I recently gave the opening lecture in Popular Fictions, a new module being run for English Literature students. I talked about children’s literature and my main aim was to get the students to question critically what we mean by “popular” fiction.
We looked at some authors that children seem to love but that teachers are less easy with: Enid Blyton, Stephenie Meyer and J K Rowling. We also looked at some writers that seemed popular with teachers but were still enjoyed by children: Neil Gaiman, Michael Morpurgo and Philip Pullman. And we looked at those books that had endured and asked ourselves why. These included Louis May Alcott’s Little Women, Susan Coolidge’s What Katy Did and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. There are, of course, many other examples we could use. We noted that when these first came out they were regarded as popular but had endured. This might be because they told very good stories and / or were well written. Yet Blyton has also lasted and I now understand why my teachers used to say that she wrote very badly.
In the seminar, one exercise involved asking students which books they’d encountered as a child they remembered the most vividly. The three most mentioned texts were: Eric Carle’s The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Judith Kerr’s The Tiger Who Came to Tea and Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Notably, these are all texts that are heavy with pictures. I’m delighted also that they are three that appear on my reading list for a module entitled Intro to Children’s Literature. Why are these books so well remembered and why are they so special?
One student cited the interactivity of Carle’s text. The book is at once a counting text and helps with the recognition of simple words. The holes in the fruit fascinated the student. Dramatic images made Sendak’s text memorable. Also in the latter the return home was important. Kerr’s text is full of cosy domestic images – though we are thrown by the presence of a tiger. There is a return home here, too, in that the tiger disappears and we return to normality.
The stories are fantastic. Children’s picture books traditionally also tell an extra story in the pictures. The child loves to have the story read over and over and then remembers it as it looks at the pictures. Perhaps therefore these books become imprinted on the consumer’s mind. Maybe they are also so memorable because they are the some of the first books the student encountered. I feel a whole Ph D topic coming on here …