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At Critical Cross-Purposes

Editorial by Paul Heins

As was to be expected, the controversy between Roald Dahl and Eleanor Cameron regarding Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, along with the editorial in the February issue of The Horn Book Magazine, has stirred up a buzz of controversy. At present, it appears that the intensely felt responses from Horn Book readers — both pro and con — will provide subject matter for the Letters to the Editor page for the next issue or two.

What is needed now, however, is an attempt to clarify the situation — to sort out the different kinds of premises on which the various arguments are based. Most of them seem to reflect three entirely different kinds of consideration. (1) How should Charlie and the Chocolate Factory be regarded as a work of literature? (2) Are children to be the final arbiters of children’s books — or of any books — they read ? (At this juncture, nobody is suggesting that children do not know what they like or should not read what they like.) (3) How important in the literary judgement of a book is the fact that it helps to improve reading skill or even to attract potential readers?

Much of the controversy, then, has been conducted at cross-purposes. A criticism of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory on literary grounds (which any adult has a right to make) is often met with a statement regarding the popularity of the book; or its defence is made in terms of purely utilitarian principles. Interested adult readers of children’s books would do well to avoid confusing the nonliterary with the literary merits of books. Devoted and serious critics have long been engaged in a struggle to secure respect for a body of literature which is often sneeringly classified at “kiddy lit.” Is it too much to expect that those who proffer books to children know something of the various ways of looking at the characteristics and the meaning of these books?

From the April 1973 issue of The Horn Book Magazine

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