Anniversaries and beginnings of years make us incurably retrospective about life and what we do. Sometimes this recollection is accomplished in lists of resolutions or goals and sometimes in a form of reflection.
Resolutions and goals demand a structure and framework which, when fallen short of, points out human weakness. But reflection can take many forms and is flexible enough to fit incessant dreamers, which is what most readers are, to say nothing of the literary critic.Reflecting on the artistry of children's literature at the beginning of 1989 gives an opportunity to understand where it's come from, to appreciate where it is and to value where it might be headed in the publishing field.
Historically, the specialized children's book market is a modern development. Prior to the middle of the 18th century the emphasis was on instruction. The primer advocated:
Deal justly with all.
Speak evil of none.
In the late 1800s there emerged an art form, a literature whose unashamed raison d' etre was "to give pleasure to children." For less than 100 years have children delighted to Alice's adventures, Kipling, the tales of Beatrix Potter's diminutive animals, A.A. Milne, Kate Greenway and a host of others.
In those hundred golden years, children have read of all nations and cultures, vicariously attended to the past, present and future while becoming acquainted with real issues of political, economic and religious natures.
It can truthfully be said that children's literature defines and exemplifies the modern Western world's complicated idea of childhood and humanity.
This is the time when children's literature is no longer considered a step-child of adult literature; a medium merely to give instruction, teach values or moral lessons. Those who don't teach literature relish the opportunities to get book and reader together.
Those who critique and review this literature consider it a body of work with standards as stringent as any art form.
Those authors and artists of children's literature are not ones who cannot produce other things, but choose not to. Their specialization is a kind of "literary-pediatrics," a study beyond the traditional book. They are among the great of the literary world pioneering phenomenal nuggets of beauty.
Those who read children's literature share C.S. Lewis' pleasure: "When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly."
A case in point is the most recent best seller from the United Press International where both first and second place books of fiction and the fourth on the non-fiction list are children's books. "The Polar Express," a picture book by Chris Van Allsburg (Houghton Mifflin, 1987) is a Christmas story that became a classic in the first printing. The seasonal interest surely adds to this book's popularity, but the message is timeless, warranting rereading at any time of the year.
Maurice Sendak's illustrations of a newly-discovered Grimm tale makes "Dear Mili" of high interest. Nobody who understands children's books claims that picture books are only for toddlers. "Dear Mili" (Farrar, Straus and Grioux) is advertised, and rightly so, as an adult venture into fantasy.
"The Way Things Work" (Houghton Mifflin) is David Macaulay's latest explanation of the how and why of things. In the 384 pages children can learn about the inner workings of staplers, gears and mechanical clutches; that is, if they can get it away from an adult who is looking at the carburetor or an egg beater's working parts.
-Marilou Sorensen is an associate professor of education at the University of Utah specializing in children's literature.