Children’s Literature: US vs. UK

Colleen Gillard has written a fascinating analysis of the many contrasts between British and American children’s literature for The Atlantic. Here is how the piece begins:

If Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn were each to represent British versus American children’s literature, a curious dynamic would emerge: In a literary duel for the hearts and minds of children, one is a wizard-in-training at a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, while the other is a barefoot boy drifting down the Mississippi, beset by con artists, slave hunters, and thieves. One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong. Both orphans took over the world of English-language children’s literature, but their stories unfold in noticeably different ways.

The small island of Great Britain is an undisputed powerhouse of children’s bestsellers: The Wind in the Willows,Alice in Wonderland, Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, The Hobbit, James and the Giant Peach, Harry Potter, and The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Significantly, all are fantasies. Meanwhile, the United States, also a major player in the field of children’s classics, deals much less in magic. Stories like Little House in the Big Woods, The Call of the Wild, Charlotte’s Web, The Yearling, Little Women, and The Adventures of Tom Sawyer are more notable for their realistic portraits of day-to-day life in the towns and farmlands on the growing frontier. If British children gathered in the glow of the kitchen hearth to hear stories about magic swords and talking bears, American children sat at their mother’s knee listening to tales larded with moral messages about a world where life was hard, obedience emphasized, and Christian morality valued. Each style has its virtues, but the British approach undoubtedly yields the kinds of stories that appeal to the furthest reaches of children’s imagination.

Gillard goes on to explore some of the reasons behind this contrast. (Which, for her, mainly boils down to the British Isles being largely more comfortable with its pagan past.)

All in all, it’s a wonderful, thoughtful read, and I heartily commend it.

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