Species loss in children’s literature

Posted by Ian

The Golden Age of children’s literature spanned the late nineteenth century through to WWI.  What I think of as the second Golden Age really took off in the late 1950s.  No doubt for good sociological and macroeconomic reasons, to do with with disposable incomes and GDP, books for children became a thing. Publishers decided that children and their parents might like something more sophisticated than cheap pulp paper reruns of Enid Blyton with brief line drawings by way of illustration. For whatever reason, the support was there to allow the authors of the western world to emerge, turning out thoughtful, interesting books with great storylines, and particularly for younger readers, beautiful illustrations.  Genres were varied, didacticism was muted, originality was rife and we all thought that this kingdom would last a thousand years.

Well, times are still good, but a gradual transmutation of the Age to a baser metal seems to have occurred.

We certainly don’t lack for quantity. More books – young adult books in particular – are published than ever before. Everywhere, words and images are growing, growing, growing. And there are still beautiful, engaging and wise books being published, but times are tougher for the authors.  The good books are harder to find among the weeds. 

Publishers – no doubt squeezed by the internet and other commercial forces – are focussed on the bottom… er, line.  Genres are tightly limited; between scifi/fantasy, teen horror, the perennial romance and the socially aware novel (needed especially to sustain school curricula and literary prizes). All these books are worthy – but it’s hard for older books to prosper, or those which appeal to a smaller coterie of readers, which are eccentric or old fashioned in structure. A book, for example, with an enjoyable but linear storyline, told in the third person, perhaps even (how passé!) without reference to contemporary issues.  

Finally, a single standalone novel is not enough – nothing succeeds like excess, so a series is the thing.  Yes, there have always been series (Anne of Green Gables for instance) but they were never as ubiquitous as today. Once a few powerful series characters begin to dominate the economic ecosystem, expanding along the shelves, the weak, the old and the eccentric are squeezed out.

Perhaps this is simply Natural Selection in the internet age.  Perhaps we never had it so good. But those of us who have grown up within a rich and varied ecology, those of us who have witnessed fashions come and go, are becoming conscious of an insidious loss of species and a trend towards large monoculture farming.

We all understand that libraries of physical books are shrinking. More alarmingly, thoughtful human curators of libraries are becoming fewer, especially in schools where they are most needed.  Bookshops must sell the very latest products and their back-catalogues are migrating to online, order-as-required repositories.  Even secondhand shops must, of course, stock what will sell – that is, what is known.  Thanks to Harry Potter, reading itself appears to be surviving as an acceptable activity for children, but children lack a sense of history – they only know what is before their noses.  It’s the duty of adults to bring the rich history of literature to the children of today, and this is becoming harder as the books of the last few decades wither and vanish from the shelves. 

Agreed, not all books age well. Not every children’s book from the 1960s deserves to live on. Yes, many of the best known of these books continue to be reprinted (especially as copyrights expire). And finally, yes, anything can be obtained on the internet – once you know what to look for!  But pity the child who would enjoy and be enriched by the books of the late 20th century but who fails to realise that they exist.

I have been astonished to find formerly ubiquitous titles from my childhood unknown to the schoolchildren of today, and near impossible to find in secondhand book shops. As one example, I had to search the internet to find a copy of Heartsease, the central – and best written – book of Peter Dickinson’s Changes trilogy, published in the very early 1970s. Many of K.M. Peyton’s books are out of print and unobtainable.  Paul Zindel has vanished. Even sightings of Leon Garfield and Joan Aiken – apart from the two or three classic titles – are becoming rare.  They will not be lost to history – but they may well be lost to this generation, and likely to subsequent generations as well. I find that sad.

A shoutout to readers of a Certain Age – have you been disconcerted? Do you have much loved books that are Threatened Species? Or should I simply accept that, as in natural ecosystems, most species eventually go extinct?

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