- The State of the Field in Contemporary Children's Fantasy:An Interview with George Woods
George Woods has been the children's book editor of The New York Times Book Review since 1963. He has written two novels for young adults, Vibrations (1970) and Catch a Killer (1972). Vibrations, he says, is "ninety nine percent autobiographical. If you really want to know about me, read that." He lives in New Jersey with his wife and children.
We began our discussion with mutual curiosity about how we could bridge the gap between our orientation as academics and Mr. Woods's as a commercial, mainstream editor and critic. He was sceptical about our venture, concerned that we would become "esoteric," "immersed in the dull halls of the Academy." Pippi Longstocking and Winnie-the-Pooh seemed to him tired subjects; and why "another" article on Louisa May Alcott? Would we, he wondered, take the time to find out what was happening today? And could we get people to care about it? We agreed that the classics had been reviewed and summarized again and again, but maintained that much of the complexity and vitality that adults and children have intuited in them over the years had still to be explored. At the same time, we were enthusiastic about trying to sift through and make discoveries about the huge volume and variety of children's books currently being published. As the subject of serious literary inquiry, we all agreed, the field was wide open.
Areas of shared concern were not hard to come by. We were all conscious of children's literature as a beleaguered field, regarded either with contempt or amusement by both the average person and the literary critic, and the conversation moved predictably to a discussion of its worst excesses: the "relentlessly relevant" books besieging the market, slick stories about drugs, divorce, alcoholism, and the like. "Every-body hates everybody in those books," Woods remarked. "If I were a kid growing up today, reading what writers are writing and teachers are assigning, I wouldn't want to join your [End Page 4] lousy world." In the meantime, many of the best books continued to go unnoticed, books like William Armstrong's Sounder, which Woods referred to often as an especially satisfying work. "It's a hymn, and when you finish it you say, 'Where else are we going to get another book as beautiful and as eloquent as that?'"
"This is why I have a love-hate relationship with children's literature," he said. "Sometimes it looks very hopeless. You see quality books going unread, unrewarded, unrecognized. A vast majority of the people in this world have never heard of Randall Jarrell, let alone Randall Jarrell's Animal Family. The kids I taught in college recently were not even familiar with the movies Sounder and Where the Lilies Bloom, let alone the books. I asked them, 'What have you been doing with your spare time?'" The answer, of course, was, "Watching television."
So after a brief warming period during which we laughed at the problems we knew we couldn't solve, we turned to the central subject of our discussion: the current state of the field in fantasies for children, and, more generally, in books where the creative impulse is encouraged.
Woods: Fantasy. The very word puts me on my guard. My first response is, "I don't like it," anymore than I like science fiction. It's possible that fantasy is often a refuge for someone who can't tell a realistic story. I'm so fed up with: "Down the rabbit hole . . . over the hedge . . . beyond the door . . . there is another world." Because it simply is not so. Or, I can't tell you how many times in the last five years I've read stories about carousel horses that come to life and take flight. They have a great old romp when nobody is around. Or then there are the books that reunite children with ghosts from another world.
Take Tom's Midnight Garden, for example. John Rowe Townsend considers that perhaps the finest children's story ever written. The hero goes...