- Companionable Voices
The word “companion” belongs to the same word family as “accompany.” In this volume of sixteen essays and fifteen black and white illustrations, we hear the perspectives of adults keeping company with other adults, over the heads of the children who are the specified audience of this particular literature. It is a familiar paradox of all academic work in this field.
This book could well be entitled The Cambridge Companion to the Institution of Children’s Literature. Children’s literature as institution is an absorbing topic, and many of the essays in the book present lively and persuasive accounts of its development. Indeed, the book is at its strongest where it includes institutional considerations of cultural, commercial, and technological pressures.
Some companions are best met at intervals over a brief cup of coffee, whereas with others you want to sit by the fire and engage endlessly into the night. In composing this review, I have taken the latter approach and read the book from cover to cover, but I actually think it would work better as a reference book. As a historical phenomenon, children’s literature resembles a deciduous tree, much broader and more multi-leafed at the top than at the base. It is probably not surprising, therefore, that many of these essays, which often take a historical perspective on the development of a particular topic, begin with a set of highly similar references before branching out into a set of examples that, by contrast, read more randomly. An intermittent reading would reduce the aggravation of meeting the Fairchilds and the March family over and over again.
Some of this repetitive trend is mirrored in the nine-page timeline, compiled by Eric J. Johnson, that introduces the volume. Many of the chapters [End Page 173] in this book reference, for example, James Janeway’s A Token for Children (1671–72) or John Newbery’s The History of Little Goody Two-Shoes (1765), and Alcott’s Little Women (1868) also makes many appearances. The twentieth-century entries account for nearly a third of the list and are much more broadly and diversely distributed across the chapters; many titles on this time list are mentioned only once or twice in the ensuing chapters. The twenty-first century is represented in this timeline only by two obvious selections (Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials [1995–2000] and J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter [1997–2007]) and one extremely eccentric choice (Melvin Burgess’s Lady: My Life as a Bitch ). An unconventional companion is often the most interesting, however, so this peculiar sifting of the recent canon may offer its own virtues (although nothing would persuade me that this title is the only interesting stand-alone publication of the twenty-first century).
In the interests of those readers who might like to sample this book in more selective ways than I did, I will describe each chapter in some detail. In my view, this approach does better justice to the book’s strengths than an attempt to account for it as a collective whole.
In their introduction, M. O. Grenby and Andrea Immel suggest that children’s literature is a universal literature because everyone has at some point been a member of its target audience. This book is necessarily selective, featuring imaginative writing in the main and underplaying religious, factual, and instructive works while also largely ignoring drama, film, and new media. Certain highly studied genres such as “fairy tales and comic books” (xiv) receive scant attention, and the main focus lies on British and American [End Page 174] works that were first published in English.
The sixteen chapters are divided among three general headings: “Contexts and Genres,” “Audiences,” and “Forms and Themes.” I found the first section the most intriguing overall. Grenby kicks off with a chapter on “the origins of children’s literature,” drawing connections between the specific origin stories of particular works (often told to a particular known child) and what C. S. Lewis...