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Books in the Life of a Child: Bridges to Literature and Learning.

South Melbourne, Macmillan 1997 468pp $79.95, $29.95 paper ISBN 0732945208

Maurice Saxby is considered, by those involved with Australian children's literature, as the foremost commentator on, and critic of, the field. His two volume History of Australian children's literature since extended to a third volume entitled The proof of the puddin' has long been the basic reference source in the area. Equally important, however, has been his contribution to the field as a whole, which led to his being awarded the prestigious Dromkeen Medal for services to Australian children's literature. His profile and expertise, then, make the publication of Books in the life of a child a special event.

The volume is divided into six parts, and into chapters within those parts. Part one `Children and their books', introduces several aspects: the importance of reading, the nature of both literature and children's literature, and critical approaches to the topic are given chapters. The first is an issue which has been emphasised by almost every proselytiser for children's literature since it became a field in its own right, but the remainder are given a much harder edged and more contemporary analysis. Today, as Saxby states, seemingly with some sadness, lit-crit book people are in retreat, overtaken by the more theoretically oriented and `child people', whose brief contains, in part, the replacement of the old subjective value judgments with a recognition that it is the reader's response to the work in question that is crucial, especially in these days of postmodernist texts.

Saxby deals initially with the old terminology--plot, theme, and the others before moving on to more current concepts, including the implied reader, and to brief definitions of a number of recent critical approaches. He uses the necessary terminology but does so clearly and without resorting to the elitist gobbledegook in which much of the recent theoretical work is couched. In the main, his definitions and descriptions are clear, although some terms seem rather to have been simply dropped into the discussion. Still, this does not diminish the overall usefulness of this section: it is rare for the traditional and contemporary approaches to be coupled--usually the old and new guard either ignore or belittle the other--making this volume a useful starting point for those who wish to contrast the approaches to the field. The chapters in this part, like all the chapters in the book, not only have a bibliography but also a list of further reading.

The second part is historical, with chapters on the changing concepts of childhood and the effects of these concepts on literature for the young and, briefly, on the development of Australian children's literature itself. The former chapter is, perhaps, the more interesting, as the topic has been dealt with less frequently, and the `progress' of children from being from the miniature adults of the sixteenth century, through to today's `disappearance of childhood', is surprisingly circular. The other chapter in this part, a potted history of the field in Australia, is useful as a brief overview for hose who wish the major stages to be put into some sort of chronology and perspective.

Parts three, four and five are where the author's knowledge and interests really are allowed free rein. Entitled `Traditional literature', `Beginning readers' and `Extending readers' respectively, these parts are quite lengthy discussions of the literature itself, and reflect not only Saxby's encyclopaedic knowledge of world children's literature but also his wide reading of adult literature and criticism.

His treatment of the stories and books is, almost without exception, perceptive and thoughtful, and the reader of this work will gain a knowledge, usually necessarily brief, of some hundreds of narratives, the majority of them Australian and some published as recently as 1996. Occasionally, the discussion of an individual work is less useful because the title has merely been mentioned, and with no comment on it.

`Traditional literature' contains chapters on folk tales and their relatives, myths and legends, and poetry, much of which is material on which the author has published previously. Perhaps the most interesting section is that on literary fairy tales, as it is an area in which innovative work is currently being published. At the conclusion of this chapter, and at those of several others, are boxes headed `Making meaning', which contain more points relating to some of the works discussed in the text. Useful to those who wish to think more deeply about these works, the random placement of the few boxes is puzzling.

Part four opens with a chapter on reading and its importance, with an introduction to picture books, and it is followed by a chapter on picture books themselves, including a discussion of the postmodern picture books aimed at older readers, and a chapter on the reading of, and books for, younger readers.

The following part contains the material which would be expected of any survey of children's literature, with chapters or lengthy sections on adventure, fantasy, realism, historical fiction, short stories, `pulp' fiction, young adult literature and information books. Here, the depth of the author's knowledge is fully apparent, and the reader is taken through such differing topics as secondary worlds in fantasy, the stages of development in a child's sense of humour, and the criteria for selecting works of nonfiction, all given the author's insights and, frequently, an unashamedly personal point of view.

The final part `Literature in action', is less defined in scope, and deals with, amongst other topics, reading at home, important children's literature collections around Australia, literature based reading in schools, reading aloud, and storytelling. Oddly, no mention is made of the children's choice book awards which are run in every mainland state and territory, and which exist to foster children's reading habits and interests, and in which tens of thousands of children participate each year. A discussion of these awards would have rounded the book off nicely, because almost every other topic pertaining to the field in Australia has received at least a passing reference. The book concludes with an index of titles, all of which are given all publication details, and a combined index of authors, illustrators and subjects, although it does not seem to be quite complete.

This, then, is a `book persons' gift of joy and understanding to those who take children and their literature seriously. The author has included enough literary theory to indicate to the reader the current trends and approaches but, at the same time, warns that all such theorising is `evolutionary'. The heart of this work is the author's love of the literature, and his need to communicate that love, and its accompanying knowledge, to the interested reader. The book does have problems, some of which have been mentioned above. They include, also, quotations without page references; some stylistic problems, with too many sentences commencing with `Which' and `But'; and a handful of typos, mostly in book titles.

All these negative points are minor and technical, however. Maurice Saxby has produced a book which covers not merely Australian children's literature, but the whole world of children's literature in a personal and readable style, so that the reader--whether librarian, teacher, student or interested parent--gets to know a little of the man and his passion for this literature, as well as a great deal about the literature itself.

RELATED ARTICLE: 10 THINGS A Librarian Does Not Want to Hear

1. It must be lovely to work here--so quiet and all that time to read.

2. But my assignment's due tomorrow.

3. What do you mean my book is over" due? I always, always return them on time.

4. What do you mean you don't have a cart catalogue anymore?

5. You expect me to use a computer?

6. I just love books so much I can't believe you get paid to work here.

7. My whole class has to to a project on food in Macedonia.

8. I need at least three books on food in Mesopotamia.

9. What do you mean you have no books left on foot in Mesopotamia?

10. My eon has to do a project on some country called something like Misopia but he's at a baseball practice so he sent me to get his books.
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Author:Foster, John
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 1998
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