- The Devil and Madame Doubtfire: Anne Fine and the Revolution in Contemporary British Children’s Fiction
The one thing I try to do in the children’s books is to give children a sense that . . . it’s not as bad as they think or even if it is as bad as they think they will somehow come to terms with it. . . . If the children’s writer has a job, it is to interpret the world to the child. You may bring some comfort.(Anne Fine, 1997)
The mechanism that causes the “dumbing down” of children’s literature, which has been precipitous recently, is contempt for children. Let it not be forgotten that in order to dumb down the literature you offer them you have to entertain them in contempt. You lower the expectation of what they are capable of, and because they are programmed to fulfil our expectations you can render them cretinous if you are vulgar and contemptuous enough.(Jill Paton Walsh, 1998)
The last three decades of the twentieth century have seen as great a revolution in British children’s books as occurred in the last decades of the nineteenth century. Then, the modern children’s book emerged, with its characteristic narrative stance and literary values—values that hardly changed over seventy years. Now, the allusive, carefully crafted books by writers such as Nina Bawden, Penelope Lively, Jill Paton Walsh, Philippa Pearce, and Lucy Boston, which characterized the 1950s and l960s—and epitomized a tradition running from Nesbit through Ransome—have been replaced by a new breed. The prizes are now won by writers such as Gillian Cross, Michael Morpurgo, Jacqueline Wilson, and Anne Fine, and [End Page 12] critics have been slow to recognize quite how profound the change has been.
Of course, all generalizations are dangerous, and we are, perforce, not dealing with the seven thousand books published each year: we are dealing with the visible, the obviously prized, the influential, the read. Therefore I am not suggesting that the modernist/classic realist text does not linger or that writers who were outstanding by pre-1970 standards, such as Jan Mark or William Mayne, do not still produce excellent writing of that type. Nor, I must hasten to add, am I making a value judgment. By Anne Fine’s standards (or by the standards that validate writers like Fine), Philippa Pearce is a bad writer: disengaged, slow, obscurely allusive, and avoiding everyday visceral concerns. Equally by the standards of Pearce and her peers, Jacqueline Wilson and the rest are too passionately engaged with issues, too focused on solipsistic reactions, and too concerned with the immediate needs of their audience to be concerned with “literary” values. There is no need to establish opposition here: as Philip Pullman, a writer who successfully combines the experimental, the allusive, and traditional storytelling techniques has observed, Jan Mark and Anne Fine “can do so much with two or three characters in a simple setting—if I were a better writer, I could do that” (Fox, “Authorgraph” 13).
This revolution has now happened, but the change was clearly visible in the books of the 1970s. As Elaine Moss wrote in her survey, “The Seventies in British Children’s Books,” in 1980:
To write about children’s books and authors in the sixties it would have been sufficient to be a responsive literary person. . . . Efforts . . . were being made to retain literary standards while accommodating valid fresh demands from those who recognized the importance . . . of identification with fictional situations in practical as well as emotional terms.(49, 63, my italics)
That Moss was able (or, indeed, needed to use) the term “literary,” in the confidence that it would be unproblematic is very significant, for the twentieth-century mode of mainstream British children’s literature had been closely linked to literary concepts—to the word as a thing valuable of itself. The real changes, as Aidan Chambers observed in 1981, have been in terms of style, structure, technique, and attitude. Books have become, as it were, progressively more WYSIWYG (i.e., what you see is what you get), driven by themes, problems, and issues. Subtlety of language or character, the concept that...