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Reviewed by:
  • Popular Children's Literature in Britain
  • Leslie McGrath (bio)
Popular Children's Literature in Britain. Ed. by Julia Briggs, Dennis Butts, and M. O. Grenby. Aldershot: Ashgate. 2008. xiv + 342 pp. £55. ISBN 978 1 84014 242 6.

Though much has been written about individual types of popular literature for children, in general studies of children's literature they are frequently dismissed as unimportant, or subject to simplistic analysis. The authors and editors of this work set out to fill the need for a scholarly study, and the result is a more thorough approach to the definition of the subject, and to the application of research, than has previously been done. This work, by notable subject experts, has taken ten years to produce, with a changing roster of contributors, but the incorporation of its most recent study — the novels of J. K. Rowling — was necessary to an attempt to define the factors that determine 'popularity' in children's books, and amply justifies the wait.

In his general introduction Matthew Grenby describes the complex process by which some children's stories achieve a place in popular culture. The factors influencing popularity emerge in different ways in the cases that follow: production cost and distribution, increasingly sophisticated marketing related to socio-economic status and to the age of planned consumers, trends in education, publicity through stage and other media adaptations, and the growing use of authors' names in promoting sales. As a recurring theme, from early chapbooks to the Harry Potter series, the use of familiar stories in new treatments generates the sense of recognition and ownership as part of popularity, whether on the part of the child, or on adults who choose children's books. This introductory chapter is followed by fifteen case studies that span six centuries, organized into self-explanatory parts.

In Part 1, 'Old Tales Retold', Grenby carefully analyses early chapbooks and changes to their publication and distribution. Kevin Carpenter's discussion of Robin Hood in boys' weeklies to 1914 offers a short bibliographical overview and engaging [End Page 223] discussion, while David Blamires's chapter on Madame d'Aulnoy is a fascinating look at an author once more popular than Perrault. A well-stocked library is assumed; Blamires uses 'tale-types' codes from Aarne and Thompson's reference work throughout. Readers without this tool will nevertheless enjoy the discussion of how the nuances of d'Aulnoy's tales were adapted to successive audiences. George Speaight, who died in 2005 and whose work was completed by Brian Alderson, takes favourite stories through their incarnation into pantomime theatre and toy theatre productions, a foretaste of film versions.

Part 2, 'Forgotten Favourites', is introduced by Julia Briggs, who died in 2007, and to whose memory the book is dedicated. Briggs looks at books that are no longer popular, and those once so popular that few copies remain extant today, though their influence lingers. Dennis Butts evinces Barbara Hofland, a once popular author of the late eighteenth century whose works are today studied, rather than read. Butts makes note of subversion in Hofland's texts, and illustrates how poor remuneration inevitably compromises the quality of writing. He also examines the formulaic novels of G. A. Henty, celebrant and propagandist of the 'high tide of Imperialism'. The passage of the Education Act created new opportunities for exploiting the education publishing market; Butts illustrates the use of review copies and specially decorated prize books to increase sales. Elaine Lomax's discussion of Hesba Stretton raises interesting points about the use of the Evangelical and juvenile publishing markets as a platform for encouraging social reform. Judy Simons traces the evolution of the young British heroine from the self-sacrificing martyr of Victorian fiction to Angela Brazil's independent but unselfish boarding-school girl, a comfortable model for modern series-readers.

Part 3, 'Popular Instruction, Popularly Imposed', treats of books written for instruction, improvement, and as rewards. Grenby, in his introduction, notes that books presented to children as rewards must have been desired by them or the children would not have tried to merit the prizes, though one might assume the reading material may not have been the sole benefit. Kimberly Reynold's...


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