Women Writers of Children's Literature

Women Writers of Children's Literature

Women Writers of Children's Literature

Women Writers of Children's Literature

Excerpt

So varied are the dozen women writers discussed in this volume that neither their genre nor their gender can be said to hold them together. Louisa May Alcott, the only one among them who died in the 19th century, wrote what is still the most popular work of its kind, Little Women. G. K. Chesterton, observing that women were more realistic than men, praised Alcott for anticipating literary realism. Whether or not one agrees with Chesterton that women "pit their realism against the extravagant, excessive, and occasionally drunken idealism of men," it does indeed seem to me that women writers of children's literature are frequently more realistic than their male rivals.

Something of this tendency can be seen by contrasting Ursula K. Le Guin's visionary fictions for children to those of J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. Le Guin's A Wizard of Earthsea and its three sequels fuse realism and fantasy as intricately as does her masterpiece for adults, The Left Hand of Darkness. Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, who always wrote as Christian moralists, Le Guin shrewdly blends naturalism and pre-Christian magic into a cosmos that seems very much our own. Critics continually note Le Guin's ecological concerns, and it may be her largest achievement that ecology and fantasy are allied, rather than antithetical to one another, in her fiction.

It is odd to compare Le Guin to the author of The Tale of Peter Rabbit and The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin, yet Beatrix Potter has something of the same relation to Lewis Carroll that Le Guin has to Lewis and Tolkien. Like Carroll, Potter sees her visionary spaces and characters from a child's perspective, and though she cannot rival Carroll in an absolutely original vision, she has a private realism almost as menacing as his uncanny happenings and personages. An unnerving traditionalist, Potter seems to me very close in spirit to the Yahwist or J writer, the earliest author of the Hebrew Bible. The J portions of Genesis in particular gave Potter her salient stances and situations. I am largely alone in believing that the J writer was a woman, but there is a direct sense, as Potter shows, in which the J narrative is the fundamental text of what we now term children's literature.

P. L. Travers is the principal heir of Beatrix Potter, and the Mary Poppins books provide their own fusion of realism and the magical. Grotesques and daemonic figures abound in the world of Mary Poppins, who herself is a benign spirit of the wind, as well as a governess, and so an emblem of moral control. Like Potter, Travers returns us to the imagination of the J writer, where the mundane and the divine scarcely can be distinguished. The oddity of the Mary Poppins books is that they are stronger as what might be termed . . .

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