Good Reading : March 2005
so-called because they ‘lessen’ by an hour every day. The Alice books, along with the exotic adventure novels of Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island 1883, Kidnapped 1886) and the cheerful non- sense verse of Edward Lear (A Book of Nonsense 1846) redefined children’s literature as the secular, non-didactic, entertaining reading experience that contemporary readers now expect. Notable amongst the early humor- ous children’s writers is Edith Nesbit, who experimented with ironic narrative tech- niques to write lively, entertaining ‘domestic’ adventures. In The Story of the Treasure Seekers (1899), set in London in late-Victorian times, Nesbit creates humour by writing in the voice of one of the six Bastable children whose family has fallen on hard times after their mother’s death: This is the story of the different ways we looked for treasure, and I think when you have read it you will see that we are not lazy about the looking … It is one of us that tells this story – but I shall not tell you which: only at the very end perhaps I will. While the story is going on you may be trying to guess, only I bet you don’t. It was Oswald who first thought of looking for treasure. Oswald often thinks of very interesting things. And directly he thought of it he did not keep it to himself, as some boys would have done, but he told the others… (Edith Nesbit The Story of theTreasure Seekers) In this realist genre, Nesbit uses the naïve humour of Oswald’s egocentric but hon- est viewpoint to show us children who are active, imaginative, closely bonded as siblings and warm-hearted. Nesbit’s legacy includes her trilogy of humorous fantasies (The Five Children and It,The Phoenix and the Carpet, and The Story of the Amulet), where magic never quite improves on real life wisely lived. In Nesbit’s novels the children’s initiative (which earlier didactic writers punished as ‘naughtiness’) is always rewarded, an attitude which keeps her books in print and very readable a century later. While Golden Age secular humour retains a strong moral thrust (to show child readers the humanist values of compas- sion, selflessness and generosity), later 20th century children’s literature used humour to expose the failings of adults and rbitrariness of their power. ld Dahl’s fantasies published throughout the 1960s-1980s (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The BFG,The Witches, Matilda) humorously invert conventional adult/child relations. Dahl exaggerates the awfulness of those in power and celebrates the inventiveness of children and the marginalised who form alliances to outwit their oppressors. In Australia, humorous literature is very ‘boyish’, with Paul Jennings and Andy Griffiths dominating the genre. Jennings, author of dozens of short novels and story collections initially aimed at reluctant read- ers (now published in Uncollected! Volumes 1-3) is rightly famous for his zany, often ludicrous plots and his humour of the gross and absurd. And Andy Griffiths’s sensationally pop- ular The Day My Bum Went Psycho (2001) is a clever, well sustained parody of the epic male heroic quest typified by Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. For slightly younger readers, Duncan Ball’s Selby books use the character of a scrape-prone talking dog whose naïve, child-like observations of the humans around him poke gentle fun at conven- tions of adult behaviour.