Highly recommended piece by Rowan Pelling [for the full feature follow the link underneath]
children’s books have always reflected the social concerns and anxieties of their era. Even the first great “golden age”, which stretched from the late Victorian period through to the Edwardian era, giving us The Wind in the Willows, Peter Pan, The Secret Garden, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Rabbit, was hardly haphazard in its yearning for more innocent, pastoral times. These were uncertain, fast-changing years when vast industrialisation was afoot, imperial powers were jostling for supremacy, and the social order was threatened.
Sometimes the refuge was greater for the writer than the reader. JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit, with its deeds of heroism and climactic Battle of Five Armies, is a fiction that has far more resonance when you know it was written between world wars. Tolkien’s grim experience in the trenches of the Somme are never far from your mind when small, decent Bilbo faces terrible peril. Nor is it surprising that these themes become darker in the post-Second World War Lord of the Rings, when comedy and innocence of The Hobbit gives way to a more epic battle of good and evil. How can it be otherwise in a world that’s witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust and nuclear weapons?
CS Lewis’s Narnia chronicles, published, like Tolkien’s trilogy, in the 1950s, display a similar nostalgia for a disappearing England – a pastoral land of dryads and naiads, where boys are valiant, girls are pretty and tend to the sick, while darker-skinned races are viewed with suspicion.
Paddington Bear, however, was more forward thinking. When the book appeared in 1958, the young Peruvian émigré was representative of a wider displacement of peoples in the post-war years and an influx of foreign-born workers, hoping to make a new life in Britain. This undercurrent became a central theme in the recent Paddington film, in which a calypso band on a street corner emphasises Notting Hill’s multi-cultural heritage. Mr Brown’s grumpiness at his household being invaded by an exotic guest was emblematic of a population’s apprehension over immigrants.
It’s hardly surprising that a more anarchic energy emerged alongside the radical politics of the 1960s. Books such as Dr Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham, Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are and Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were fuelled by wonderfully unruly humour, signalling to young readers that breaching boundaries was an excellent thing. Meanwhile, less fantastical books brought social realism to an audience who found it hard to relate to nostalgic visions of Albion. Charles Keeping’s Charley, Charlotte and the Golden Canary, the 1967 winner of the Greenaway Medal, features working-class neighbours who are separated when one family moves to a tower block only to be reunited by a caged bird. Similarly, Philippa Pearce’s A Dog So Small tells the story of young Ben, whose London flat is too small to house the dog he pines for.
The apogee of the age’s paranoia and anxiety is played out in Richard Adams’s global bestseller Watership Down, published in 1972. Adams was a civil servant, but his concern for peace, animal rights and the environment were from the hippie textbook. The same plea for the true magic found in the miracles of flora and fauna underpins Ursula le Guin’s majestic Earthsea quartet. Young Will in Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series is another keeper of rural Britain, flitting through Cornwall and Wales on his Arthurian quest.
Meanwhile, Raymond Briggs’s groundbreaking Fungus the Bogeyman brought its scatological humour to the relentless – and perhaps pointless – routine of the disabused night worker.