A Child Let Loose

Writing about children’s literature by Joan Aiken, Bee Wilson, Marina Warner, Wendy Doniger, Rosemary Hill, Jenny Turner, Marghanita Laski, Andrew O’Hagan, Jenny Diski and Gillian Avery.


Joan Aiken, 17 July 1980

The great virtue of the orphan story, I believe, and the reason why it has survived for so many centuries and will continue to do so, is that, when it comes to essentials, we are solitary beings; we are born alone, die alone, sleep alone, dream alone; stories about orphans are an instinctive means of acclimatising children, at an impressionable age, to this grim but pertinent fact.

No Strings: Pinocchio

Bee Wilson, 1 January 2009

Carlo Collodi knew that real children are not so innocent. No matter. The power of the Disney Pinocchio myth has little to do with the business of becoming honest, brave and unselfish – the surface moral. It is about the pathos of a child let loose in a world of grown-ups.

You must not ask

Marina Warner, 4 January 1996

The sustained parody of adult wooing in Lewis Carroll’s entertainments was part and parcel of that delighting delinquency that buoys the humour of both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as well as the wondrous nonsense poems, like ‘The Hunting of the Snark’. Carroll used childishness to mock pompousness and authority and rules and regulations; the little girl offered him a vehicle.

Can you spot the source?

Wendy Doniger, 17 February 2000

Young Harry Potter’s parents are dead. So far, so good: many of the heroes and heroines of the classics of children’s literature are orphans, while others have invisible, unmentionable or irrelevant parents. The sorrow of grieving, not to mention the terror of helplessness, is quickly glossed over in favour of the joy of a fantasised freedom. (A particularly sharp 13-year-old patiently explained to me that if Harry’s parents weren’t dead, there would be no point in writing the book: it wouldn’t be interesting, no matter how many creative details there were.)

Bang, Bang, Smash, Smash: Beatrix Potter

Rosemary Hill, 22 February 2007

Like Victorian children Beatrix Potter’s characters often live in the hidden parts of a house and their excursions into forbidden areas, the parlour or the kitchen or the vegetable garden, are fraught with danger, while like all children they are constantly at risk of being suddenly picked up and carried away.

I am not interested in slumming, in showing off about my naughty hobbit habit. The idea of slumming is an attempt to negotiate a deal between the secret shameful self who just wants to gobble, gobble, gobble and an acceptable adult dinner-party persona. All of us were children once, and that should be enough.

Good Books

Marghanita Laski, 1 October 1981

The easy truism, that a good children’s book is a book that’s good for children too, has enough truth in it to ensure that most fiction reviewers are at least open to the genre. But unless we specialise in children’s fiction, the current literary theory about it is likely to interest only some and only at specific times: those of parenthood and of grandparenthood. My own present interest is the latter.

Utterly Oyster: Fergie-alike

Andrew O’Hagan, 12 August 2021

A good children’s writer makes children feel things without ever quite talking about feelings. They teach children how to read the world for signals of what is important and strange and valuable, but it never feels like a lesson and it always feels like something only children might really understand. Meghan, the Duchess of Sussex (presumably the title helps sales) has written a children’s book which is not for children at all, and possibly not for anyone.


Jenny Diski, 28 April 1994

If the adults can’t bear to read Roald Dahl’s stories, then childhood nirvana is attained. Adults are to be poisoned and shrunk into nothingness, dragged unwillingly on their deathbed to live in a chocolate factory, and outwitted like the murderous farmers who wait outside Mr Fox’s lair only to be trounced by his cunning.

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