Sunday, 8 February 2015

The birthplace of children's stories

I've just finished reading Madeleine L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time, first published in America in 1962 and in print ever since. I came across the book listed in a top 10 of children's sci-fi reads. It's a children's story as popular in America as perhaps Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, published in 1964, is in Britain. 

And yet, here I am, only reading Madeleine L'Engle in my middlish forty-somethings ...



It got me thinking about the international flavour of my childhood reads. how much of a difference there might be between the number of British authors I consumed, and those from elsewhere.

So, I wrote out a list of 30 titles that sprung most readily to mind – not from my children's childhood (because this can get muddly) but most assuredly from my own.

This is what the results look like on a pie chart, depicting the birthplace of the stories that I loved as a child.




Out of the 30, 20 were unequivocally British, 6 authors were American, and only 4 from countries other than Britain and America. I looked at why this might be – how had these books managed to cross the sea whilst others had not? (Please forgive the rather homemade nature of this investigation …)

5 out of 6 of the American titles were heavily illustration based (Maurice Sendak, Dr Seuss, Eric Carle) – which makes me think that it's possible the pictures played the larger part in their trans-Atlantic appeal. Put these together with the unusual story lines and language, and the appeal is even greater. Then there's Charlotte's Web – a story of Fern and her animal friends. This can't fail to reach out to a girl of similar age, deeply into the universal appeal of animal tales.

And what of the four non-Anglo-American titles? Mrs Pepperpot – an eccentric old woman who shrinks at inopportune moments, and who is most definitely in league with children and animals. Babar the elephant – a beautifully illustrated animal tale. Collected tales of Hans Christian Anderson - the universal appeal of fairytales. And Margaret Atwood's Cat's Eye – a gripping thriller – a taste of the YA market yet to break.

Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised that the majority of my childhood reads were British, that it's only natural the stories we consume as children should be so home-grown. When I checked out the American top 100 classic children's stories, I recognised fewer than a handful of titles.

As children, it would appear that we are readers of our country and culture. Or, more tellingly, in both Britain and America, we read according to the publishing powerhouses - which makes us either readers of British or American culture.


The top 30 titles I read as a child:

Ant & Bee - Angela Banner (British)
Fungus the Bogeyman - Raymond Briggs (London)
The Elephant and the Bad Baby - Elfrida Vipont (Manchester) and Raymond Briggs
Paddington Bear – Michael Bond (Newbury)
Roald Dahl (Cardiff)
Winnie-the-pooh - A A Milne (London)
Stig of the Dump - Clive King (Surrey)
Watership Down - Richard Adams (Newbury)
The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - C S Lewis (Belfast)
The Borrowers - Mary Norton (London)
The Secret Garden - Frances Hodgson Burnett (Manchester)
The Wind in the Willows - Kenneth Grahame (Edinburgh)
Beatrix Potter (London)
Swallows & Amazons - Arthur Ransome (Leeds)
Enid Blyton (East Dulwich, London)
Alice in Wonderland - Lewis Carroll (Cheshire)
The Railway Children - E Nesbit (London)
Wuthering Heights - Emily Brontë (Yorkshire)
The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole Aged 13 ¾ - Sue Townsend (Leicester)
Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham (Warwickshire)

Maurice Sendak (American, of Jewish-Polish parents)
Richard Scarry (American)
The Cat in the Hat - Dr. Seuss (American)
Eric Carle (American)
Flat Stanley - Jeff Brown (New York)
Charlotte's Web - E B White (New York)

Mrs Pepperpot - Alf Prøysen (Norway)
Babar the Elephant - Jean de Brunhoff (Paris)
Tales of Hans Christian Andersen (Denmark)

Cat's Eye - Margaret Atwood (Canada)



Don't Forget:

Tuesday's Ten Minute Blog-Break. Another fine collection from Nick. It's worth noting that Nick also writes an extremely readable blog. His latest post had me shaking my head in despair at the recognition of the all-too familiar 'outcome focus.' Read all about it here: Who Ate My Brain. You'll know exactly what Nick's talking about
Wednesday's Fantastic Debut Series continues with Nicky's introduction to picture book author, Rebecca Colby. This truly is an inspirational tale
Friday's intro to February's Featured Illustrator, Yoko Tanaka - An incredible story of how Yoko came to illustration
Saturday's Celebration of Clare Helen Welsh's soon to be published, The Aerodynamics of Biscuits






Nancy Saunders is the new Editor of W&P. You can find some of her short stories here, and on Twitter @nancyesaunders


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