Many aspects of life are characterised by three defining factors, and in the case of popular children’s books these are often the combination of fact, fiction and fun. The fact usually comes from a real life setting, either contemporary or historical. This provides a background that is at least partly recognised by the young reader, either from life experience or from school lessons. Against this background is set a fictional element that is an impossibility, such as the widely familiar talking animals. The fun arises from the juxtaposition of fact and fiction, as well as from the characterisation and the story line.
The three elements are clearly seen in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. The setting is the contemporary middle-class England of summer garden parties with cucumber sandwiches, and although access to Wonderland is down through a rabbit hole, the action reverts to the open air on a croquet lawn. The fictional element is essentially manifested in talking animals which are in constant interlocution with human caricatures like the Mad Hatter, the Duchess and the Queen of Hearts. The fun comes from the humorous situations that arise from these interactions, as well as from the memorable characters and the philosophically funny things they say.
In Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, talking animals are again set in a contemporary England but it is a nearly real England, not a wonderland. The four main characters are more rounded and more seriously engaged in tackling realistic challenges. It is fantasy, but not so extreme or dreamlike as that experienced by Alice. While Alice is always in sunlight, Toad, Mole, Rat and Badger, seem to work through their adventures under shade on the river bank, but the humour is still abundant.
Not only animals are given voices to enhance the fictional element. In the Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s tales of Thomas the Tank Engine, all the engines can talk as well as the railway staff, and sometimes even wagons and carriages find their tongues. The fun comes largely from the distinct personalities given to the engines which each have recognisable human attitudes and characteristics. At the time the stories were written, most children would have been familiar with railways and steam engines, but in addition to laughing at the funny situations, the readers would have learned much about how railways are run and the purposes they serve.
All good children’s books have an educational element that is both painless and unconscious. It is painless because it is unconscious. With the reader preoccupied in enjoying the stories, and laughing at the jokes, the learning goes on without being noticed. Although children love fantasy, they have an instinctive filter to separate it from reality, and much of the fun comes from the moment of separation; the realisation of the impossible. This is how good fiction for children can be, not only helping in learning to read, but playing a key role in intellectual development.