New Reviews

The 100 Best Children’s Books

The 100 Best Children’s Books. Brian Alderson. Cambridge: Galileo Publishers, 2019. 301 pages. Hardback. £14.99.

Brian Alderson knows more about children’s books past and present than anyone else alive, and this volume is a testament to his immense scholarship. His range extends from expert plot summaries and brief biographies to detailed and sometimes wonderfully arcane bibliographic information. Did you know that Anna Sewell’s classic story Black Beauty was one of the first novels ever to be bound in cloth? Or that Giles Jones’s The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes was published in a miniature edition for reading in air-raid shelters during the Second World War? He is excellent too on illustrators and their particular contributions, and numbers of sometimes very cut down black and white examples of their work are reproduced in his text.

Early on he repeats the distinction originally made by John Rowe Townsend between book people, who concentrate on the work itself, and child people, more given to prioritising children’s likely responses to any one story. Alderson firmly identifies himself as a book person, yet cannot always resist coming out as a child person as well. He damns Captain Marryat’s Masterman Ready for its piety and didacticism, so alienating it from rousing any ‘genuine affection on the part of the readers.’ But I loved this book as a notably impious child and wept when the old sailor was killed defending the family, doing his duty to the last.

Alderson is a strong and convincing enthusiast for the best in this genre. A few of his choices are odd, but in the list of ‘reserves’ he adds for those books he would have liked to include but had no space for only The Story of Dr Dolittle, The Family from One End Street and Mary Poppins seem to me more deserving than, say, Christopher Cranch’s The Huggermugger Stories or Hesba Stretton’s Jessica’s First Prayer. If today’s children no longer read some of his choices and are unable to find them in libraries, there is always the possibility that some of these now neglected titles could still draw new life from film or television adaptations. The days when radio or children’s television could be counted on to breathe new life into old classics are now over, but good stories can still survive albeit sometimes in new formats unrecognisable to their original authors.

My only criticism of this erudite and informative book is over its tone. Alderson is much given to sarcasm of a kind that closes down discussion rather than opening up areas of genuine contention. He lauds Richard Jefferies’ Bevis: the Story of a Boy for its loving descriptions of potentially dangerous child activities of the type that ‘will provoke incredulity among the cotton-wool child-minders of today.’ But Bevis very nearly meets his death in the final battle between the warring schoolboy gangs, and is indeed thought to have done so by his main adversary.

There is a casual even slightly cold side to this and some other pre-war adventure stories, also found in another of Alderson’s choices, Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons. Of this, Alderson writes ‘Such high-jinks are unlikely now in these crowded days under the eyes of Child Protectionists and Health and Safety officials deterring duffers from drowning (and No Fires and No Camping says the National Trust on Wild Cat Island.)’ But merely ridiculing current concerns about children’s well-being is no answer. By contrast, British attitudes to the young, even in the recent past, do not always read well now. Very small and vulnerable children were once routinely sent away to boarding schools long before they were emotionally strong enough to survive the change. No-one questioned the mass evacuation of children in World War Two to unsupervised and sometime horribly inappropriate countryside billets. Did children’s authors of the time sometimes collude with the idea that all proper children necessarily benefit from and indeed come to enjoy new adventures and challenges? When this since proved to be not always the case, should this in any way temper our responses now to fictional settings taking on the theme of child separation but constantly in denial that anything could ever go seriously wrong?

But apart from other moments of mischievousness, such as a throw-away line about Peter Pan’s ‘fascist tendencies’, this book is a monument to careful scholarship mixed with a deep love of the subject. It is always gratifying to find fault with a scholar perennially happy to do the same to others, but the only factual mistake I can come up with is his dating of John Masefield’s The Box of Delights series on BBC radio’s Children’s Hour to the 1930s. In fact its first outing occurred in 1943, never to be forgotten by those lucky enough to have heard it. Alderson writes well about both this novel and its lesser-known companion The Midnight Folk. Both amply deserve re-reading as does this present study, full of fascinating information about some of the best stories ever written.

Nicholas Tucker
University of Sussex