Alison Lurie, Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter (Penguin Books, 2003)
"It often seems that the most gifted authors of books for children are not like other writers: instead, in some essential way, they are children themselves. There may be outward signs of this condition: these people may prefer the company of girls and boys to that of adults; they read children's books and play children's games and like to dress up and pretend to be someone else. They are impulsive, dreamy, imaginative, unpredictable." from the Forward
Did you know that L. Frank Baum was sent to a military school as a child, to cure him of daydreaming? Or that John Masefield, the "poet of the sea," suffered from seasickness and had to leave the merchant marine at age seventeen because of it? Or that Hans Christian Andersen's greatest pleasure as a child "was in making clothes for my dolls"?
In addition to Baum, Masefield and Andersen, Alison Lurie studies Louisa May Alcott, Walter de la Mare, Tove Jansson, Dr. Seuss, Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling in her collection of essays, Boys and Girls Forever. What Lurie has discovered is that all of these authors, in a sense, never left their childhoods behind them. In the cases of Baum and Masefield, the traumatic experiences of childhood informed their writing by causing them invent fantastic new societies where children rule and are never forced to go to school, or romantic paeans to the glory of a completely imaginary life at sea. In the cases of de la Mare and Jansson, the authors had such idyllic early lives that they stayed in them in their imaginations forever, and set all their stories in those environs.
One at a time, Lurie takes each of these authors and gives a brief biography, focusing on the major turning points in their lives; she then examines their stories for children and shows how they connected their ideas to their earliest experiences, good and bad. She also shows how they interacted with the children around them, both when they were children themselves, and later as adults.
After this series of essays, Lurie goes on with several more essays about literature for children in general. She covers the importance of fairy tales, poetry written for children (and by them), children's games including both spontaneous games and the traditional chanting games that pass from child to child down through the centuries illustrations in children's books, and the role of nature in children's literature.
The essays here are made intriguing not by their subject matter alone, but also by the way Lurie has written them. Lurie writes like the best sort of anthropologist or sociologist. That is, she appears to be genuinely curious about her subjects. She's not examining them in order to prove a point she's already made for herself, she's truly interested in what they've said and done, whatever it may be, however odd or mundane. Her enthusiasm for people comes through plainly. In a way, what she says about the best children's authors (quoted at the beginning of this review) holds true for her as well she writes imaginatively and unpredictably. She's fascinated by children's stories, by their authors, by children themselves, and her enthusiasm seems to have simply brimmed over in the form of these essays.
If you're a professional who works with children or children's literature, you'll naturally want to read this book and have it in your reference collection. However, if you just like children or children's books, or if you share some of the qualities that Lurie ascribes to the best children's authors, you'll also find this book irresistable fun. It's a "book of information," but the information is novel, colorful and just plumb fascinating.
My only criticism of Boys and Girls Forever is that it's misrepresented somewhat in the promotional material that accompanies it the forward, the back cover blurb, etc. I expected all the essays to be about different children's authors; so when I reached the essay entitled "What Fairy Tales Tell Us," and then went on to the final four essays after it, I was initially confused by the sudden turn away from specific authors and toward general themes in children's literature and then even farther afield into children's play with one another. However, now that you've been alerted, you'll suffer no such confusion and can happily dive into Lurie's observations with the right expectations. And you really ought to do so very soon.
Alison Lurie has written another collection of essays about children's literature, entitled Don't Tell the Grownups. She has also edited collections of folk tales and written several novels for adults. Her novel Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer Prize. Find out more about Lurie and her work at her Web site.