Celebrating Children's Books is a fest-schrift published in honor of Zena Sutherland. Long associated with the University of Chicago, Sutherland has enjoyed a distinguished career as reviewer, teacher, and anthologist. The essays in this volume explore, at a generally high level, aspects of writing and criticizing books for children. Particularly good are the essays contributed by writers of children's books, who, with a self-assurance often beyond that of the critic, write more provocatively.
In "The Grammar of Story," Lloyd Alexander compares the structure of a tale to the structure of a sentence. The subject of the sentence resembles the main characters of a story while the verb which moves forward the action in a sentence resembles the conflict which provides action in a story. The sentence's direct object then becomes the point in the tale toward which character and conflict direct the reader.
In "Escaping Into Ourselves," Susan Cooper stresses that "fantasy reigns supreme" among small children--a point which is true enough but which needs expansion. For a child fantasy encompasses more than fairy land; obvious links between cause and effect are so beyond a child's comprehension that ordinary happenings often appear fantastic.
Many of the essays are brightly commonsensical. Although the ideas of Jill Paton Walsh dance about like a butterfly, they can also sting like a bee. Commenting on the Bettelheim school of criticism which prescribes children's literature as medicine for psychic illnesses, she notes that only children's book are used this way. "One does not, " she writes, "rush to give Anna Karenina to friends who are committing adultery, or minister to distressed old age with copies of King Lear."
Unlike professional criticism which frequently blights the literature it purports to describe, the essays by writers in this volume warmly reveal and celebrate both self and children's books. Like Robert Penn Warren, Virginia Hamilton describes family and home town "as a place to come to" and about which to write. E.L. Konigsburg tells funny stories about herself in order to make the serious point that a sense of humor is necessary if one is to have perspective on life and literature.
Although the essays are wise and literate, many, strangely enough, betray an ignorance of early children's books. In an otherwise fine essay, Paula Fox compares imaginative with instructive literature. She implies that the latter, which predominated at the end of the 18th century, "strangles the imagination." The workings of the imagination are complex. The fates of bad children in early cautionary and instructive tales were often unpleasant. As children seem to have enjoyed Puss in Boots' eating of the ogre, so I suspect the sufferings of disobedient children intrigued them. Far from strangling the imagination, instructive literature probably awakened it. To T.S. Eliot's opinion that the amount of great poetry in the world was small, C.S. Lewis replied, "The amount that can be read with pleasure and profit is enormous." The same holds true for children's literature, whether it's instructive or imaginative.
Katherine Paterson's Gates of Excellence is a group of occasional pieces on the craft of writing. Although Paterson has twice won the Newbery Medal and the National Book Award, she writes humbly, stating that in her books she tries "simply to give children a place where they may find rest for their weary souls."
Paterson's children's books spring from her life, and Gates of Excellence should, perhaps, be subtitled "fragments of an autobiography." Not only does Paterson discuss her family but she describes such things as her childhood reading and her days in elementary school. To a critic who asks if she feels trapped by her family and her husband's ministerial duties, she replies that they are the boundaries that give form to her life.
Katherine Paterson sheds a kindly light on all she discusses, and if this book has a fault, it is its length. One wishes it were longer.