‘The children felt tremendously excited. At last they were at the very top. Jo carefully pulled himself up the last branch. He disappeared into the purple hole. Bessie and Fanny followed him.
‘The branch came to an end and a little ladder ran through the cloud. Up the children went – and before they knew what had happened, there they were out in the sunshine, in a new and very strange land…’
This extract comes from what was probably my favourite book as a child, and indeed, one which certainly inspired my love of fantasy fiction. It is, of course, from The Enchanted Wood by Enid Blyton and, to my young reading self, was one of the most exciting stories I had ever read. There was a magical wood where the trees talked to one another in a secret language – ‘wisha, wisha, wisha’ - rabbit paths frequented by all kinds of fairy creatures who held moonlight revelries and of course, there was the Faraway Tree – a gigantic, enchanted tree in the centre of the wood which was home to the Angry Pixie, Dame Washalot, Mister Watzisname, Silky the elf and of course, Moonface - guardian of the Slippery Slip and situated just below the cloud which concealed whatever mysterious land was at the top of the tree that day.
What sparked this trip down memory lane was reading, firstly, a short piece by Suzi Feay entitled On Re-reading Leon Garfield in the June/July issue of The London Magazine, along with an article in the Guardian about this year’s Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize longlist.
In this case, nostalgia for Suzi, as it has been for myself in re-reading children’s classics over the years, proved a pleasant experience – savouring those stories enjoyed in childhood as an adult proving their durability and the skill of the writer. Taking the example of The Ghost Downstairs by Mr Garfield, she writes: I relived my youthful terror all over again at the remembered words: ‘In the cabin, precisely outlined against the leaping flames, he had seen the phantom child! It was driving the train.’
Garfield was himself, a winner of the inaugural 1967 Guardian’s Children’s Fiction Prize with his book, Devil-in-the-Fog – which brings me to the aforementioned article.
The article, you can read for yourself – there’s no need to repeat its words here – but the question it appears to raise is as follows: Is children’s fiction too dark?
That’s the gist anyway, and the paper points out that this year’s longlist has none of the gloomy, depressing fiction filling other such prizes. Hence my reflections. Children and young adult readers do show a preference for reading dark tales today – vampires, post-apocalyptic worlds, well, the darker the better it seems – but then, haven’t they always? Yet I know that it isn’t just parents’ nostalgia that similarly sees Enid Blyton’s tales of fairies and elves still flying off the shelves. Her stories are more wholesome, yes, but aren’t without danger. It is just perhaps a little bit more obvious that her heroes will always triumph.
As publishers continue to seek out writing that is ‘innovative’, ‘edgy’ and ‘original’, what I think is being hinted at here is – do stories which shock and even disgust readers (again, refer to the article for an example of what they’re alluding to!) necessarily translate as being ‘good works of fiction’, or are they being chosen simply because they offer something which hasn’t been seen before?
Everyone will have their own view on the matter but, upon reflecting on my own reading history – which includes everything from magic to mystery, murder, crime, horror, historical and more, an eclectic mix is surely the best for anyone. It is for the reader to decide what they wish to read – the writer for what they feel inclined to write - but so long as there continues to be a suitable variety of dark and light to choose from then… what’s the problem?