Simon Mason admires an erudite, passionate dictionary of children’s literature that runs from Aesop to Harry Potter
Lucy Mangan reviews Daniel Hahn’s new Oxford Companion To Children’s Literature
Hahn has said that he has also tried to retain (Irish bishopric jokes apart) as much of the original’s penchant for personal expression and editorialising as possible, feeling the need for reference books to have “a voice” to be not just fun but vital in an age in which oceans of unfiltered data are only ever a click away. Despite this, there seems to be less brio in the newer parts than in the old – even with Twilight Hahn only permits himself to note that “the series’s large and enthusiastic fan base comes despite, rather than because of, its prose style, which is unremarkable at best. However, sales of over 100m copies to date suggest that Meyer’s readers are untroubled by this.”
The main loss – a minor quibble about an essentially superb offering – is the excising of the 1984 edition’s broad summaries of the two main contributors to the development of children’s literature under the entries headed simply “Great Britain” and “United States of America”. They seemed to me to provide the framework into which the novice reader can fit the rest of the book. With those entries, the (official or unofficial) student of children’s literature armed with just The Companion could swiftly get a full-blooded and satisfying picture of how we got from our horn-booked and be-primered there to first, second and third golden age here. Without them, the book does not quite offer the same possibility.
But it does contain six lines on my beloved Forest and her novels “distinguished by relatively naturalistic and witty narrative and dialogue”. And it remains an indispensable, comprehensive and readily comprehensible Companion for old hands and new, crafted with loving care. It is a distillation of knowledge of a depth and breadth that makes you boggle anew at what one book can do.
Of all the books I own I think my reference books are the ones that bring me most continuous pleasure. They are not necessarily the most loved, and certainly not the most life-changing, but they come down from the shelf most frequently, partly because they are so desirably dippable. The majority of them are the work of numerous contributors (I have contributed to a fair few myself) but the ones that are the most satisfying are those that have been mainly compiled or driven by one person’s opinion – books by the likes of John Sutherland or Martin Seymour-Smith, whose immense and magnificent Macmillan Guide to Modern World Literature is famously outspoken, and correspondingly entertaining. A random example: in ending his entry for Margaret Drabble, Seymour-Smith writes, “It is a pity that in an age when good journalists are almost non-existent, this clever author should have chosen fiction. It is a greater pity that she should have been taken so seriously.”
This new edition of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature is never as rude as Seymour-Smith dared to be, but it nevertheless carries the imprint of its new compiler, Daniel Hahn, who has reworked the original (written by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Pritchard and published over thirty years ago in 1984) to produce a thoroughly updated, judicious and finely curated overview of children’s literature. It is a book that will have pride of place on those reference shelves of mine, and be strategically shelved so that it is always in arm’s reach.
The task that Hahn undertook should not be underestimated. How much of the original book to retain? How much of what was retained needed rewording, or could be used verbatim? What to omit? Which new names to include? Of those names that would ideally be represented in the book should space and length not have been an issue, which names were to be cast to one side?
Of course everyone flipping through this book checking to see which of the authors they admire are included and which not will find that occasionally Hahn’s decisions do not accord with their own. I have to say this has happened very rarely in my case. I was delighted to see Ursula Dubosarsky’s entry. The one absent name that I would have been electioneering in favour of has to be Gaye Hicyilmaz. Watching The Watcher, Against The Storm, The Frozen Waterfall – these and others by her are as good as anything written in our period. It is not a surprising omission, but a regrettable one, as this fine author is truly deserving of a lasting readership.
There – I’ve got that out of my system.
But, as I say, in very large part Hahn’s judgements about the length and tone of entries seem to me to be spot on. Authors such as Charlie Higson, Darren Shan, Robert Muchamore and Anthony Horowitz have their popularity and easy readability acknowledged without unnecessary lengthy endorsement.
Reading the book alongside the original edition, it has been fascinating to see those judgements at work. The first new addition, alphabetically, is Douglas Adams; the second John Agard. Which reminds me, I will need to immerse myself in the book more deeply, but my impression is that, on the whole and Agard notwithstanding, children’s poetry is not quite so generously treated as children’s fiction. The same could possibly be said of children’s illustrators. Anthony Browne’s entry is much shorter than that of several writers of lesser stature or significance.
Inevitably, some of the longer entries in the original edition have needed condensing. But I applaud Hahn’s decision to retain both the length and tone of the entry for William Mayne. Hahn has very slightly reworked the wording of the original and then added this at the end: “Near the end of his life Mayne served a prison sentence for sexual abuse of a number of young girls, which led to his work being dropped from many reading lists and pulled from many library shelves. His books remain, however, among the most accomplished writing for children in recent decades, though their challenges mean that they are sometimes more acclaimed critically than widely read by child readers.”
The book is as up-to-date as any printed reference book can possibly be, with entries for The Hunger Games, The Wimpy Kid and John Green.
The original edition had a quaint listing for ‘Adolescent fiction’, with a pointer to an entry for Teenage Novels. In the new edition, ‘Adolescent fiction’ has been quite rightly dropped as a term, and now ‘Teenage Novels’ points to an entry for Young Adult. Hahn’s largely completely new entry here is one of the best things in the book.
I was pleased to find Hahn is as enthusiastic an admirer of Marcus Sedgwick’s Revolver as I am myself. This author’s entry taught me a new term. Apparently much of what Sedgwick writes can be described as ‘goth-froth’ – I would have appreciated a separate entry giving a definition of this genre (said with a smile in my eye).
Anyone who follows Hahn on social media will be in awe of his ability to carry off a work of this scope and stature whilst, apparently, never being in one place for more than a few days at a time.
A tremendous achievement and a very worthy successor to the original. You should buy a copy.
Daniel Hahn tells us why, in the interent age, there is still a place for good reference books…
Basic information is easy to come by. Reference books need to do more, these days, than merely tell you that Huckleberry Finn was written by Mark Twain and published in the US in 1885. There aren’t many people who would turn to a reference book for that kind of information, I think.
So they need to be full of colour and full of stories – did you know that Huckleberry Finn was meant to be published in the US in 1884, but was delayed because a disgruntled engraver tampered with the plates, adding a penis to one of the illustrations so publication had to be postponed while it was removed? – but it also needs, I think, an editorial voice.
In the Wikipedia age, reference books should embrace the fact that they have a kind of personal curation, that the entries on writers aren’t merely bibliographic lists but a kind of assessment, too, that they are evaluative, editorialised. (I hope there are also a handful of good jokes, perhaps.)
So my Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature often doesn’t merely tell you which books an author wrote when and what they’re about (though that’s important, too, and accuracy is vital), but how they fit together, and which works are the most accomplished, and what the flaws are, and who are the other writers in the same chain of influence; who I think is amazing but underrated, who produces work that may be massively best-selling but is also desperately derivative.
The Bookseller heralds a new edition of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, and its editor Daniel Hahn explains some of the changes:
Oxford University Press (OUP) will next year publish a new edition of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, more than 30 years after the book first appeared in print.
The new edition, scheduled for release as a £30 hardback in March 2015, was edited by author and journalist Daniel Hahn and covers all the major developments in children’s publishing since 1983.
Hahn said he approached OUP about updating the old companion because “after three decades it was clearly missing a lot of what was exciting in children’s literature nowadays”.
He added 900 new entries, bringing the total to 3,640, and shortened older content to make way for the new. He cut about 70 complete entries that were mostly about the literary output of different countries, such as Brazil, Czechoslovakia (which is now the Czech Republic) and Holland (the Netherlands), and added authors such as Philip Pullman, David Almond, Julia Donaldson, Jacqueline Wilson, Dick King Smith and Neil Gaiman.
YA fiction is much more prominent than in the first edition. “There were no more than a handful of YA writers in the old edition, for instance, and there are dozens and dozens now. The crossover book is discussed as a phenomenon in itself, and lots of books that typically carry that label are included in their own right.”