I recently came across this article in The Atlantic, entitled ‘Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories‘. Its main premise is that classic British children’s books are almost all fantasies – such as 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 – while American children’s classics, 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 much more about realistic, moralistic portrayals of day-to-day life on the frontier. The British stories, the author contends, by their very nature stretch children’s imaginations further, while even American fantasies like The Wizard of Oz are rooted in realism and often have a moral message at the end.
“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.”
One of the things about growing up in Australia (and I suspect the same is true for Canada) is that you often get a mix of both British and American culture without really realising it. Up until the twentieth century, Australians still generally saw themselves as resolutely British, and this was reflected in much of the culture and literature, although a sense of ‘Australian-ness’ began to develop in the late 1800s. After World War II, not only did the American cultural influence begin to grow, but Australia also began to develop a rich children’s literary culture of its own.
So I was raised on all the British kids’ books listed above (plus The Famous Five, Beatrix Potter’s animal stories and Arthur Ransome’s brilliant Swallows and Amazons series), as well as a fair few of the American ones (most notably Charlotte’s Web and Little Women). Australian classic children’s literature tends to be a mixture of styles, like Seven Little Australians (about a family of prankster children in 1880s Sydney), which is much closer to an American-style frontier story than a British fantasy, or, on the other end of the spectrum, The Magic Pudding, Blinky Bill, Snugglepot and Cuddlepie or The Muddle-Headed Wombat which are straight-up bush fantasies.
It’s probably no coincidence that, although I still love reading children’s and young adult books, I prefer the fantasy over the ‘moral’ stories. That said, one of my all-time favourite children’s books is Anne of Green Gables, by Canadian author L.M. Montgomery. Although it’s not a fantasy – in fact it’s very much in the ‘chronicles of day-to-day life’ mould – its heroine, Anne Shirley, indulges in flights of whimsy and imagination that I find delightful and enchanting . There is a moral element to it, but only in as much as Anne’s imaginings frequently get her into trouble and she learns her lesson. In contrast, I found its American equivalent, Pollyanna, to be so righteously insufferable that I couldn’t bear to finish it.
The comparison between Anne of Green Gables (or Seven Little Australians) and Pollyanna seems to me to reflect cultural differences in worldview and especially in humour. Australians and Canadians, for the most part, have inherited our British forefathers’ ironic, absurdist, self-deprecating humour, while American humour, in my experience, tends to be more literal (that’s not to say one culture or country is funnier than another, but just that they’re quite different). Australians in particular also love an underdog story and get suspicious of people who appear too perfect (the downside of which is the infamous tall-poppy syndrome), which stands in stark contrast to the ideals of the American Dream. The Atlantic article also goes into quite a bit of depth about the effect of landscape and mythology on the development of the different literary canons, which I won’t rehash here, but which is also rather fascinating.
I’m very thankful that I was brought up on such a breadth of literature (for which I can thank my mum), and I find it sad and rather irritating that the current publishing trend is to tailor all non-American books to fit American cultural norms (the changes made to Harry Potter being perhaps the most notorious in recent years), because how can kids be expected to develop an awareness of other countries and cultures if all the defining features of ‘foreign’ literature are sanitised? That’s an argument for another day; all I know is that if and when I have kids of my own I intend to expose them to literature from all over – and not just the Anglosphere.
I’m really interested to hear about your favourite children’s stories, especially if you grew up in a non-English speaking country. Why did they resonate with you and how do they reflect the culture in which they’re written? Please let me know in the comments.
2 thoughts on “Why the British tell better children’s stories (or do they?)”
I was never a big reader as a child. But my early years included a stable diet of Enid Blyton and sporting magazines. As a young teen, my time was taken with Douglas Adams, Heinlein, Wells, and Tolkien.
I’m total amazed these days of the breadth of reading available for young readers, and how hard it is to get children to read with the alternative of multimedia products.
I loved Enid Blyton too, though I still think Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons adventure stories are better – they’re far less sexist for one thing.
The multimedia thing is interesting – on the one hand, as you say, it can take kids away from books, but on the other it’s making new opportunities for interactive storytelling that I find quite exciting. I’m developing a choose-your-own-adventure-style game as a complement to Greythorne at the moment using Twine, which is pretty cool, and some of the new games that are coming out (especially the indie ones) are stunning examples of visual storytelling. That said, there’s still nothing quite like a good book, and I think it’s great that young adult fiction as a genre has undergone such explosive growth in recent years (I still read it, and one of the more interesting statistics I saw was that most young adult books are actually bought by people aged 18-35). I also love writing YA fiction because there’s quite a lot of freedom in the genre to explore all sorts of ideas, and I love writing for readers who get really passionate about books (as teens often do).