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The Secret Life of Children's Books - Richard Coles

The Secret Life of Children's Books

This two part OU/BBC co-production looks at the secret lives of 'The Five Children and It' by E. Nesbitt and 'The Water Babies' by Charles Kingsley. 

About the programme

There are some children’s books that are so important that they become more than just literature – they enter deeply into our collective imagination in a way few adult books can. The Secret Life of Children’s Books tells the story of two of these masterpieces, revealing just why they continue to resonate so powerfully. 

Discover the range of qualifications and modules from the OU related to this programme:

More on children's stories

Head through the looking glass, and delve deeper into the world of children's stories.

The cheshire cat vanishing (detail) in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland drawn by John Tenniel (1820-1914)

Why do so many children’s stories feature magical creatures?

Dr Dena Attar explores why children's stories are often filled with magical creatures.

John Tenniel's Cheshire Cat illustration

John Tenniel's Cheshire Cat

From the fairytale Puss in Boots and the Cheshire Cat in Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland to Dr Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, children’s stories are filled with magical creatures. We might easily take for granted this familiar feature, and not ask why adults want to tell children stories about beings that don’t exist, and why such creatures appear so often in children’s literature. Dragons and talking animals are far from recent inventions – think of Aesop’s fables, or myths and legends from around the world told to all ages - but children’s authors constantly refresh ways of using and depicting these literary creations, keeping them in tune with contemporary childhoods. What lies behind the appeal and ubiquity of magical creatures?

Peter Pan illustration by Arthur Rackham

Peter Pan by Arthur Rackham

Young humans in a story may share all of a child reader’s limitations and constraints on actions and behaviour, but once a non-human character becomes involved, everything can change. Magical creatures can be endowed with amazing, limitless powers. They can erupt into the everyday world of a child with great comic effect and cause upset, even complete chaos. Like Max’s friendly monsters in Where The Wild Things Are, they can act out the fiercest, most anarchic feelings and desires on behalf of a character, a reader or a listener, without endangering the child’s world. They can be counterparts of the invisible friends some children invent, who break things and scribble on walls, leaving the children themselves blameless. The daemons in Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights literally give shape to children’s inner thoughts and emotions, with a constant supportive presence echoing the intense sense of ownership and closeness when an imagined companion is really part of the child’s self.

The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

The Water Babies, illustrated by Jessie Willcox Smith

maginary creatures with magical powers are a great resource for authors to draw on, and can connect excitingly to the desires and fantasies associated with being relatively weak and powerless. So in stories for younger children, magical creatures can be larger, stronger, can fly, satisfy enormous appetites, behave badly without any consequences, and can also lend superhero powers to child characters. For older readers authors such as C. S. Lewis, Alan Garner, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, Diana Wynne-Jones and J.K.Rowling have deployed magic in more serious settings to turn apparently ordinary children into participants in fantasy worlds, where they can fight battles and defeat fearsome enemies with help from non-human allies. When magical creatures are not comforting companions but opponents, out to stalk and kill, they can be made less threatening in the safer realm of fantasy. Terrifying scenes like the opening to Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book would be unspeakably awful in a realistic setting without such distancing and protective effects.

The most famous and popular children’s classics are often those balancing entertainment with lessons for life. Tips on the pains of growing up and coping with hardships and adult authority may all feature, but bald lessons can be tedious. A good strategy for authors is to construct an alliance with the reader, criticise or mock the supposedly sensible adult world and refuse to offer serious lessons – or pretend not to offer them. Monsters and other unruly beings help authors side with the child against the adult world, such as when insensitive parents, like those in David McKee’s Not Now, Bernard, are shown as too preoccupied to notice the wild goings-on in the story.

The Five Children and It - illustration

As the history of children’s literature shows, children’s books very often deliver instruction yet when a fantasy element is vivid enough, their moral or educational purpose may fade into the background. Tom, the poor desperate chimney-sweep in Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies (1862), becomes amphibious so he can be washed clean and experience marvellous underwater adventures. Besides attacking the horrors of child labour, Kingsley included lessons in religion and behaviour, but the exhilarating descriptions of Tom’s magical journeys through the water world are more enticing for the reader than these homilies.

Another Victorian writer, Edith Nesbit (author of The Railway Children) reworked the fairytale theme of a magical creature with the power to grant wishes in Five Children and It. With a realistic setting and a sophisticated narrative, comedy springs both from wishes going wrong (as usual) and from the children’s attempts to keep their encounters with the Psammead secret from adults. The mishaps teach them various lessons, but the reader is most likely to remember above all, enviously, their wondrous chancing on a sand fairy, with magical gifts at the disposal of a child. 

Meet the OU expert...

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Dena AttarDepartment of EducationVIEW FULL PROFILE
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Dena AttarDepartment of Education


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