A Children’s Literature Tour of Great Britain by Mark I. West
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
West’s tour of Great Britain from a children’s literature perspective both satisfies and frustrates in fairly equal measure.
What interests me about this book is the palpable tension between the nature of such a guide and the literature it concerns. The blurb on the back cover comments that: “Many of the sites on West’s Tour are geared toward children, while some are clearly intended for adults. All will add depth and delight to your next excursion into the fantastic (and fascinating) world of British children’s literature.”
There’s a lot to unpick there, so let’s begin. The initial sticking point for me is this distinguishing between sites for adults and sites for children. This is a tension which surfaces quite often critical work around literary tourism as a whole. Fairly early on in The Literary Tourist: Readers and Places in Romantic and Victorian Britain, Watson comments that: “[visiting] places with literary associations is essentially an adult vice” (2). Other theorists suggest how literary tourism allows us to regain our childhood (therefore suggesting that the ‘regainee’ is old enough to have had a childhood) or stating that literary tourism is an attempt to memorialise (or to commercialise?) creativity (therefore suggesting that the memorialisee (sp!) is able to validate and register the value of creative cultural capital).
I grant that many of the points in the previous paragraph are cherry picked, but I hope to share with you my rationale and that is this: all of these schools of thoughts presuppose an adult tourist.
Whilst juvenile tourists most certainly do exist, they exist within certain parameters and these are mostly adult defined. However these defining parameters do not define the experience of the juvenile tourist. They also do not obliterate the experience of the juvenile tourist and it is vital to remember that, when discussing literary tourism and children’s literature, that these tourists exist and that, whilst we may not understand their interpretive strategies or their communication strategies, we need to understand that they exist.
So, now that that is said, West’s book is problematic due to this nature of partial audience erasure but also, I think, because of his selection of authors / topics to feature: King Arthur, The Rev W. Awrdy & Christopher Awdry / JM Barrie / Michael Bond / Frances Hodgson Burnett / Lewis Carroll / John Cunliffe / Roald Dahl / Ian Fleming / Kenneth Grahame and Thomas Hughes.
The gender split of these chapter headings is obvious, as is the temporal split. I was surprised to read the publication date for this book being 2003 as, from the selections of authors chosen, I had read a much earlier date for the research. Whilst the entries for each author / topic are interesting, they are brief. Each chapter picks out a relevant attraction for tourists to attend and sometimes the rationales for selection are somewhat oblique. In addition to this, the practicalities of West’s book have suffered due to time as books of this nature often do. Several of the attractions he references are now closed. Certain other details, such as the prices, have also inevitably been affected.
I do laud West’s commitment to his subject throughout this book. Children’s literature and literary tourism is a rich, rich topic and work that focuses on it is welcome and overdue. However, I think if I were to be asked to reccomend a specific guide to Britain for children’s literary purposes, I would put West’s tome aside and head over for the infuriating and yet wildly magical How the Heather Looks: A Joyous Journey to the British Sources of Children’s Books (a book I originally reviewed here), primarily because of Bodger’s itchingly vivid stylistics when compared to West’s more practically inclined tome. And yet, I wonder why I make that decision, why I ache for that wilderness of text that sings of its subject and I wonder if that is to do with my hope, my love, my fervent belief in the space of children’s literature, and of allowing the reader, of whatever age that reader may be, that space to breathe in and to bring their own story towards.
I wonder, perhaps, if that is at the heart of this issue of children’s literature and literary tourism. I wonder if that distinctly un-academic edge is necessary.
I wonder, perhaps, if I need to stand outside a house in London and clap my hands and believe in fairies.