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Dr David Beagley – Children's classic books

David Beagley

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Matt Smith:

Think back to the classic books of your childhood.  Did you read Enid Blyton?  Was The Hobbit your favourite, or was it the works of C. S. Lewis?  Or is it something older still? The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, or Peter Pan and Wendy?  I'm Matt Smith, and you're listening to a La Trobe University podcast, and with me today to discuss this is David Beagley, who teaches on topics of Children's Literature at the Bendigo Campus of La Trobe University.  What is it that makes these books classics?

David Beagley:

I think every publisher in the world is probably trying to work that out.  After the success of Harry Potter, everybody wants a big selling, popular, long-lasting title like that.  And I think those are probably the key elements.  Popularity is obviously a major part of it, but it's a very over-used term, when you think that every soapie or movie actor who just appears in a role then is lauded around as a soapie star, or a movie star.  Classic is a similar term used for books.  Best-seller, things like that.  So simply because it's popular doesn't make it necessarily a classic.  Personally I wouldn't consider things like the Twilight Vampire books classics, but they're immensely popular.  I'm sure in five years time nobody will be buying them much at all.  So that's another aspect is the longevity of the title.  Whether people are going to still be buying it in ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty, a hundred years time.  Having said that, when you think of generations of reader, an adult who reads a book that they really like, has probably fifty, sixty years of adult reading available to them, from, say twenty on.  A child reader only had five, ten years as a child reader.  An adult book needs to go probably fifty years to be moving into a new generation of readers, whereas a children's book only need to go ten years to move into a new generation of readers, so if it's got something to say to the next generation, then it potentially could be a classic, and I think that's where Harry Potter might be heading that way.  In the people who first read Harry Potter, when they were children are now getting towards thirty.  And they're starting to have their own children and that means it's moving to another generation.  And I suppose that would be the last point.  What does it actually say to that audience in terms of aesthetics … the messages that you find in fairy tales, those sorts of thing, that still have something to say, a generation on.  So I'd put it in that rather confused collection of terms, of longevity, of popularity and something to say.

Matt Smith:

So why is it that a fantasy book lends itself so easily to being a classic then?

David Beagley:

Oh, fantasy is a really interesting genre in children's lit.  It's only recently become as popular with adults as it has with children and by recently, I mean in the last probably thirty, forty years.  Adults who actually control children's literature, when you think of it, adults write literature, adults who produce it, who publish it, who recommend it, who do all of that, for children.  There has been this thing that fantasy is a childish pursuit.  We have these two terms – childlike, and childish.  And one of them's a positive and one of them's a negative, and yet they both just mean, like a child.  Now we go right back to the early days of a book like Gulliver's Travels, which in its time, was written as a political satire, for adults.  But because it's a fantasy, like fairy tales, which were originally written for adults, it has become considered a children's genre, because adults, when they read, read often to confirm what they know already.  This is how I think, this is what I know, this is what I feel.  Children read looking out.  They go out to explore something that's new, to discover.  And fantasy offers so much more potential for what hasn't been discovered yet.  It gives so much potential to a writer, for instance, to be able to explore what's happening in the world without all of the limits of timetables, and reality and clothing, and stuff like that.  So you can go off and explore.  And it's suited to children.  You think of books like Peter Pan and Alice in Wonderland and Wizard of Oz and Wind in the Willows, Sword in the Stone, The Hobbit, all of these, and most recently, obviously, Harry Potter.  But on the other hand, there's tremendous children's realistic classics.  Bridge to Terabithia would be one written in the 1970s that I would see as an absolute classic in those terms.  Blue Fin, Seven Little Australians, stories like that, that are clear, everyday realistic stories.  One other little point though, historical stories, we talk about this long period in which people have to read, in their generation, books like Seven Little Australians are almost fantasies now.  Even the Enid Blyton stories, ones like that, they're fantasies because they represent a society, the clothing, the food, the technology that that society has, which is as far removed from us now and as difficult for us ever to go to, as Narnia or the Hogwarts, or anything like that.  To read something like Treasure Island now is effectively reading a fantasy, whereas when it was written, it was meant to be more or less present day.

Matt Smith:

That's happened with some of Charles Dickens's books as well.  I think A Christmas Carol is one that comes to mind that is now kind of considered a children's book.

David Beagley:

Well, Oliver Twist is another one too, simply because the key characters are of that age, it's assumed the reader will be of the age of the key character.  Charles Dickens' ones were searing, social indictments of inequalities in this time.  To modern readers, they're fantasies.

Matt Smith:

I find that some books that you know as classics, once you read them, aren't as good as you remembered them to be, or aren't as good as you expect them to be.  So is a classic time dependent?

David Beagley:

Certainly.  The setting determines whether it's seen as a commentary on your personal life, but similarly, reading styles change.  As you age, you change, you learn more vocabulary, you have more experiences, you can make more comparisons with what you know.   And the visual world of the 21st century – everything is so visual in how we communicate.  A hundred and fifty years ago, it was largely literate.  You wrote letters, you talked to people, you had conversations, you went and listened to a speaker.  But now we have pictures.  Therefore the nature of the reading changes.  A lot of what we see as classics, the books like Treasure Island, Alice in Wonderland, are often read by adults who are ticking off the list of all the books I must read at some stage in my life, because you require an adult vocabulary now to read those.  The language in which they were written.  Ivanhoe particularly – I read that a couple of years ago, thinking that's the first time that Robin Hood appears in a major novel in English.  He'd been in songs for about six hundred years but he hadn't appeared in a novel.  And I found it almost impossible to read, because of its intense, rich language, of 1820, when it was written, because our whole style has changed.  Now having said that, good child readers will persevere.  They are voracious.  I'm sure you've come across, and you may remember from your own childhood, you may have been one of them, the child who forever has their nose in the book, and they may just read and read and read.  Well, one thing about them is that they are so often serial readers.  They will read the same book or the same type of book over and over again.  And they'll persist.

Matt Smith:

Do you find though, that these stories are just stories, that they're not classics, they've been repurposed by Hollywood, quite often by Disney, to such an extent that we don't know what the original stories were about.  You referred a few times to Alice in Wonderland where that was originally know as Through the Looking Glass, but nobody knows it by that any more and I'd say that the story is very different from what we remember.

David Beagley:

Yeah, a little bit of show-off here.  It's actually two stories that Lewis Carroll or Charles Dodson was his proper name – an interesting character.  He was so socially inept, probably epileptic, and he was one of these people who could communicate really well with children, but was hopeless with adults.  And so he just felt so comfortable telling stories to children and he wrote Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, or it was originally Alice's Adventures Underground, then he did Through the Looking Glass a couple of years later.  Now the two have been conflated very, very much.  Disney was behind that.  Disney's done a wonderful job getting these stories to a lot of people who may not have come across them otherwise.  But Disney has also exercised an ownership over them.  I'm horrified at the number of people who seem to think that Disney created Peter Pan and Winnie the Pooh, and as a unabashed A. A. Milne fan, I'm appalled by the Disney cartoon, which is nothing much more than a Bugs Bunny bounce-around where Tigger is the main character, not the lovely gentle, philosophical Winnie the Pooh.  Having said that, you look at all the Disney ones, right from Snow White, that first feature length animation, through to the modern day, and while there is a sameness about a lot of the characters and the stories, at least it is keeping those names and those stories in the public arena and if people want to go and read them, they can.  One of the lectures I do in my series on histories of children's lit, is looking at Little Red Riding Hood and how much that story changes as it's told in different places, and how many ways that simple little story can be told by so many different people, for adults, for children, having the wolf as the key character, having Riding Hood as the key character.  Commercialisation, yes, it can make things a bit banal, and directs them more into merchandising, but at least it's keeping those stories available as all of these things, as I was saying before about visual learning and a visual communication, as that changes, those stories are still there, and people can go and hunt the other versions as they wish.

Matt Smith:

So why is it the sequels are rarely classics.  Why do we only remember the first Wizard of Oz book, or say the …

David Beagley:

And not the other thirteen …

Matt Smith:

… first Peter Pan book and not Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens?

 
David Beagley:

It depends on the story.  The Harry Potter ones were intended right from the start to be the sequence of seven stories, and the final ones have sold far more than the first ones.  You think of the Anne of Green Gables ones, there are seven in that series.  People tend to run them all together.  As I said before, a good child reader is so often a serial reader.  I wouldn't agree that sequels aren't as good.  Some of them aren't.  But so many of them end up being just one major series.  You think of something like Lord of the Rings as just one story, not three separate books.  Actually there are six separate books but they're published in pairs.  And the Narnia series is seen as one sequence.

Matt Smith:

Is it harder to write a classic these days?  Is there too much competition?  Or does a book just need time to become a classic?

David Beagley:

I think both.   As I said, reading is evolving.  Movies and TV have changed reading hugely when they came in in the sixties because they're such a passive medium, but lately the extension of that type of visual story telling into interactive gaming, for instance, has enabled the audience to become an active participant.  I would still see that as storytelling.  We may not define it as reading because it's being done visually, but it's still storytelling and so many of those interactive games are based on particular books, so many of them just on Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit and that style of sword and sorcery fantasy.  So that vicarious, emotional connection.  And yet, all of a sudden when we say that, oh well, all of this online technology will take over – up jumps Harry Potter.  Probably he's done more for kids' reading in the past fifty years than any other single thing.  And now is it a classic?  Well, it is certainly lasting, in that it has now passed on to the next generation of kids.  Kids who weren't born when Harry was first released, fifteen odd years ago now.  It's able to link to other media forms and it's starting to be seen as, yes, it does actually say something.  In one of my other areas, as editor of an academic journal, there is a huge critical response.  Hundreds upon hundreds of books and articles and not ones looking at is as an education aspect of children's reading, but as purely aesthetic, artistic analysis of Harry Potter.  Looking at things like, how the wizards enslave the other magical races of house elves and the magical creatures, and looking at it from those sociological, serious, grown-up terms.  So it would appear Harry is starting to become a classic, for ticking all of those boxes.

Matt Smith:

So how do classic adult books differ from children's?

David Beagley:

Probably two things – the aim of the book, and the audience of the book.  Children's books are not created by children, with very, very few exceptions.  They're created by adults.  So they reflect what adults think children ought to do, and ought to be, and ought to think.  Christopher Paolini's Eragon series, dragon books.  The first one was written when he was eighteen, so he was thinking like a typical teenage boy, as he was writing that book.  They're not particularly good books compared to a lot of other dragon fantasy stories but they're immensely popular because they can say things in a way that the young readers want to see them.  Most of the others are written by adults.  Some adults have that ear.  Andy Griffiths is one.  I think A. A. Milne was another.  His capacity to have his characters talk the way children would talk and think.  Adults tend to view kids from a deficit model.  They look at what children aren't.  They're not old enough, they don't have enough language, they don't have enough experience, and they need to be trained and educated.  So a lot of very serious, worthwhile, earnest books are written by adults for children in order to teach them.  And by and large, they're ignored.  There's a huge disparity between the awards that are given for children's books, between those which are voted by children and those which are voted by adults, like the Children's Book Council awards.  In many cases the books which are on the adult-voted list, disappear within six months off the shelves, because kids just find them too earnest, too serious, teaching me about issues.  They want to enjoy and be entertained.  A lot of those adult focussed books are very, very judgemental.  Children want to explore and discover.  They read out.  So that makes them a different audience to adults, who read in and want to analyse and internalise and understand.  But on the other hand, a child is only a child for a short time and they're an adult for a long time, so adult classic books tend to live a lot longer and go back centuries.  Children's classic books I think have a much shorter life span, as long as they've got something to say.  Children's classics need to keep communicating something to a new generation.  And we're in this huge revolution of communication, so whether the ones that we'd look at as classics in twenty years time will still be classics is very, very difficult to say.

Matt Smith:

David Beagley there, and he's the editor of an international open access journal in children's literature, called The Looking Glass.  You can check it out at www.the-looking-glass.net. If you have any questions, comments or feedback from this podcast or any other then send us an email at podcast@latrobe.edu.au.

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