The original trio: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
See Part 2 of this series here.
Okay, so they’re not the original children’s novels. Even if you toss out the fairy tales as a different genre, the tradition of books written specifically for children goes back to John Newbery’s A Pretty Little Pocket-Book (1744). The earliest children’s book that remains well-known today is probably Johann David Wyss’s The Swiss Family Robinson (1812).
However, something happened in 1865 when Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Up until this time, practically all of children’s literature, from the moralistic fairy-tales to Newbery’s alphabet book to Wyss’s educational literature was aimed at least in part at teaching children.
But children won’t learn much from Alice. Attentive adults may learn a fair amount about advanced mathematics and Dodgson’s low opinion thereof, but for children, it will go completely over their heads. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland began a new trend of books whose primary appeal was to children’s imaginations, not their lessons.
Alice is also probably the wildest of children’s literature as well. In other books, strange things may happen at random, but Alice reads like a 100-page opium-fuelled dream sequence. Like a real dream sequence, utterly bizarre scenes involving the White Rabbit and the Queen of Hearts shift into one another with no rhyme nor reason, nor any significant resolution. It’s pretty much just meant to be funny, but by modern standards, it’s a bit difficult to read.
J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan or Peter and Wendy is much more straightforward, though still quite fantastical. Here the eternally young and grown-up hating Peter whisks Wendy away to Neverland, a land of dreams, where she is to be a “mother” to the Lost Boys. While Neverland is very much written as a real place, a number of whimsical elements, like the ticking crocodile, and even dream-like ones, like Wendy wearing a kiss on a chain around her neck, pepper the novel, which seems to be a reflection of Peter’s conceited and rather scatterbrained mind.
L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz rounds out the classic trio of female protagonists of Alice, Wendy, and Dorothy, and it probably has the most coherent plot of these three early children’s novels, though it is still very episodic, and, in violation of good literary practice, the resolution is scattered across half the book. Nonetheless, it is a good story: Dorothy is picked up with her family’s farmhouse in a “cyclone” (tornado) and deposited in the magical land of Oz. There she meets, bizarre companions, defeats the Wicked Witch of the West, and unmasks the fraudulent Wizard on her journey to get back home to Kansas. The plot of the film here is actually only the first two thirds of the book, as an extra quest is needed to discover the secret of the silver (not ruby) slippers.
I will note that in the latter half of the twentieth century, various theories of an allegorical meaning to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz were proposed, the most popular being a very amusing comparison with the “Free Silver” Populist political movement of the 1890s. However, this allegorical theory was only first proposed in 1964 and is now generally discounted.
One particularly important aspect of children’s literature that I noticed from reading these books is pacing. Most children’s literature has a certain economy of words, in which the same thing is said faster and more simply than it would be in an adult novel. The exceptions are the longer books that are as long as adult novels. To see what I mean, compare the writing style of the first Harry Potter book with any of the large later ones.
However, there can be a huge variation from book to book. Peter Pan is close to 50,000 words, while The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is about 40,000. However, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has a far more complex plot (in that a lot more things happen), resulting in its language being much snappier. Scenes shift rapidly, major problems are introduced and solved in just a few pages, or sometimes just a few lines, and description is quite light.
This stands in stark contrast to Peter Pan, which takes its time drinking in the flavor of Neverland and indulges in long descriptions of the life of the Lost Boys. It’s not boring, by any means, but its slow, grand, sweeping style is nonetheless extremely different.
Neither of these approaches are wrong by any means, although I prefer the more measured style that, if not overdoing it on the descriptive details, certainly doesn’t shy away from them. What is more important is to be aware of and consistent in your style, and to keep your style to the reading level of your audience.
Next time, we explore the animal world with The Tale of Despereaux and the Rats of NIMH trilogy.