Wednesday 1 June 2016

The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

In 1985 I bought a copy of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. I was 20 years old and it had just dawned on me that I was not just interested in children’s books because I had rather juvenile tastes; I was interested in children’s books because I was interested in children’s books.

I loved The Oxford Companion. I still do. I have read it pretty much cover to cover and it’s my go-to whenever I come across something children’s-literary that I don’t know anything about. Of course over the years it had become less useful (though no less interesting). A lot has happened in the world of children’s books since it was published in 1984. Most of the books and authors that would spring to most children’s minds aren’t there. Most of the stuff that would occur to anyone younger than me isn’t there. Harry Potter isn’t there.

So, when I heard that a new edition of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature was being published I was thrilled. I’m amazed that it didn’t happen sooner. I have checked once or twice, over the years, certain that OUP must have updated it, amazed that it should have taken them thirty years.

So, shiny new edition, edited by Daniel Hahn, writer, editor, translator, chair of the Society of Authors. The thrill of opening it. What’s new? What’s gone?

What’s new is all that you would expect: entries on all your favourite authors, JK Rowling, Lauren Child, Patrick Ness – you name them, you’ll find them, articles about young adult books, about diversity, about translation. The new entries fit well into the quirky, opinionated tone of the original entries that remain. There’s a useful appendix of children’s book prize winners that wasn’t there in the original.

I’m sorry the summaries of literature from other countries have gone. Of course an overview of the whole of a country’s literature in a single column or less was never going to tell you enough, but we are so unaware in Britain of what is going on and has gone on in children’s literature in the rest of the world that it seems a pity to have excised it. Still, perhaps this is a strand for a longer and more detailed work. Hahn says as much himself in the introduction, referencing Jack Zipes’ four-volume Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature (better put that on my wishlist).

I have a few other quibbles. I expect a reference work to be rigourously edited and proof-read, but in the hour or so I spent looking through The Companion, several errors jumped out at me. The cross-references aren’t perfect, with a good number that I checked missed out. In the piece on Malorie Blackman’s Noughts and Crosses, the author is referred to by her surname only (and not cross-referenced). The Doctor Who piece is in the wrong place alphabetically (I checked this in the old edition, mostly because I wanted to know if the authors in 1984 had thought Doctor Who was a thing which had a place in this book and found that they did, but that they had titled the entry ‘Dr Who’ and alphabetised it accordingly; the new version had updated the entry, corrected the spelling, but not reordered the entries.)

Quibbles, as I say.

I love The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. It is a marvellous reference book and an entertaining book to dip into. I shall sit my new edition on the shelf next to the old one. Thirty years of being into children’s books (plus the twenty years before when I just read them). Feeling my age!

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