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  • Not with a Bang (or a Van Allsburg or a de Jong or a Konigsburg), But a Whimper
  • Perry Nodelman (bio)
Moynihan, William T. and Mary E. Shaner . Masterworks of Children's Literature. Volume 8: The Twentieth Century. New York: Stonehill/Chelsea House, 1986.

This last volume of the Masterworks series is significantly and sadly different from the previous seven, which were useful anthologies of important works of children's literature published between 1550 and 1900. Instead of reprinting actual works of children's literature written in this century, this volume contains seven essays that are supposed to inform readers "by surveying the major developments in twentieth century English and American children's literature." The reason the editors offer for this change of focus is that "There is no comparable need for an anthology of such works in this century; they are already available, often in many editions."

Well, yes, I guess some of them are —but then so are many of the works that were included in the earlier volumes, such as Hughes's Tom Brown's School Days, Ruskin's King of the Golden River, MacDonald's At the Back of the North Wind, and the picture books of Caldecott, Crane and Greenaway. There seems to be some after-the-fact rationalizing going on here; for surely the real reason that this volume is not an anthology of literature is simply that such an anthology would be impossible: the permissions costs it would take to reprint the actual masterworks of this century —Anne of Green Gables, Wind in the Willows, Millions of Cats, Little House in the Big Woods, Charlotte's Web, Tom's Midnight Garden, Where the Wild Things Are —would be astronomical, even if it were possible to obtain the rights to do it.

But if the mere existence of copyright laws made it impossible for the editors of this series to produce a volume for this century comparable to those covering earlier periods, then we have to ask why they published any volume at all. I find it hard to believe that we need yet another survey, at a time when every publisher of reference materials in the English-speaking world seems to have simultaneously perceived the need for surveys of children's literature, and in a decade which has seen the pubication of, among others, The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature, the various Greenwood Dictionaries by Helbig and Perkins, and the numerous volumes dealing with children's literature of this century in Gale's Dictionary of Literary Biography —not to mention the proliferation of survey-oriented textbooks for children's literature courses, all of which concentrate almost exclusively on the literature of this century.

Furthermore, purchasers will be surprised to discover that the survey part of this volume amounts to a surprisingly small portion of it. Of the 333 pages of the book, the seven essays occupy only 220. the other third of the book is given up to a variety of peripheral materials: an appendix that reprints the tables of contents of the previous seven volumes, a lengthy general index for all eight volumes (its superfluity signalled by the fact that more than half of the references in it are to this particular volume), and another appendix that offers, quite pointlessly, no fewer than sixty-two pages of lists of the winners of every children's literature award imaginable. Given all this padding, a pretty fat and pretty expensive book turns out to have surprisingly slight contents.

As for the seven essays themselves, as one might expect, they are no less superficial and impressionistic than the many other similar surveys of large numbers of children's books in a short space. Since there are so many of these surveys, I'm less disturbed by the inadequacies of the essays in Masterworks than by the fact that they exist at all. Why would anybody set out to produce a book that even in its declared scope and purpose could never do anything more than duplicate the failings of its many predecessors? Why, particularly, would the editors of Masterworks set out to do that in the context of a series that has done much...


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