- More Sweetness Than Light
Confronted by yet another volume of "essays and conversations," the reader may be forgiven an involuntary sinking of the spirits. Merely the weight of the book, with its 590 close-packed pages, invokes thoughts of Aunt Fidget Wonkham-Strong's cabbage-and-potato sog. The cast-list of 76 contributors on the back cover portends indigestion rather than excitement—even though some of them will come in very small helpings. (M. E. Kerr's appearance, for instance, is limited to five lines.) My own humble working-library already contains about 30 compilations not much different from this, ranging from Sheila Egoff's Only Connect (1969), which unwittingly started the fashion, to compendia like Nicholas Tucker's Suitable for Children? (1976), which tries to explore a particular topic, and the various Horn Book anthologies, which reprint articles from a single source.
The raison d'être for the present work lies in the wish of its progenitors to preserve something of the formal and informal talk that went on through 15 study programs at Simmons College from 1975 to 1986. Many readers of The Lion and the Unicorn will know more than I about the functioning of these courses (and also about the recent severing of the link with Simmons) but the whole enterprise appears to be part of the current campaign to jack up the academic status of Literature for Children. Resonant themes abound: "The Perilous Realms of Realism and Fantasy," "Ithaka and Other Journeys" . . . celebrities are brought in—that castlist runs from Joan Aiken and Lloyd Alexander to Laurence Yep and Jane Yolen; and from what I can recall of similar occasions elsewhere, the talk will have taken place among much jolly socializing and at least a temporary raising of the academic consciousness.
What is stimulating as a public event, however, is not necessarily convertible into equally stimulating print, and the editors of Innocence and Experience (a title which is trendy rather than relevant) took on a [End Page 97] tough assignment when they set about putting the papers and the tape-recordings of 15 conferences into human-readable form. Their 590 pages are made up of some 47 articles, based on talks given at Simmons, and some seven mini-symposia edited from discussions, etc. (There is also a curious item entitled "A Mother Goose Portfolio," which consists of 12 nursery rhymes, each illustrated by a different celebrity, and which serves chiefly as a pictorial oasis in a desert of print.) The contributions have all been sorted into seven sections, some of which correspond with themes of the programs, and some of which are made up from editorial remnants, especially the final, omnium-gatherum section, "A Myriad Eyes."
Now prima facie the redistribution of so much earnest communication to a wider audience could be a Good Thing. A volume planned on this scale can satisfy the self-esteem of its promoters by showing with what stamina they have pursued the serious study of children's literature; and it can make public those contributions that have broken new ground, or more thoroughly tilled ground already dug. By giving the celebrities a theme to develop there is a chance that a number of subjects may be illuminated from different angles, and the book may thus take on a coherence denied to those more random anthologies which take material promiscuously from other publications.
Moreover, despite reservations already implied, such a large-scale editorial project does not have to be overwhelming. Few people suffer the reviewer's fate of having to grind through everything in a fairly limited period of time. The arrangement of the contents allows for a reading by subject, the presence of so many noble names offers the prospect of discovering more about individual authors, and there is even provision for the investigation of more elusive themes, since the index has very sensibly analyzed some of the subsidiary issues that were raised. Entries for topics like "Dreams" or "Place" or "Writing for Children" contain guidance to material scattered throughout the book.