literature, children’s and teenage

literature, children’s and teenage
   The 1950s and 1960s are often described as a golden age of children’s literature in Britain. This is ascribed to the breakdown of prewar ideologies and the absence of post-1970 political correctness. Fiction of this period fused the exciting narrative of adventure stories with the introspec-tion, morality and magic of fantasy, showing a concern with the interaction of past and present. An outstanding example is The Owl Service by Alan Garner. More generally, children’s fiction flourished as publishers began to attract writers of literary merit. Historical novels by Rosemary Sutcliffe and Jill Paton Walsh coexisted alongside the historical fantasy of Joan Aiken and Penelope Lively. Fantasy continued to be written throughout the 1970s, including Susan Cooper’s epic battles between good and evil, and the ‘psycho fantasy’ of Penelope Farmer. However the main trend was the realistic ‘teen’ novel. This was influenced by American writers such as Robert Cormier and Judy Blume, but there was also an indigenous demand for authentic ‘working-class’ literature, showing urban children in realistic surroundings. These books (such as Gumble’s Yard by John Rowe Townsend and The Machine Gunners by Robert Westall) developed into the so-called ‘teen’ novel which focused on issues affecting contemporary teenagers, including their struggle for cultural and sexual identity. No subject seemed taboo, including teenage sex, pregnancy, domestic violence or homosexuality. Many books tackled the problems of ethnic minorities, such as Jan Needle’s My Mate Shofiq and the novels of Farrukh Dhondy. While the Children’s Rights Workshop led the attack on racism and sexism in children’s books and encouraged multi-ethnic literature, critics worried about political correctness, condemning ‘case study’ novels in which social realism seemed to take precedence over literary quality. Some of the most successful authors of the period concentrated on motivation and character rather than fashionable social problems, for example, Nina Bawden in Carrie’s War, and Jill Paton Walsh in Goldengrove (1972) and Unleaving (1976). Also in the 1970s children’s literature became an object of study in British universities, and in 1980 the Whitbread and Guardian prizes were set up, reflecting a desire to seek and reward quality writing for children. The best-selling children’s author of the 1970s and 1980s was Roald Dahl (1916–90). He has gained a dubious critical reputation, standing accused of oversimplification and sheer unplea-santness, but his grotesque and virtually amoral stories (such as The B.F.G., The Witches and Matilda) are immensely popular with children all over the world. During the 1980s a number of children’s books responded to Cold War fears with depictions of nuclear disaster (such as Children of the Dust by Louise Lawrence). Meanwhile Aidan Chambers throughout the 1980s and 1990s began to widen the boundaries of children’s literature with such books as the sexually explicit and postmodernist Breaktime. During the 1990s, Anne Finehas emerged as a major figure in children’s literature, her humorous discussion of topics such as gender stereotyping and ecological worries twice winning her the Carnegie medal (for Flour Babies and Goggle-eyes). Children’s authors have been influenced by contemporary events; Gulf by Robert Westall, links a young Iraqi soldier and a British boy, and Wolf by Gillian Cross combines an IRA thriller with psychological exploration. The struggle for cultural identity in a post-colonial world is charted in the works of Jamila Gavin, in books such as Wheel of Surya. Anthropomorphism survives into the 1990s in the popular animal stories of Brian Jacques and Robin Jarvis.
   Concerns about children’s literature in the 1990s focus on the fear that interactive electronic media may come to replace traditional books. Other worries include the increasing popularity of American formulaic ‘series’ books such as Point Honor, and fears that a National Curriculum in schools will result in a ‘canon’ of children’s fiction, excluding new writers.
   Ted Hughes and Charles Causley were the major figures of postwar children’s poetry. The 1970s and 1980s saw the development of a colloquial tone, as poets began to focus on the everyday details of urban childhood. Please Mrs Butler, by Allan Ahlberg is a light and well-observed account of primary school life, but other comic poets such as Kit Wright and Michael Rosen reveal dark undercurrents beneath the everyday world. The poetry of the 1980s and 1990s tends to be demotic and best read aloud, such as the work of Brian Patten and Roger McGough. The rhythms of Anglo-Caribbean speech provide a rich source of contemporary children’s poetry, for example in John Agard’s Laughter is an Egg, Grace Nichol’s Come into my Tropical Garden and James Berry’s When I Dance.
   By the 1960s, improvements in lithography allowed artists to work in full colour in many different media, and quality picture books became more common. This period saw the emergence of many artists who were to rise to prominence in the following decades, such as John Burningham and Raymond Briggs. In the late 1970s and 1980s the development of paper engineering led to an explosion in ‘gimmicky’ —or richly experimental, depending on your point of view—picture books. Led by Jan Pienkowski’s Haunted House, these included pop-up and ‘scratch and sniff’ books.
   Standing out among the pile were Janet and Allan Ahlberg’s Postman, books which contained removable letters in envelopes. The Ahlbergs’ earlier work, Each Peach Pear Plum perfectly married word and picture, to the delight of critics who feared technological improvements privileged the illustration over the word. Picture books were put to the same service as teen novels during the 1980s, dealing with problems from potty training to the death of a parent. Gender roles were subverted in books like Robert Munsch’s The Paperbag Princess. The 1990s have seen a postmodern trend amongst picture books, playing games with fiction and reality (for example, The Book Mice by Tony Knowles). There has also been a move towards more sumptuous illustration, particularly in retold fairy tale and legend, as can be seen in the jewellike Three Indian Princesses (Jamila Gavin).
   Further reading
    Berger, L.S. (ed.) (1995) Twentieth-Century Children’s Writers, London: St. James’s Press.
    Hunt, P. (ed.) (1995) Children’s Literature, An Illustrated History, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Encyclopedia of contemporary British culture . . 2014.

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