Curiouser & Curiouser

Review: How did Long John Silver lose his leg?

Dennis Butts and Peter Hunt. How did Long John Silver lose his leg? and twenty six other myseries of children's literature. Cambridge, UK: The Lutterworth Press. 2013. Print.

Reviewer: David Beagley

Peter Hunt and Dennis Butts are two of the most respected and distinguished British names in the literary analysis of children's literature. They both have been immensely influential, particularly in exploring how historical and social structures have formed our understanding and appreciation of young people's texts and worlds. This text shows that they feel that, despite the earnestness of so much of that pursuit, you can still have a lot of fun with it!

How did Long John Silver lose his leg? simply asks, and tries to answer, that question and more than 20 others from classic and popular stories and texts. Hunt and Butts each take situations that, undoubtedly, have intrigued them over their careers and try to fill in the gaps of technicality, probability, or even reader gullibility, that have sat there, often unchallenged for generations in all these classic stories.

In the case of the title question, for instance, it explores the methods and mechanisms of the times, considering not so much what caused that villainous (but fascinating) character to lose his limb but rather what surgical procedures would have been used on board a ship to undertake the amputation. Gaps in a story's background may be filled, as in "What did Mr March do in the war between the states?". In many of the chapters, it becomes a game of "Was it really possible for that to happen?", checking whether Bobbie of The Railway Children could actually have caused the train to stop in time, or what train journey Mary Lennox would have needed to take to get to Misslethwaite Manor's Secret Garden.

As an examination of authorship, it occasionally throws up an incongruity or outright incredulity: "How did Bevis grow ten years in fifty-eight days?" or "Did Jennings ever grow up or actually learn anything?" More often, though, it brings personal details to light that allow a more nuanced interpretation of what may have been on the author's mind while developing their stories: "Did Beatrix Potter really suffer from 'flu in 1909?", "How well did George Orwell really know Billy Bunter?", or "Did John Masefield ever meet Hitler or Stalin?"

The Masefield question is a study of mid-1930s politics, looking at how the ominous shadows of dictatorship and the impending war loom large in his The Box of Delights. Written by Butts, it sits, however, rather awkwardly alongside Hunt's "The strange disappearance of Europe: why didn't children's books notice the approach of two world wars?" which argues that the worlds of Grahame's Riverbank, Milne's Hundred Acre wood, and Ransome's Swallows and Amazons were typical avoidance of the obvious so as not to scare the children.

This interpretive point about the nature of children's literature, its authors and audiences, gradually develops over the course of the 27 short chapters. Hunt and Butts are not just throwing us tit-bits of trivia with this set of studies; they are leading to some key, and very modern, issues about the place (and importance) of children's literature in our broader society. Hunt highlights these in the last few essays, firstly asking "Does anyone really write for children?" looking at books aimed at particular children such as Carroll's Alice titles, Milne's Pooh stories, and including Blyton's and Dahl's relationships with their own children. While the excitement and innocence of the initial interaction that creates the story may be child-like, he concludes that "the fact that the writer is an adult inevitably turns it into something less pure", that the simple mechanics of preparing a manuscript for commercial publication quickly drag it out of that original world - witness the reactions of Christopher Robin Milne and of Blyton's children to their parents being lauded as a voice of the child.

Consequently, Hunt goes on to ask "Do writers for children have to be nicer than other writers?" before concluding with "Who killed Cock Robin?: the mysterious death of the children's book", observing the commodification of childhood, market-driven publishing, the rise of cross-over and nostalgia titles (apparent children's books squarely aimed at adult buyers) and the impact of e-books, digital revisions, fan-fiction and all the other possibilities in the online world.

We cannot escape the fact, both Hunt and Butts realise, that children's literature is, by and large, written, published, marketed, sold, and bought by adults (and, we could add, critically analysed!). But children read it, and they rarely do what adults intend for them. Hunt concludes "… it may well be that the hard-copy book may survive longer among children - i-pads are not ideal for reading in the bath, or, in the case of young readers, chewing."

This is a fascinating book, whether simply as something to dip into for some thoughts about a favourite story, or as a broader consideration of where children's literature has been and could be going. Butts and Hunt write clearly, thoughtfully and with a subtle undertone of challenge.


David Beagley

Volume 17, Issue 2, The Looking Glass, March/April 2014

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