12 APRIL 1975, Page 16

Children's Books

The real thing

Leon Garfield

Penguin's Progress Jill Tomlinson (Methuen £1.05).

The Worst Witch Jill Murphy (Allison and Busby £1.50)

Going Rack Penelope Lively (Heinemann £2.10)

To those of us who toil in the vineyards of children's literature, come many little foxes to spoil our vines. There are the pig-ignorant journalists and critics who use the term 'children's book' as an expression of contempt for anything that falls within the comprehension of people they feel have no business understanding it; there are the self-appointed guardians of "a child's world of wonder," who stand, basilisk-like, preventing anyone getting in or out; there are certain of the toilers themselves who get down on all fours and play with the children at words and stories, thereby ignoring Anatole France's wisdom in perceiving that children resent any intrusion into their world — they seek, instead, an entry into the writer's world; and there are those foxes who, meaning to bestow high praise on something that very often has little to commend it beyond length or a crossword puzzle obscurity, declare it to be "almost an adult book." To my way of thinking, these last little foxes are the most destructive of all. They would have us believe that children's literature is the foothills of adult literature; that, say, had Beatrix Potter persevered, she might ultimately have written

The Magic Mountain. Which of course is absurd.

It is high time it was understood that Children's Literature of which in the past dozen years there has been such an enthusiastic outpouring represents the emergence of quite a different form that, however far extended, will not become what, for want of a better phrase, certain publishers term "a truly adult book." (And we all know what that means.) A painting in watercolours however richly the paint may be applied does not become a painting in oils; no-one should expect to find the qualities of one in the other. Just as watercolours have translucency and oils have depth, so Children's Literature has certain qualities that are peculiar to it and are not shared by its sister art the books designed exclusively for adults.

So what are these qualities? What is the distinctive taste of the grapes from our vineyard? A certain boldness and energy of narrative. A concern with those broad issues that underline our thinking from childhood to the grave; and a sense of morality. A fusion of imagination and reality in which probability yields to possibility . . and possibility is as limitless as the mind of the reader. Added to all this, our grapes always retain the taste of childhood; sometimes the flavour is faint, sometimes as strong as here and now; but it is never lost. The peculiar quality of this literature is that the presence of the child is always within the man. It is the difference between an old man musing of lost Springs with tears in his withered eyes ... a scene which might be deeply moving to a grown man, but unaffecting to a child, and that same old man buying himself a toffee apple and crying because he couldn't eat it, having lost all his teeth. That might make a child cry, too.

How sad, you might say, that all these fine qualities are the prerogative of children's books and are denied the adults. But perhaps this is not entirely so. Perhaps I have only described a good book and have placed it among Children's Literature merely because the standards in Children's books nowadays are considerably higher than elsewhere.

The three books I have before me are good by any standards; and they range from the youngest to the most mature. They have one thing in common, that I regard as a neccessity for any book. They can all be read aloud without embarrassment and without the need to adopt a special voice. First, Penguin's Progress, by Jill Tomlinson. Although it is designed for the very youngest six and upwards, I should think it is a constant delight to read. I shall keep it on my shelves. Here's how it begins: "Otto was a penguin chick. He lived on his father's feet at the bottom of the world. That's what Leo said, anyway, that they lived at the bottom of the world. Leo was another penguin chick and he lived on his father's feet. That is how Otto met him. Their fathers Claudius and Nero were friends and when they stopped to talk to each other, beak to beak, Otto and Leo were almost beak to beak too."

Solemnly and with Antarctic clarity, it charts the progress of Otto from chick to proud emperor penguin. Sometimes the writing approaches the observation and pungency of Russell Hoban than which there can be no higher praise. Listen to this:

You can play with us when your dad says you can. You're not big enough yet." "I'm not.very big outside, but I'm enormous inside," Gusto said.

The Worst Witch, is for nine or ten year olds and up. This, perhaps, is more in the nature of a romp, but it comes off beautifully. Miss Murphy has taken all the ingredients of the traditional girls' school story (the girl who's good at everything, the unlucky blunderer and the awful mistress), and turned them to excellent purpose in Miss Cackle's Academy for Witches. This might so easily have gone off the rails, but Miss. Murphy's absolute sincerity and enjoyment are fully communicated. In addition, Miss Murphy has enriched her book with charming pen drawings. I particularly liked the one of the inept pupil-witch in her gothic bed, cuddling her equally inept cat and surrounded by friendly bats. Her pointed hat, one notes with especial pleasure, sports the school colours and badge.

In Going Back, the flavour of childhood is faintest of all. But it is still there and most beautifully wrought into the texture of this haunting meditation on time past. No; it is not a mini-Proust, but a highly individual study of a grown woman's memory of Childhood as she returns briefly to the house where she spent it. It flickers from scene to scene (a Somerset country childhood, during the Second World War), and somehow manages to convey the mysterious process of remembering. Although not entirely free from mannerism (personally I find myself pulled .up short by too frequent sentences like "And we never went to the quarry again," for marking. the end of an episode), there is, nevertheless, some really fine writing: A cow calves in the night, down by the stream. There is a glistening afterbirth in the grass, shrinking in the sun like a stranded jellyfish. We study it, poke it with a stick, and puzzle over it. How? Why? The rice pudding for supper has the same translucence and we refuse it with a shudder.

How old for this one, then? Fourteen and upwards, perhaps. But by that time they're reading adult novels! Correction, pleaseThey are fourteen year-olds reading novels. The real difference is in the mind of the reader.