- The British Scene:A Review of The Marble in the Water, and The Signal Approach to Children's Books
David Rees opens his collection of essays on contemporary British and American writers with the admission that "serious academic criticism of literature for children is not an art that is widely practiced in England." This statement is regrettably true, as Rees's own book attests. His title, The Marble in the Water (Boston: Horn Book, 1980), comes from Penelope Farmer's Charlotte Sometimes, when Charlotte begins to recognize that there is a "difference between what you long for and what you find"; and though the growing professional study of children's literature longs for substantial scholarship and criticism in the field, the Rees book remains, ironically, only an illusion of such high goals: in the water the marble shimmers in refracted light, but once taken out of the water the marble is only a stone.
The goals that Rees sets for himself are ambitious and stirring—both to provide the counterpoint between the traditions of British and American writings for children, and to reevaluate from his own idiosyncratic critical perspective both the popular and neglected authors of his time. These are laudatory aims indeed—we need serious recognition of national distinctions, and surely the hyperbole and puffery of the publishing trade need to be tempered by strong, intelligent, and informed criticism—but, alas, in practice the Rees book does not fulfill these high goals. What distinguishes British from American writing, according to Rees, turns out to be merely contrasts in diction, or at times an American focus on urban social problems versus a British depiction of pastoral idylls and nostalgic historical romance. And then Rees seems to contradict himself by admitting that both American and British youth, as portrayed in contemporary fiction, are for the most part alienated and self-centered. We find no clear extended analysis of what the real American and British differences are. Similarly, the critical praise and condemnation of specific authors are more exercises in personal opinion than thoroughly analytical essays. The book covers wide ground, but it is a series of fragments and random aperçus.
Why should this be? Rees is clearly an intelligent writer who [End Page 76] often provides illuminating commentary on specific books, especially when he is looking at prose styles and characterization, and he presents broad sketches of writers' careers and comparative evaluations of their books that can be extremely useful. But the book as a whole has no center. And, more important, opinions and generalizations come masked as truths, without clearly developed analyses to support them. It is perhaps symptomatic that, rather than concluding with precise footnote references, each chapter closes with a chronological list of the author's works and with bibliographical data on other sources mentioned. What is important, that is, is the particular author's career and random other writings of fiction and criticism that might be related, but there is little attempt to focus on issues of critical theory. An engaging collection, but a potpourri nonetheless.
Perhaps what lies behind the book's format is the career of Rees himself. A British author of 12 novels, one of which (The Exeter Blitz) received the 1978 Carnegie Medal, Rees is also known for his frequent reviews in TLS. His work on The Marble in the Water began in 1971 with an essay on Philippa Pearce for Children's Literature in Education, which was followed by four essays in The Horn Book and two more pieces in Children's Literature in Education, In 1980, The Horn Book published the collection which had now expanded to 15 essays on 18 different writers, eight from Britain and 10 from America. What has resulted, then, is a gathering of numerous discrete essays, most of which range from 10 to 15 pages, on authors whom Rees either vigorously praises or equally strongly scorns. The heroes (or heroines) for Rees are, in England: Nina Bawden, Jill Chaney, Penelope Farmer, Penelope Lively, Philippa Pearce, and Rodie Sudbury; and in America, Beverly Cleary, Paula Fox, E.L. Konigsburg, Ursula Le Guin, Doris Buchanan Smith, Mildred Taylor, and E.B. White. The villains...