Harry Potter, Tracy Beaker and the joy of children’s books


THE very first book I bought for myself was one of Enid Blyton’s lesser known works. The Adventures of Binkle and Flip, a couple of “bad bunnies” according to the author “the biggest rascals ever met, since Brer Rabbit Died! My edition is from 1967. It’s on my bookshelf next to some Michael Bond Paddington books from the early 1970s. Armada Lion Publishing. To glance at the squeaky little illustrations by Peggy Fortnum inside is to conjure up a vision of myself as a 10 year old sitting in front of the coal fire in a council house, Junior Choice on the radio. Another life, another world.

It’s a cozy, nostalgic and possibly wrong vision. As children’s author Frank Cottrell-Boyce reminded us on Wonderlands, the latest episode of Archives on 4 on Radio 4 last weekend, we might see children’s literature as timeless and ahistorical, but, a he pointed out, “there is a strong tradition in writing for children who have always been deeply engaged in society.

As recent Paddington films have reminded us, with their celebration of the refugee in these post-Brexit times, children’s literature has always had a lot to tell us about how we might see the world.

“We are products of our childhood,” children’s author Tamara Macfarlane pointed out on Wonderlands. The messages we absorb from the books we read at a young age, she added, “establish beliefs and value systems for the next generation.”

Dotted with archival interviews with the likes of Ursula Le Guin, Roald Dahl and, inevitably, JK Rowling, this sunny hour of radio was both a celebration of children’s fiction from Dickens to the present day and a call to the bugle to remind us of its importance.

This importance can be commercial. One in three books sold in the UK these days is a children’s book, Cottrell-Boyce pointed out, meaning it’s worth £4billion to the economy.

But more importantly, the program championed the soft power of children’s literature; how books can teach young readers about the reality of the world, empathy for those who are different, or simply provide a safe space when the world feels unsafe.

Encompassing everything from fantasy fiction (from Narnia to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials) to social realism (notably Jacqueline Wilson’s Tracy Beaker books), Cottrell-Boyce found common cause in all of them.

Look again at nursing home resident Tracy Beaker, he said. “You’ll see that while the settings and characters are a breath of fresh air, there are great ideas that go right back to Dickens and further back to fairy tales. Bad parents, orphans, reversal of fortune. Tracey Beaker lives just around the corner from Tiny Tim and the Cratchetts.

And, if you think about it, isn’t JK Rowling’s own story a fairy tale in its own way? As her editor Barry Cunningham reminded us, when Rowling’s dog-eared Harry Potter manuscript landed on her desk, it was her last chance to find a home for it.

“She had no job, she wrote in cafes in Edinburgh, she was a single mother with no other source of income. So I said, ‘Look, the thing is, Jo, you’re going to have to get a day job because you’re never going to make money from children’s books.’ »

Famous last words and all that.

“The next generation will have their emotional and intellectual DNA shaped by the books they read,” Cottrell-Boyce suggested in a rousing conclusion. “That’s why it’s important. This is especially important for building future happiness. Children’s books help us create our inner happy places. They build resilience. … The best children’s literature is a vaccine against any pandemic of misery that may come.

Listen: in the studio, BBC World Service, Tuesday, 11:30 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Wildlife sound engineer Chris Watson on the ropes.

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