Jack David Zipes (editor in chief), Oxford Encyclopedia
of Children's Literature
(Oxford University Press, 2006)
Do come in. Just give me a moment to mark my place in Patricia McKillip's Solstice Wood, the novel I'm reading just now. Did you know that she started her exemplary career writing young adult fiction, including The House on Parchment Street and The Night Gift? Go ahead. Look her up in Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature, that rather impressive set which is sitting on my desk.
Yes, it is, as you can see, another excellent new reference guide! It won't surprise many of you that I have a degree of avarice quite unparalleled when it comes to reference material of most any kind. My office here at Green Man is filled with thousands of volumes that I use when I need to know something quirky, such as 'Which is the first novel in Susan Cooper's the Dark is Rising series?' Or 'Who published Jane Yolen's Briar Rose'? Please note that both of these questions involve classics in children's literature, and until now there really hasn't been a truly great reference guide to this important genre. Oh, the various adult reference guides to both science-fiction and fantasy pay a modicum of attention to children's literature, but only in a sort of passing way. And there are many works that deal with children's literature in a very specialized manner, such as Donna R. White's A Century of Welsh Myth in Children's Literature, Alison Lurie's Boys and Girls Forever: Children's Classics from Cinderella to Harry Potter, Jane Yolen's Touch Magic: Fantasy, Faerie and Folklore in the Literature of Childhood, and Joseph Stanton's The Important Books -- Children's Books as Art and Literature to name but a few of the many works that we have reviewed over the years. But there has not been a single comprehensive look at this genre by anyone until now.
So do take notice that I am usually not easily impressed by works of reference. But the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature really impressed me indeed. Just its sheer length -- four volumes comprising a total of over eighteen hundred pages -- versus a mere single volumes of under six hundred pages for the previous volume (Oxford Companion to Children's Literature) indeed makes for, and I will say it once more for emphasis, an impressive affair! The 1984 edition was edited by the late Humprey Carpenter and his wife, Mari Prichard, who together did an excellent job at capturing the state of children's literature up to the very early '80s, but rather obviously that work is quite dated some twenty years after its publication, as would be any similar work covering a field as fluid as children's literature. So noted folklorist Jack Zipes had his work cut out for him when it came to serving as the overall editor for this greatly revised and vastly expanded edition of what was already a most useful companion. (It is, I will admit, not clear from Zipes' introduction to Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature if he considers this to be a revision of the earlier work, or an entirely new undertaking. As it covers the same area of knowledge and is from the same publisher, my judgment is that indeed it is a replacement for that companion.) Has Zipes succeeded? Quite wonderfully.
Now if someone kind had been serving me endless cups of freshly brewed Kona coffee spiked with real cream, I might have gotten through all of the pages in a reasonable amount of time. I might not have remembered everything I read, but that's another matter! I did read every entry in the much shorter Historical Dictionary of Fantasy Literature and Historical Dictionary of Science Fiction Literature. Each took better than a fortnight to read. So I decided instead to pick authors and subjects in which I was well-versed to see how in-depth the entries were. For writers, I chose Susan Cooper, C.S. Lewis, Patricia McKillip, Arthur Rackham, Maurice Sendak, and Jane Yolen; for subjects, I choose book illustration, cats, fairies, the Horn Book, Welsh mythology, and the Wild Hunt.
Now bear with me for a few minutes as I do this exercise. Each of the four oversized volumes has myriad black and white illustrations which more than amply add considerable visual appeal. There's the rare (frontispiece to the 1883 edition of Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island), cool (Maxfield Parrish's Humpty Dumpty), and somewhat odd (a Terry Jones illustration from The Saga of Erik the Viking). Now back to where we were. . . . Yes, Susan Cooper, C. S. Lewis, Patricia McKillip, Arthur Rackham, Maurice Sendak, and Jane Yolen. Cooper's noted primarily for, unsurprisingly, her Dark is Rising series, but attention is paid to her other work as well. The bibliography for here is fairly decent, with material as late as 1997 being cited. McKillip gets the shortest write-up of the group, but her work has mostly been in the adult fantasy genre. There's but one citation for her, but (again) that's not surprising, as she's not a writer that academics have spent a lot of time on. (More's the pity as she's the equal of Angela Carter for the depth of her work.) The Rackham entry gets a thumbs up for citing Derek Hudson's Arthur Rackham, His Life and Work, possibly one of the finest biographies ever done. Sendak's entry is one of the longest and most loving herein -- Jane Doonan was the scribe for it -- and suffers only by not citing Tony Kushner's The Art of Maurice Sendak: 1980 to Present, a 2002 publication that fills in the twenty-five years since Selma Lanes' The Art of Maurice Sendak was published. (The latter is cited here.) The others entries are equally well-written.
What else do you need to know? That there's a complete index? That the four volumes are in an exquisite library binding? Or that Zipes has written one of the best introductions I've ever read? Consider that possibly the closest equivalent to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature is for you to take Clute's two dated works, The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) and The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (1994), add more than a dash of updating, and borrow bits and pieces from other works that sort of touch upon children's literature, and you would still have a pale shadow of what Zipes and his contributors have accomplished here. It's that good.
It's not cheap -- five hundred dollars to be precise. (Lest you ask -- no, it wasn't the most expensive thing ever sent for review. That was a Neil Gaiman play, Snow Glass Apples, which is upstairs in the library. Gaiman's entry herein is a tad shorter than I expected, and is utterly lacking in citations, an odd affair given academics love him!) Any library with a more than bare bones children's section needs this, as does anyone who is more than simply a fan of this literature. It is good enough that I expect to reference it a half dozen times a week. It's certainly worth its weight in silver doubloons, fairy gold, dragons teeth, and gossamer wings!