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300 years of children's classics -- and a few left on Platform 9 3/4

The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature Traditions in English Edited by Jack Zipes et al. W.W. Norton: 2,472 pp., $76.70

October 16, 2005|Sheldon Cashdan | Sheldon Cashdan is the author of "The Witch Must Die: The Hidden Meaning of Fairy Tales."

THE world of children's literature spans centuries, civilizations and alternate realities. Anchored by "Cinderella" at one end and "Heather Has Two Mommies" at the other, it is a world populated with stories for the very young, such as "The Adventures of Peter Rabbit" and "Winnie-the-Pooh," as well as tales for the older set by Rudyard Kipling, J.K. Rowling, C.S. Lewis and others. The roads that lead to Pooh and Harry Potter and Narnia can be fraught with danger, but they are always enchanting, taking children on journeys they will remember for the rest of their lives.

"The Norton Anthology of Children's Literature" brings together works from 170 authors and illustrators spanning more than 300 years -- from John Bunyan's "The Pilgrim's Progress" to Julius Lester's "John Henry" -- in a single volume. Weighing in at 5 pounds and filling nearly 2,500 pages, it's not exactly beach reading. The editors envision it instead as a college sourcebook of children's literature, education and comparative literature.

The anthology is divided into 19 chapters, among them "Myths," "Fairy Tales," "Science Fiction," "Verse" and "Adventure Tales," as well as a unique chapter devoted to comics. The editors who assembled this volume are acknowledging that graphic works have a place in children's literature and constitute "an important ... form of popular written culture." Far be it from me to quibble. Many of my happiest childhood hours were spent reading "Superman," "Wonder Woman" (oh, those bracelets!) and "Captain Marvel." Somehow the notion that bad things in the world could be conquered simply by uttering "Shazam!" was comforting.

What to put in and what to leave out of such an anthology? Given that there are hundreds of thousands of books, poems, plays and other literature written for children -- not to mention "crossover" works that appeal to kids and adults -- finding an answer to that question leads to the more fundamental one: What precisely is children's literature? Is it what parents think children ought to read? Or is it anything that children read? Do bodice-ripping romances constitute children's literature if a child comes across a parent's stash of Harlequins and surreptitiously devours them one by one?

One way of getting a handle on these questions is to select a popular example of children's literature and ask what in particular qualifies it as such. Take Harry Potter, for instance. The number of children who have read the series is legion; each successive volume has broken publishing records. (Harry and others are notably absent from this volume, but more on that later.)

The Harry Potter saga is essentially a fairy tale -- a modern one, granted, but a fairy tale nonetheless. Harry, like the hero or heroine in traditional fairy tales, is deprived of parental care early on and must rely on his own resources to survive. Like Snow White, who must survive an assassination attempt, or Hansel and Gretel, who face imminent starvation, Harry must overcome a series of mortal threats. And as is the case with all fairy tales, the protagonist must enter into a climactic struggle against an evil force: the murderous queen in "Snow White," the witch in "Hansel and Gretel" and Voldemort in the Harry Potter stories.

As these struggles are played out on the page, another takes place within the child, an inner struggle between self-doubts and a desire to transcend them. If the hero or heroine is to survive both psychologically and physically, he or she must draw on heretofore untapped inner strengths. Various challenges enable the hero or heroine -- and readers who go along for the ride -- to face and overcome insecurities that are part of growing up.

What kind of insecurities? The same ones suffered by Scarecrow, Cowardly Lion and Tin Man in "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz": doubts about one's intelligence, courage and ability to emotionally connect, to be empathetic. No child, including Dorothy, likes to think of himself or herself as dumb, cowardly or devoid of feeling. By accompanying her companions on a journey of self-discovery, Dorothy masters her perceived shortcomings and is better able to cope with the many obstacles encountered on the yellow brick road of life.

A child's ability to access unrealized parts of the self is a key component of maturation, and that process is the subtext of a host of works that children hold dear. Great literature both delights and informs. Great children's literature portrays the struggles and insecurities peculiar to youth.

Children have many other emotional concerns, of course. Consider this from Jane Taylor's 1806 poem "The Star," reproduced in the chapter on verse: "Then the traveller in the dark / Thanks you for your tiny spark." What are these lines but a reflection of a small child's wish for direction and guidance? Adults who recognize Taylor's ode largely through its opening line, "Twinkle, twinkle, little star," may regard the poem merely as quaint verse. But it is much more.

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