Reading for the Love of It: Best Books for Young Readers , by Michele Landsberg (Prentice Hall, $17.95). On two pages, chosen pretty much at random, Michele Landsberg writes "Cuteness, in fact, is the bubonic plague of children's publishing" and "Every time you buy a Strawberry Shortcake book, you are helping to ensure the death of another, better book which simply cannot compete for that shelf space in profitability and quick turnover." This is obviously a critic who knows, and speaks, her own mind. She is also a pleasure to read: Landsberg -- one of Canada's most eminent authorities on children's books -- writes with the vigor of a Mencken and the passion of a born reader.
The bulk of Reading for the Love of It focuses on the major forms of juvenile literature: Picture books for pre-schoolers, first novels, stories of adventure, fantasy or growing up. In each chapter Landsberg speaks to the function of such books, then zeroes in on a half dozen or so favorites that support her arguments. In essence, she looks for writing that doesn't sell children short. "The best books demand a depth of involvement that is clearly missing from purely escapist literature, and, in return, they reward us with something that is added to our essential selves; we come back into the real world with a more tantalizing sense of its complexity than we had imagined before. Our sensibilities are stretched and enhanced; our intellect provoked; our apprehension of the world around us changed in some way."
With such standards in mind, Landsberg takes apart Roald Dahl for his thinly veiled misogyny; she also finds that Judy Blume, S.E. Hinton and Paul Zindel exploit 11 and 12-year olds -- the true readers of these YA novels -- by presenting pre-packaged teens obsessed with brand names, sex and good looks. True enough, but, asks Landsberg, are these the models we want for our children?
The second half of Reading for the Love of It provides annotated book lists for ages 4 through adolescence. Wise parents will tear out these pages -- or at least photocopy relevant sections -- and carry them to the library and children's bookstore, those scenes of adult angst and confusion. Follow Landsberg's taste and you won't go wrong.
Writers for Children: Critical Studies of the Major Authors Since the Seventeenth Century , edited by Jane M. Bingham (Scribners, $90). Scribners' on-going series of critical studies -- earlier volumes have been devoted to science fiction and supernatural fiction -- should be standard references for any good library. This latest volume, on children's authors, covers 84 writers (and writer-illustrators), each provided with a long biographical-critical essay and a short reading list of primary and secondary texts. The essays are, for the most part, written by noted authorities on juvenile literature: Gillian Avery, Michael Patrick Hearn, Alison Lurie, Ann Thwaite, Francelia Butler, Anne Scott MacLeod.
What distinguishes these pieces are their independence of mind. First off, there's no gushing. Hugh Lofting's Dr. Doolittle stories, for all their charm, are often racist; Jean de Brunhoff's Babar books fall off sharply after the first two classics and those by son Laurent are pretty ordinary; Robert Lawson's books display a disturbing sexism and a peculiar bitterness. Naturally, several entries are welcome examples of critical reparation: For instance, a particularly fine study by Hearn of Frank Stockton, appreciations of Padraic Colum and the oft-maligned Hendrik Willem Van Loon, an unexpectedly fresh and personal view of Tolkien by Robin McKinley, and a quiet claim by Thwaite that The Secret Garden is the "most satisfying" of all children's books.
This is clearly a reference book that takes children's literature seriously and will be usefully consulted and enthusiastically read by anyone interested in the field. Note, however, that only the glorious dead are included.
Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children's Literature,
compiled by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire (Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, $20). These pieces -- drawn from programs presented at Simmons College -- make a useful complement to Writers for Children. Here the contemporary elite of the calling -- Alan Garner, Katherine Paterson, Natalie Babbitt, Maurice Sendak, Chris van Allsburg and others just as distinguished -- talk about their art, their inspiration, their ways of creating.
Joan Aiken, for instance, presents a moving memoir of how it was to grow up the daughter of poet Conrad Aiken. Susan Cooper offers a brilliant homage to Walter de la Mare, and more particularly to his classic collection of poems, Come Hither. Much of the book deals with fantasy, what the editors call "the perilous realm," and it is fascinating to eavesdrop on figures like Madeleine L'Engle, Lloyd Alexander and M.E. Kerr as they talk about myth, storytelling and the interplay of romance and realism.
This is quite an engaging assemblage, especially for those clear-thinking folk who know that children's literature really is literature, and not just a set of training manuals for the domestication of toddlers, tots and teens. Innocence and Experience can be read with pleasure by anyone who enjoys, say, the Paris Review "Writers at Work" interviews.
Michael Dirda is children's book editor of Book World.