15 October 2008

The Clerical Strain in British Children's Literature

While in London last summer, I visited the Science Museum's exhibit on British technological progress in the 1950s and 1960s, which was "branded" with the characters of the Dan Dare comics series.

I didn't think the exhibit made a good case for linking the comics' sci-fi with the creation of radios only slightly larger than shoeboxes, even if they did appear at the same time. But I suppose the familiar faces made the exhibit more interesting for people who grew up reading Dan Dare.

The thought that struck me hardest as I learned about Eagle, the magazine that published that comic, is how the line of British fantastic literature for children includes several notable books from clergymen:

  • Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland. (I should note that Dodgson worked as a college professor rather than a minister, but he was ordained.)
  • George McDonald, author of The Light Princess and The Princess and the Goblin and a Congregationalist minister.
  • Marcus Morris, vicar and founder of Eagle magazine.
  • W. V. Awdry, vicar and creator of Thomas the Tank Engine.
  • G. P. Taylor, retired vicar, author of Shadowmancer and numerous press releases.
In addition, these British authors of Very Important children's novels also published widely read books of theology: And there might be more.

I can't think of any equivalents in American children's literature. I'm not thinking about people who wrote religious books for captive young audiences, but authors who were either religious professionals or respected theologians and also created books that a significant number of children from other faiths have enjoyed.


Jenny Schwartzberg said...

That clerical strain goes all the way back to John Bunyan, a Christian writer and preacher, who wrote Pilgrim's progress, which was quickly adopted by children. Jonathan Swift, among many other things was a cleric, and the author of Robinson Crusoe.

As for American priests, one current author is Beth Hilgartner, an ordained Episcopal priest. Here's an interview with her: http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue10/Interview.htm I love her book A Murder for Her Majesty.

I'm not sure I can think of other Americans though....

J. L. Bell said...

I’d considered listing Bunyan and Swift (for Gulliver’s Travels, since Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe). But I decided that those weren’t children’s literature. They were pressed on children in later centuries because they were (a) instructive, and (b) fantastic. To be sure, some children liked them, as the March sisters in Little Women represent.

J. L. Bell said...

This page has more about Beth Hilgartner, who has written for both children and adults. But the links don’t work. Thanks for the comment!

Jenny Schwartzberg said...

Actually, children read Bunyan and Swift because there was very little else to read when they were published and they were interesting and exciting stories. They were not written for children, no, but children quickly found them. Publishers sensing a new market put out editions illustrated and abridged for children, but children definitely read the original editions.

Thanks for the Beth Hilgartner page. I note with regret that she got caught up in the Meisha Merlin debacle. A lot of very good authors got caught in that mess. Maybe I can track down used copies... I do hope that she completes and publishes that prequel to A Murder for Her Majesty. Fingers crossed.

J. L. Bell said...

I’ve seen notices in eighteenth-century newspapers for a children’s version of Fielding’s Tom Jones! But I still don’t think that book counts as children’s literature.

I agree that Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver’s Travels, and Robinson Crusoe are all part of the tradition modern British authors build on when they write for children (or adults). And in that respect they’re part of “children’s literature.”

But I suspect Dean Swift, for one, would have been highly annoyed to be classified as someone writing for children. Bunyan and Defoe would probably have welcomed any and all readers, for different reasons.

mbpbooks said...

In North America, such children's book writers tend to be clerical wives or daughters, like Harriet Beecher Stowe, L.M. Alcott (sort of), L.M. Montgomery, and in modern times, Katherine Paterson.

J. L. Bell said...

Interesting point!

(And visitors might like to know that Mitali Perkins herself is an American children's writer in that tradition.)