British Children’s Novels


I saw Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix for the second time tonight. It really is a marvelous big movie, with an inspiring soundtrack, stunning visuals, convincing performances and a steady narrative that tells a complicated story quite competently within a limited time span.

(Of course, if you want to see the very best Potter visual depiction, look at Lindsay Lohan’s portrayal of Hermione Granger on SNL.)

The Potter series of books aren’t the finest examples of British children’s writing, but they’re pretty good. In fact, I bristle when adults look down their noses at these books; they are clever, well written, chock full of important adolescent explorations and values –and, they tell a pretty good story and have significantly added to the modern world’s collection of folklore and cultural touchstones.

It’s a rare thing to live through a genuine literary world phenomenon. Potter is one of them. The other notable one was, of course, The Da Vinci Code. Now, I really really wanted to like that piece of cra—– um, creative fiction. But, truth be known, I couldn’t get past the first chapter; I felt myself getting dumber with each page! But still, I celebrated the fact that the world was celebrating a book.

The same goes for Harry Potter. I think it’s marvelous that a book –not a video game, not a celebrity, not a movie or a TV show or a toy, but an old-fashioned simple book– has so captured the love and excitement of children worldwide.

It got me thinking about some other children’s books that made me happy as a child. I was never one for the whitewashed faux happiness of the Disney products (for that’s what they are, products created by advertisers and marketers). Rather, I was always a fan of post-war British novels. They were often written from an emotional space grown from the experiences of children sent to live in the English countryside during the London blitz. These stories touched upon these kids’ loneliness, self-reliance, appreciation of real danger, and their desperate need for fantasy to take them from the genuine harshness that was the real world.

Books like Tom’s Midnight Garden were particularly important to me, as was The Borrowers, books about Paddington Bear (about whom I learned about marmalade and other exotic treats). Ballet Shoes was another inspired gem, introduced to me by my Scottish grade 3 teacher. There are scores of them that I’m forgetting, and it truly is a shame.

European children’s books were, for me, a great source of subtle knowledge about other cultures. Something as basic as learning that the German currency was called the “mark” was revolutionary for a boy of 8 –and, I fear, today’s literary diet of Americanized books all but erases that source of knowledge. Did you know, for instance, that the first Harry Potter book is called The Philosopher’s Stone everywhere in the world, but The Sorceror’s Stone in the USA, because the publishers feared that Americans were too daft to know what the philosopher’s stone was supposed to be? Same goes for the His Dark Materials trilogy: the first book is called The Northern Lights everywhere in the world, but The Golden Compass in (North) America.

Anyway, as always, if you have any titles to share, bring ’em on.