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Towards an Overview of Scottish Children's Literature from 1823–2010

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Here is an illustrative indication of some of the earlier texts analysed in Treasure Islands:

  • 1824 and 1827, Sir Walter Scott, Wandering Willie's Tale and The Two Drovers: two good-sized short stories—one is a horror yarn in Scots of bogle wark in Covenanting times; the other a tale of the drove roads and a fatal culture clash, also with a supernatural ingredient.
  • 1863, James Grant, Dick Rodney: by accident a Victorian gap year on a hazardous voyage to Cuba and Cape Town serves to make a man out of a callow Etonian.
  • 1865, R M Ballantyne, The Lighthouse: location Arbroath, a hands-on account of the building the Bell Rock light, complicated by young romance, pressgangs and smuggling.
  • 1872, George MacDonald, The Princess and the Goblin: a darkly shaded fantasy: a babyish but enterprising princess who is secluded in a remote castle joins with a boy miner to prevent goblins from abducting her.
  • 1886, R L Stevenson, Kidnapped: it is 1751. David, a prim, sheltered lad, is challenged by grim experiences on the brig Covenant, and as a fugitive in the Highlands after the Appin murder.
  • 1887, G A Henty, Bonnie Prince Charlie a tale of Fontenoy and Culloden: a young Jacobite exile and a mercenary find themselves fighting together on the continent. Their ambivalent loyalties are pointed up.
  • 1888, Andrew Lang, The Gold of Fairnilee: a short supernatural romance of the Borders in the ill years after Flodden, drawing on the theme of the ballad Tam Linn.
  • 1892 onwards, Arthur Conan Doyle, The Great Adventures of Sherlock Holmes: a selection of eight of the most accessible Holmes stories.
  • 1901, Ian Maclaren, Young Barbarians: Muirton (Perth) around 1860. For Speug and his classmates, school life is a series of running battles with teachers, townsfolk and rival school gangs—a sound preparation for death and glory in Imperial fields.
  • 1901, J J Bell, Wee Macgregor: flourishing in late Victorian, working-class Glasgow, Macgreegor, a pre-teenage urchin, causes hilarious domestic mischief in 24 escapades.
  • 1905 onwards, Neil Munro, Para Handy Tales: a selection of Munro's humorous sketches dealing with the adventures of the skipper of the puffer Vital Spark and its droll crew. Good fun, almost surreal at times, occasionally satirical.
  • 1911, J M Barrie, Peter and Wendy: a witty prose expansion of the play Peter Pan, first performed in 1904.

Each of the guide's 200 brief critiques offers cautious advice on reading and interest levels. Some of the older titles such as those listed above, seem time-bound in their language and assumptions, and could therefore be off-putting today. Nevertheless they merit their place on the historical record, and may well prove attractive to adventurous readers.

Of the two hundred books reviewed in the Treasure Islands project:

  • 9% were published before 1918
  • 4% were published in the 1920s and '30s
  • 7% in the 1940s and '50s
  • 27% in the 1960s and '70s
  • 32% in the 1980s and '90s
  • 21% between 1990 and 2005
  • 30% of the books were out of print.

These figures reflect only the books selected for review; and factors such as the compilers' judgements and availability of texts are clearly operating. Though a limited sample, they do nonetheless suggest in general terms a slow, fits-and-starts, growth in the publication of imaginative writing for young readers in Scotland.

cover for Remembrance by Theresa BreslinWithin the selection 135 authors are represented, with men and women in roughly equal numbers. There are very few women in the 19th century category but their contribution increases steadily thereafter until today female authors are in the majority. In productivity there is a range from occasional, one-or-two book authors such as J J Bell, J B S Haldane and Marion Campbell to skilled professionals who have sustained work of impressive quality over a period of years—Honor Arundel , Mollie Hunter, Allan Campbell McLean, Eleanor Lyon, Kathleen Fidler, Joan Lingard, Iona Mcgregor, Eileen Dunlop, Hugh Scott, Theresa Breslin, Elizabeth Laird and Alison Prince. Some, like Jane Duncan, Nigel Tranter, Naomi Mitchison, Eric Linklater and Jackie Kay have moved successfully between adult and younger readerships.

Since the completion of the ASLS survey in 2005 younger contemporary writers such as Cathy MacPhail, Julie Bertagna, Cathy Forde, Keith Gray, Nicola Morgan, and Gill Arbuthnott have extended their range and new talent continues to emerge, for example, in the work of J A Henderson, Cathy Cassidy and Alex Nye.

The world of Scottish children's writing is not hermetically sealed and impermeable to external forces. Its current novels show influences from adult fiction and from other literature, English and American. They are responsive to the powerful narratives of contemporary film, TV and computer games. The styles of prolific, internationally popular authors such as Jacqueline Wilson, Eoin Coiffer, Lemony Snicket and Anthony Horowitz are also making their impact. Over the years there has been dramatic shifting towards more frank dealings with sexual development, personal and social problems, violence, war and environmental issues. Structure and language have become more stripped down, informal and direct.

The characteristic preoccupations of Scottish junior fiction are, as we would expect, the universal and perennial themes of growing up, romance, family, conflict, outsiders, comedy, supernatural and horror, fantasy, adventure and sport—but these are set in distinctive Scottish contexts. Two clusters of titles will serve to illustrate the point. [...]

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