Copyright © 2011 Jerry Dunne
Ultimately, it is the child reader and not the adult who decides what makes a great children’s story. This makes logical sense because without children you could not have a children’s story and without a child reader you cannot accurately judge the worth of such a story. Sure, you as an adult may judge a book that to all intents and purposes appears to be a children’s story, you may even judge it as a work of greatness based on its craftsmanship, style, character, contents and so on, but if not a single child likes it, it is not a children’s story of any value. It may be a work of fiction of some value, but you cannot argue that it belongs in the children’s genre.
So what does make a great children’s story? Well, we know we need at least one child to make that decision, so let’s ask one. I have one handy here. I call on myself as an eleven year old to answer the question. Were there any books I thought were great from that era of my life and why did I think they were great?
There were certainly a lot of books I considered good as an 11-year-old. But I will talk about just one of them in particular. As an 11-year-old, I read the novel The Silver Sword by Ian Serraillier. The enjoyment I got from reading this story was underpinned by fair craftsmanship, but at that time of my life I didn’t think about the craftsmanship at all. I judged the value of the book solely on the story itself. And I considered The Silver Sword to be a great story.
For the following reasons I considered it a great story.
War stories in one form or another were a big part of my youth. A war story about children made it a particularly thrilling tale. This story centers on the concerns of children struggling with dangerous and difficult circumstances in war-torn Europe in an attempt to be reunited with their parents. The story has a lot of realism for the child reader showing the consequences of war beyond the actual fighting. But The Silver Sword is also an adventure story. All of these factors contributed to the excitement I felt in reading the story.
The silver sword itself, a narrative device to link the story together, gives the whole story a powerful symbolism. Using the silver sword in this way was something that really impressed me about the story. It represented the children’s struggle of hope over misery, success over failure; the struggle against injustice, the great injustice that befell so many in war-torn Europe. My child’s mind understood that in the midst of great suffering, tragedy and misery it was still possible for individual souls to find justice. In fact, The Silver Sword reaffirmed my childlike belief in the overall goodness of the human spirit and in the belief that justice can be delivered to those who persevere in search of it. I remember feeling these things very deeply though I couldn’t have used these words to describe my reaction as a child.
However, I do not feel the same way reading the story now. I like it still, but I see weaknesses in the story’s craftsmanship that would now prevent me from placing it in the greatness category. Also, it does not create the same powerful effect on me as once it did; it no longer resonates with me in the same way. I have read much more powerful fiction since then with similar themes, fiction inappropriate for a child. However, though this fiction, much of it better written, has had a stronger influence on my intellect, it has probably not done so on my feelings. This perhaps tells me that the gulf between the child and the adult lies more in the intellect than in the emotions in their reaction to art.
Nevertheless, The Silver Sword is a great story for children because its readership considers it to be a great story. Of course, this does not mean that every child will agree on this point and that no adult will see it as a great story. But many children agree that it is a great story.
A good children’s story is one that encourages a child to pick up another book in the hope of finding the next good one. A great children’s story is one that makes the child hunt hungrily for another like it. I searched eagerly for the magic of The Silver Sword in other books. I searched for that magic right through to my adulthood and am still searching for such stories. Occasionally, I find one. Yet, funnily enough, though I’d not now rate this story as great, it is certainly one of those books that once set me on the road in search of other great stories.
The thoughts and feelings the story generated in me have stayed with me all the way through my childhood and into my adult life. Think about that! Through all the real trials and tribulations of my childhood – some of which had a massive impact on my young psyche and character – The Silver Sword remained a memorable part of my life’s experiences.
How does a single story read amongst hundreds of other stories at that time of my life manage to do such a thing if it is not a great story?
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