6.99)


'Apricots at Midnight' by Adele Geras

A young girl's aunt tells her a story every night, pointing to different squares of her patchwork quilt. At its centre is a tiny 'garden' sewn by a delirious child; black velvet recalling a highwayman's cloak and a midnight picnic; dragons from a pirate met in an old London square. Twelve stories all sewn together into a kaleidoscope of silk and lace and brocade, where everything is faded and threadbare except in the memory of Laura's aunt.

(Published by Barn Owl Books. Out Now. Cover Price £4.99)


'I Capture the Castle' by Dodie Smith

Written by the author of '101 Dalmatians', this is the diary of seventeen year-old Cassandra Mortmain (opening with the evocative line, "I write this sitting in the kitchen sink"). The 'castle' of the title is actually a farmhouse built amidst the ruins of a Norman keep, dismissed by Cassandra's sister Rose as "a crumbling ruin surrounded by a sea of mud," and the two girls themselves, with their depressed writer Father and his naturist second wife, trapped by its isolation. They are desperately poor: the refrain of making do, however little is available, runs throughout the book, as much with the web of relationships described as the shortage of material objects. Rose becomes engaged to rich, fastidious Simon, whose brother Neil appears to dislike her intensely; Cassandra is loved by the beautiful Stephen, but increasingly appalled by her sister's behaviour and her treatment of Simon. Dodie Smith's biographer, Valerie Grove, notes that I Capture the Castle was "never intended to be solely a young girls' book," and also that the author herself was surprised by its ending – how to solve the dilemma, as expressed by Cassandra, where the situation is that of "some hideous party game, everybody dancing and nobody getting the prize they want."

(Published by Vintage. Out Now. Cover Price £5.99)


'Emily of New Moon', 'Emily Climbs', 'Emily's Quest' by L. M. Montgomery

Four children grow up together on Prince Edward Island: brilliant, brittle Ilse; artistic Teddy, his hopes threatened by his lonely mother; fiercely ambitious Perry; and Emily. A quieter, bleaker heroine than Montgomery's famous Anne (of Green Gables), Emily is determined to become a writer, even in the face of continued rejections and the claustrophobic friendship of lonely, haunted Dean Priest. When her father dies, when her own life is threatened, when Teddy and Ilse become engaged, Emily continues to write: "nothing mattered but her story."

(Published by Bantam. Out Now. Cover Prices £5.50 £5.50 £4.99)
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