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Towards an Overview of Scottish Children's Literature from 1823–2010

'She ... speaks to them still'.

Behind Charlotte Square in the New Town of Edinburgh you may come across an ornate Gothic monument commemorating the novelist Catherine Sinclair who died in 1864. An inscription added in 1900 declares:

She was a friend of all children and through her book 'Holiday House' speaks to them still.1

Catherine Sinclair monument Holiday House—a Book for the Young,2 published in 1839, makes a notable starting point for a survey of Scottish children's literature. Previously there had been nothing quite like it in its portrayal of juvenile behaviour. The particular milieu, lightly sketched, is bourgeois Edinburgh and its rural environs; the main protagonists are a brother and sister, perhaps 5 or 6 years old, and its episodic narrative deals with their alarming reactions to the adult world. While it has a moralising framework and mortality latterly intrudes, the book's life lies in the anarchic, exploratory efforts of Harry and Laura, who are, quite simply, not safe to be left. Beguilingly articulate, they are the innocents from Hell. Adult attempts to discipline them veer between vicious beatings from their nursery-maid, and saintly tolerance on the part of their long-suffering guardians.

Along with Walter Scott's first series of Tales of A Grandfather (1828), Holiday House makes a rare direct bid for the imaginations of its young readers. Of Scott, John Buchan records that when six-year-old Johnnie Lockhart first encountered his grandfather's Tales "he was properly excited by it all and set out to dirk his young brother with a pair of scissors."3 This is very much the same world as Holiday House. Mischievously for the purposes of this brief overview we shall garland the forgotten Miss Sinclair as Scotland's first children's laureate.

"I wish everybody who writes a book was obliged to swallow it," said Harry. "It is such a waste of time reading, when we might be amusing ourselves."

Since Margaret Meek produced her seminal collection of essays The Cool Web in 1977,4 the field of children's literature, from infant board books to teenage crossover fiction, has grown its own formal critical apparatus. Internationally there is now an immense volume of scholarly theorising by and for literary critics, teachers and librarians on issues such as: aesthetic quality and canonicity; genres and categories; interactions between author and reader; enjoyment and instruction; developmental and reading ages; gender, ethnicity, postcolonial, feminist and other ideologies; and not least the motives and economics of the book trades and professional authors. A recent and readable survey of this sometimes rebarbative material is to be found in the Open University's Children's Literature: Approaches and Territories.5

colour illustration from The Lighthouse by R M BallantyneInterestingly, despite the fact that landmark fictions by Scottish authors are key to many theoretical discussions, works for example by Scott, Sinclair, Ballantyne, Macdonald, Stevenson, Lang, Grahame and Barrie, there seems to have been virtually no acknowledgement in standard reference texts6 of the existence of a tradition of Scottish writing for young people, a tradition that stretches over some 180 years. Exceptions are Stuart Hannabuss's short survey in 19967 and two recent groundbreaking reviews of Scottish publishing policies for children's books and comics by Jane Potter and Joseph McAleer.8

Seen in the light of these studies it has to be acknowledged that the phrase Scottish children's literature appears to be highly problematical. What evaluations are implied in the term 'literature'? What are the possible relationships between adult writers and young readers? Is there in fact a corpus of texts which can be identified as distinctively 'Scottish'?

cover image for Treasure IslandsIn 1997 some teacher members of the Association for Scottish Literary Studies addressed these complex issues in Teaching Scottish Literature9 and subsequently in 2003 used the criteria which they had developed to produce Treasure Islands as a guide to fiction for young readers aged 10–14.10 This proposed a rationale for using and enjoying 'Scottish' works, and offered short critical accounts of 160 texts, later supplemented online by a further 40 items which took the survey up to 2005. One limitation of this selection was that it did not attempt to deal with writing for the very young, comic books and graphic and videogame narratives. It was not moreover a direct survey of readers' own favourites.

Modest though it was in its ambitions, Treasure Islands still remains the only well informed source of advice on the range and quality of Scottish junior fiction. In identifying candidates for inclusion in the guide, the compilers concentrated mainly on writers who signalled that they were writing with young people in mind. A Scottish text was simply one which used a Scottish context, in plot, characters or setting; or was written by someone who had lived in Scotland. Thus Anne Fine and J K Rowling11 were admissible on grounds of residence alone, and writers such as G A Henty, Arthur Ransome, Rosemary Sutcliff, Nina Bawden, Peter Dickinson and Michael Morpurgo, who had no Scottish background, were included on the strength of novels with Scottish ingredients. Using these admittedly generous criteria the project certainly demonstrated the existence of a significant archive of material developing between 1824 and 2005. However its main purpose was not to identify a backlist but to recommend books, whether earlier or more recent, which were likely to retain their lively appeal for young readers. Do they speak to us still? Here is an illustrative indication of some of the earlier texts analysed in the guide: [...]

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1 For an account of Catherine Sinclair by Charlotte Mitchell see the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004.
2 In 1972 Hamish Hamilton published a new edition of Holiday House with a perceptive preface by the novelist Barbara Willard.
3 John Buchan, Sir Walter Scott (Cassell, 1932) p. 313.
4 Margaret Meek, Aidan Warlaw, Griselda Barton, eds. The Cool Web: the Pattern of Children's Reading (The Bodley Head, 1977).
5 Janet Maybin and Nicola J Watson, eds. Children's Literature: Approaches and Territories (Palgrave Macmillan for the Open University 2009).
6 These include: Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Pritchard, eds. The Oxford Companion to Children's Literature (Oxford University Press 1984) and Victor Watson, ed. The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English (Cambridge University Press 2001).
7 Stuart Hannabuss in Peter Hunt, ed. The International Companion Encyclopedia of Children's Literature (Routledge 1996), pp. 688-691.
8 Jane Potter and Helen Williams, 'Children's Books' and Joseph McAleer, 'Magazines and Comics' in The Edinburgh History of the Book in Scotland, Volume 4 edited by David Finkelstein and Alistair McCleary (Edinburgh University Press 2007), pp. 352-367 and pp.368-384 respectively.
9 Alan MacGillivray, ed. Teaching Scottish Literature: Curriculum and Classroom Applications (Edinburgh University Press 1997), pp. 31-53.
10 James Alison and Ronald Renton, eds. Treasure Islands (The Association for Scottish Literary Studies 2003).
11 In Reading Round Edinburgh: A Guide to Children's Books of the City (Floris 2007) J K Rowling in her preface reflects cannily on the alleged influences of the city operating on her Potter novels. Interestingly enough this attractively produced guidebook has nothing to say about Catherine Sinclair, her novel or her monument.