Introduction to the symposium 20th June 2019.
Robert Leeson was born on 31st March 1928 in Barnton, Cheshire. His father, a former soldier, worked as a labourer, and his mother as a cleaner and laundress. Leeson won a scholarship to grammar school, and on leaving school at 16, worked as a trainee journalist on a local paper. In his biography on the Walker Books website, Leeson describes roaming his local area, a post-industrial landscape of “abandoned salt workings, canals, villages” making up adventure stories, and the local Primitive Methodist chapel put on entertainments during WW2 where sketches that he wrote were performed.
At the age of 17, Leeson joined the army and was posted to Egypt. In the postscript to the Collins Modern Classics edition of The Third Class Genie Leeson explains that being stationed in Egypt led him to question Western interpretations of the Crusades, and to investigate other versions of the Arabian Nights (2000, p.186). On leaving the army, he returned to journalism and became literary editor and features writer at the Daily Worker (later Morning Star) while writing novels.
Leeson’s career as a children’s author started after his own children started school, because the range of genres interested him, but he was insistent on writing for working class children. His first 3 novels were historical fiction and his 5th was The Third Class Genie about which I will speak later today. Haru Takiuchi outlines in his 2017 book British Working Class Writing For Children that established middle class critics were often more unfavourable towards contemporary realist novels for children featuring working-class themes, protagonists and settings than they were fantasy or historical novels featuring similar themes, protagonists and settings. Bob Dixon outlines the opposition to the Nippers series of reading scheme books featuring working class characters and protagonists of colour written by Leila Berg and Beryl Gilroy; teachers felt that school should promote middle class norms to elevate children. Of course, this attitude persists to the present day; critics such as Anne Fine and journalists in newspapers such as the Daily Mail and Daily Express have objected to novels such as Melvyn Burgess’s Doing It and Jacqueline Wilson’s The Story of Tracy Beaker and My Mum Tracy Beaker all of which feature working-class protagonists.
As well as writing many articles for Signal Approaches to Children’s Literature, the independent magazine set up by Aidan and Nancy Chambers, Leeson wrote two books on children’s literature: 1976’s Children’s Books and Class Society Past and Present Edited by the Children’s Rights Workshop, and Reading and Righting: The Past, Present and Future of fiction for the young (1985). In the latter, Leeson asks why, when there had been two Golden Ages of children’s literature, there were still reluctant readers. As Leeson states, “A literature evolved out of the needs and concerns of one privileged social group could not simply multiply itself and expect to be accepted without question by the majority” (p. 13).
As Reynolds, Rosen and Rosen (2018) have demonstrated, in the early part of the 20th century children’s books and magazines were an important part of the work of politically radical groups to engage and educate children to build a better, more inclusive society in the future. The final chapter of radical children’s novelist Geoffrey Trease’s 1944 book Tales Out Of School is entitled “To You: For Action” and calls for all interested in the future of children’s literature to demand more of authors, publishers and readers; to eschew clichés such as stolen jewels, hidden tunnels, twins, riding stables and the French Revolution. He also called for more rigorous reviewing of children’s books. He quotes May Lamberton Becker, from her 1937 book Choosing Books for Children “The Best that any century can do for civilisation is to do its honest best to pass on to its children the ideals it believes to be best for its children”. The questions, of course, are whose ideals are being passed on, what we mean by best, and who are the children discussed.
So, today, we will hear from 6 researchers in children’s literature on politics and diversity in children’s literature, where we might unpack these questions further. I look forward to an enlightening and stimulating day with plenty of questions and discussion.
You can download my paper given at this symposium, ‘Working Class Fantasy: The Third Class Genie’ here: https://www.academia.edu/40860434/Working_class_fantasy_the_third_class_genie
•Chambers, C. (Wed 20th Nov 2013) Robin Leeson obituary https://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/nov/20/robert-leeson-obituary (Accessed 08/06/2019)
•Dixon, B (1977) Catching Them Young: Sex, Race and Class in Children’s Literature London: Pluto Press
•Leeson, R. (N.D.) Autobiography, Walker Books online http://www.walker.co.uk/contributors/Robert-Leeson-1649.aspx (Accessed 08/06/19)
•Leeson, R. (1976) Children’s Books and Class Society Past and Present London: Writers and Readers Publishing Cooperative
•Leeson, R. (1985) Reading and Righting London: Collins
•Leeson, R. (2000) Postscript to The Third Class Genie London: Collins
•Reynolds, K., Rosen, J. and Rosen, M. (2018) Reading and Rebellion: An Anthology of Radical Writing for Children 1900-1960 Oxford: Oxford University Press
•Takiuchi, H (2017) British Working-Class Writing for Children London: Palgrave McMillan
•Trease, G. (1948) Tales out of School: a survey of children’s fiction London: New Education Book Club