The Looking Glass : New Perspectives on Children's Literature, Vol 13, No 1 (2009)

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TLG 13.1 Introduction

Frame of Reference


Introduction

David Beagley


Recently a friend showed me a family heirloom of which she is immensely proud.  It is a letter, dated 1925, that accompanies a collection of books from the late 19th and early 20th century which has pride of place in the home on the family farm.

In this note that accompanied her will, the elderly builder of this collection, the family’s “maiden aunt”, expresses her wish that the books not be sold but stay in this house as long as a family member lives there.  She then adds poignantly of her books that they were “all dear to me, perhaps to none so dear as to me who had no other happy home of her own to recall.  A house, I have, but no loving soul to make it a home.”

The poignancy of this observation, even to the personal emphasis in her underlining, has been brought home to me so strongly these last few weeks in the social tragedy of a natural disaster.  Within an hour’s drive of where I am sitting, in the last two weeks over 200 people have lost their lives and many thousands more left homeless in sudden and brutal wildfires that swept through forests, farms and towns in a nightmare of indiscriminate destruction.  Several are still burning and warnings are current today for strong winds and searing temperatures that may fuel another round of evacuations, infernos and loss.

As tragic as are the losses, though, it is the resilience and unity of communities as they support each other that has proclaimed itself so powerfully over recent days.  While Australia is a highly urbanised society nowadays, its popular culture and iconography is still rural and traditional: the laconic farmer, the small town community, the attitudes of “have a go” and “a fair go”.  The distinction the aunt noted between the “house” and a real “home” goes beyond the physical buildings that may be destroyed or lost, just as a community is not just a group of people in a place.  And, she goes on, the books are not just physical items for ownership and sale; they carry so much more value in wisdom and strength.

I would love all country people to love good sensible books, there is such a lot of happiness to be found within their covers, and I like to feel they (country people) have a wide outlook, and understanding, and to be deservedly appreciated by wise and well-read people.

As a rule, morally, they deserve to be, but, too often, mentally, their outlook is limited, because of their opportunities to read good books.

There is both good and bad in the world and we must learn of both to be able to guide our behaviour.

Ignorance is not innocence, and often want of knowledge of dangers is the cause of wrongdoing, and want of understanding makes us harsh in our judgements.

Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit is a character that has been seen for many years as a lesson learner.  His behaviour is (eventually!) guided by his experiences in the garden as he questions and he risks.  In Alice’s Academy this issue, Katie Mullins explores Peter as a learner in both the well known episode of his own tale and through the comparative experience in The Tale of Benjamin Bunny.  Like so many children and child figures, his “want of knowledge” and “want of understanding” has him so often harshly dismissed as typically ‘naughty’.  Mullins looks at how his questing and venturing into the unknown and dangerous is an integral part of his growth and identity.

Note that this article is loaded in pdf format due to copyright requirements for the illustrations that Mullins uses.

“I think” continues the aunt’s letter, “nobody is an angel in perfection and no one a devil in perfection, we are all mixtures. And lucky are we, who have had wise training, to choose to do good rather than bad.”

William Peat’s “The Labyrinth of Good Intentions” in Emerging Voices examines the modality of personal experience and how traumatic experience can be transmitted.  He considers the use of the fairy tale motif, especially Hansel and Gretel, in several Holocaust stories, and the relation between parent and child.  Whether the real experience is veiled or confronted, allegorised or represented in stories, all the personal issues of decision, reaction and continuation must still be engaged.  "Wise training" and choosing are not always automatic, immediate and simple, but must be sought and found.

Also in Emerging Voices is Pamela Fairfield’s study of Molly Bang’s unconventional use of the balance between illustration and text in picture books. “Fear and Foliage: The Role of the Forest in the Picture Books of Molly Bang” looks at how the picture can operate as a text of symbols and signs to create much of the emotional response of a story in the reader.

We welcome an old friend in Jabberwocky.  Ruth Allen, writer, book lover, unashamed fan of school series, and one-time British correspondent for The Looking Glass, gives us her advice on collecting books.  She explains the similarities and differences between collecting adult and children’s books, and suggests some good starting points for the beginner. I am sure that Ruth empathises with our aunt back in the 1920s as she wondered what would become of her collection.

In Curiouser and Curiouser, an interesting consideration of the nineteenth century child is reviewed.  A new collection of essays from Ashgate’s Studies in Childhood series makes some challenging points about children as commercial objects and consumers.  “Let them just be children for the short time they have!!” is a cry that proves to be much older than we may think. Children must live in an adult world, be measured and judged, but also be manipulated and trained, by those adults.

The final word, another modern message from the past on this exact issue, is from our aunt:

Young people are not always naturally good, they are often cruel, not intentionally, but thoughtlessly.  Older people, good ones, are wiser and kinder.  The world has taught them to be better judges, or, at least, less harsh in their judgments.  Again, there are some young folks who have so naturally a kind heart they very seldom hurt.  They are the loved ones …

It was through the looking glass that Alice could see the foolishness of the adult world. I hope this issue of The Looking Glass gives you some glimpses of the joy that a child's world ought to have, if we would but let it.

 

David Beagley

Note: letter exerpts © Louise Rathjen 2009.  Not to be reproduced without permission.


Volume 13, Issue 1 The Looking Glass, January/February, 2009

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"Frame of Reference - Introduction"
© David Beagley, 2009.
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The Looking Glass: new perspectives on children's literature

ISBN 1551-5680