Yet another unlikely British author, significantly more famous in Russia than in his home country, was Donald Bisset. Bisset was an actor at the National Theatre and Royal Shakespeare Company, as well as in a large number of profoundly forgotten movies and some TV shows, including Dr Who. But he also published numerous children's books with self-explanatory titles such as Anytime Stories (1954), Some Time Stories (1957), Next Time Stories (1959), This Time Stories (1961), Another Time Stories (1963), as well as a more imaginative Talks with a Tiger (1967). Bisset's stories are very simple, almost devoid of plots, conflicts or morals. They feature anthropomorphised animals and animated objects and machines, including a minibus, a raisin bun, and a birthday. They are perfect for bedtime reading, and Bisset indeed read them on the radio, as well as adapted them for stage.
Again, I can only guess why several of his books were translated, but the translator was also a legendary editor at the central Children's Literature Publishing in Moscow, who was perhaps in a position to translate and publish what she wanted. We know that Bisset visited Moscow in 1969, so it is likely that the first translation was the result of this visit. Unlike the common practice in Russia, the first publication kept Bisset's original illustrations. Most subsequent editions were illustrated by Russian artists. A dozen tales were made into short animations. Today his stories are available at several sites for downloading or online reading.
In my upper teens, everybody in Russia, old and young, loved Bisset's stories, and one reason may be that they are in a way reminiscent of Hans Christian Andersen's tales, tremendously popular in Russia, but without Andersen's dark undertones.
One of the stories is about the rivalry between St Pancrass and King's Cross. I read the story long before I knew that these places were real, and little did I know that King's Cross would one day become my most visited railway station. Not to mention that it would also become world famous thanks to a certain J.K.
The last book in this series of reflections is The Questers, by E. W. Hildick, from 1966, published in Russian in 1969. Again, a book you have hardly heard about, by an author essentially forgotten, although there are very short entries both in the Oxford Companion to Children's Literature and the four-volume Oxford Encyclopedia of Children's Literature. E. W. (Edmund Wallace) Hildick (1925-2001) was educated at Leeds Training College and worked as a teacher until he became a full-time writer. Extremely prolific, he wrote several series of school novels, detective and adventure novels, but as far as I know is completely forgotten today. He also wrote a number of books about children’s literature, including Children and Fiction: a critical study in depth of the artistic and psychological factors involved in writing fiction for and about children (1970), to my surprise available at Homerton College Library. (Was it possibly included in the syllabus of one of those early children's literature courses?) The Questers is one of his less known books, followed by two sequels: Calling Questers Four (1967) and The Questers and the Whispering Spy (1968).
Why would this obscure writer be translated into Russian, when so many significantly more famous writers were not? I have not managed to find any relevant information, but my guess is, just as with Leila Berg, that he either visited the Soviet Union some time during mid-1960s or was among the hosts for a visit from Soviet writers. Hildick was a working+class writer, his books set in working-class environments of Yorkshire, Stevenage, and Southern London. Writers with a working-class background who wrote about working-class children were acceptable and therefore attractive in the Soviet Union, unlike suspicious Christian Oxbridge types such as C S Lewis.
In 1969, I was seventeen and entering university, so strictly speaking this book was not part of my childhood reading, but at that point I already knew that I wanted to study children's literature professionally, even though there were no accessible resources. Every translated book was an event, and I still had an illusion that if a book was translated it had to be a masterpiece by a famous writer. There was no way to find any information about the author or to set the book in a context. By that time, I had read Winnie-the-Pooh, Peter Pan, Mary Poppins and other genuine classics of British children's literature, and I knew that fantasy rather than realism was its strongest aspect. The Questers puzzled me because I could not understand what made it a great book it was supposed to be.
Unlike The Adventures of Chunky, this book does have a chronological progression and a problem in the beginning, partially solved in the end. It is quite interesting in the light of today's disability studies. The main character, Peter, is bedridden with an unnamed disease – possibly polio – that he has little hope of being cured of. And he isn't, but there is a technological improvement of his situation that must have been truly radical in the mid-60s. The plot revolves around obtaining the technology – a walkie-talkie – that would enable Peter to participate in his friends' outdoor adventures and pastimes. As a side comment, a walkie-talkie was to us something from science fiction and would be considered illegal in the Soviet Union.
While planning for the treasure hunt in the local park that will win them the coveted prize, Peter's friends are also engaged in a number of other activities, including ice-cream eating competition, pet show and talent contest, all with disastrous outcomes. These episodes are not particularly funny or engaging, and the characters quite flat, so I am not surprised that the book has gone into oblivion in the UK, but in Russia, in the absence of hundreds of similar stories, it filled, and probably still fills a gap. Unlike classic Soviet gang books featuring brave and virtuous young communists, The Questers is devoid of any ideology or morals, apart from Peter's friends' genuine desire to support him. There are no lessons learned from disasters and no serious consequences either. All adults are nice, and the overall atmosphere benevolent. Even Peter's disability is presented in a positive light.
When I was writing my book From Mythic to Linear, that I still view as my major contribution to scholarship, I considered books such as The Adventures of Chunky and The Questers within my theoretical framework, in which I examined the temporal conditions of children's narratives in three main patterns: prelapsarian, carnivalesque and postlapsarian. Both fit into the first category, since nothing significant happens to the protagonists, and they are not in any way, not even temporarily, introduced to linearity and thus the central aspects of adulthood, such as growing up, death and power hierarchies. It can of course be argued whether it is legitimate to view the temporal structure of realistic stories as mythical, but this will take us to a discussion of the concept of realism and mimesis. Muffin the Mule, although featuring sentient animals, is also an example of Arcadian fiction: a narrative without linear progression, with characters trapped in eternal present. I am not questioning the value of such stories; on the contrary, they are essential to provide young readers with a sense of permanence and stability before they are ready first to explore and interrogate the world through carnival and eventually leave Arcadia in a linear progression toward imminent adulthood. What I find fascinating is that Soviet publishers, at least in the 1950s and '60s, clearly prioritised prelapsarian narratives in their choice of British books to translate.
I want to conclude this series of blog posts with an event that became a turning point in my career and that most probably eventually brought me to Cambridge. In 1975, after I had finished my undergraduate degree and had a job as far away as imaginable from children's literature, British Council brought a large exhibition of children's books to Moscow. The venue was perhaps odd, a bookstore rather than a library. The nature of my job enabled me to dispose of my time as I saw fit, and for the duration of the exhibition, probably a couple of weeks, I spent day after day there, reading books and taking notes. This was my first encounter with The Borrowers, Tom's Midnight Garden, The Children of Green Knowe, the Narnia Chronicles and many other books that would become central in my research. Then the exhibition was closed and the books gone. And the glossy 12-page exhibition catalogue would for many years remain my only source of information about British children's literature.