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The KidLit I can’t bear to part with

Van Gogh, The Novel Reader, 1888. Oil on canvas

Unsurprisingly, I have quite a large number of kids’ books. Most of them have found their way to me in the last few years, when my academic interest in the genre was piqued. Some of them, though, have been with me since I was a wee young thing myself.

The first of them, Peepo!, is thirty years old this year. I know this because my local WHSmith, inexplicably, is holding a buy-one-get-one-half-price event to honour the fact. This is not, as one might expect, an offer on all picture books, or even just picture books from the (considerable) Ahlberg catalogue, but on one book. Unless you have two children who are particularly reluctant to share, or are chronically unable to resist a bargain, seems to me entirely inexplicable. I adore Peepo!, but I cannot imagine a situation in which I would be compelled to buy two identical copies.

My copy of Peepo!, dog-eared and loose at the staples, has been around for as long as I can remember. Like Each Peach Pear Plum, also from the Ahlberg catalogue, there is not a time when it has not had a place in my library. I can still quote great tracts of both texts at will, the legacy of countless bedtime (or, as I am frequently reminded, anytime) reading sessions. Decades before read-on-demand software became ubiquitous I had in my parents my very own read-on-demand service and this pair of picture books, with their dizzyingly busy illustrations and playful, homely verse were frequently demanded.

"Plum pie in the sun / I spy everyone!"

Similarly, though probably at a slightly later age, Shirley Hughes’ Dogger became a storytime favourite. I note from the cover of the latest edition that Dogger was voted in 2007 the ‘public’s favourite CILIP Kate Greenaway Medal winner of all time’. Rightly so.

Once upon a time there was a soft brown toy called Dogger. One of his ears pointed upwards and the other flopped over. His fur was worn in places because he was quite old. He belonged to Dave.

Dogger, p. 1

The story of a little boy whose lost toy turns up at a school fete, Dogger is remarkable in its simplicity. More wordy than many books aimed at a pre-school audience, Dogger captures perfectly the desperate attachment we have to certain childhood objects. The book inspired me to line up all my stuffed animals in bed just like Dave’s sister, though I, short-tempered and fidgety, could never keep them there until morning.

In the same condition as the one being sold here on Amazon is Andy Pandy and the Scarecrow, one of many Andy Pandy and… books. There was a time, I am told, that I owned a large number of these little square books. I only remember four or five of them, the rest having been lost to a hospital policy that quarantined and destroyed them after a spell as an in patient in my toddlerhood.

from The Tiger Who Came to Tea; Judith Kerr

John Kershaw’s David’s Dinner, now sadly out of print, and The Tiger Who Came to Tea both exist in the same state of dilapidation on my shelves. The former is the story of a little boy collecting salad leaves from around the farm, only to find that his finds are mysteriously disappearing. It was my first acquaintance with a clearly focalised narrative. Picture books are almost uniformly written in third-person omniscient; here for the first time I knew things that our eponymous protagonist didn’t. The illustrations let the reader in on the secret – a bunny has David’s lettuce leaf, a cow has snaffled his slice of bread. For a child who had not experienced the object lesson of a sibling taking my things this was deliciously naughty.

Whatever Next, about a baby bear who goes on an adventure up the chimney and into space and all while the bath is running. There is for me a particular joy in stories that include ambiguous imaginative play. Did baby bear really go into space in his cardboard box or not? Many years later Phillipa Pearce’s time-slip narrative Tom’s Midnight Garden, would have the same effect.

Jill Murphy’s The Worst Witch was one of my first chapter books. So grown up, I thought, to be reading a thick, stout book with lots of words and few pictures. What pictures there were, were simple line drawings in black covering perhaps half a page. I adored Mildred Hubble for her trailing boot-laces and messy plaits. She was probably the first literary creation that I identified with; to this day I am inexplicably drawn to well-meaning failures, seeing myself writ large in their frustrated attempts at fitting in, their unfathomable ability to fall short at every opportunity. I am still this way. From around the same time comes the only hardback in this ragged collection, and another Ahlberg offering, The Bear Nobody Wanted. The Bear Nobody Wanted is the reason my duvet for a long time had a hole burned through the layers of fibre, the product of falling asleep with a clip lamp on, vehemently determined to read just one more page.

By middle school (ages 9-13 for those who didn’t grow up in the three-tier system) I had graduated on to books that could more accurately termed novels. Of these only two remain, though I consumed them voraciously. They are When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword, two books thematically linked as well as temporally. Both are based on true stories and largely biographical, describing escape from the Nazis in Germany and Poland respectively. My fascination with World War II, and the home front in particular, has never waned.

It was no use thinking of cutting the wire fence. There was a trip-line inside the double fence, and anyone who crossed it would be shot. If he got as far as touching the fence, the alarm in the guard house would ring. There was only one way out – the way the guards went, though the gate and past the gate house. His idea was to disguise himself as one of them and follow them as they went off duty. But how was he to get hold of the uniform?

The Silver Sword, p. 4

My Friend Walter by Micheal Morpurgo was adapted for television in 1992. I was nine years old. I do not remember the adaptation, though it’s highly likely I watched it. The book, though, has stayed with me. The story concerns one Bess Throckmorton who, at a family reunion, meets an old man who tells her she is distantly related to Sir Walter Raleigh. Later, at the Tower of London, the old man transpires to be the ghost of Sir Walter himself, and what follows is a deeply engaging historical adventure. My Friend Walter fired my imagination – Morpurgo’s writing is such that I identified and sympathised with Bess from the outset. I longed to share her experience and imagined many of my older relatives to be ghostly apparitions for years following my first reading, desperate for one of them to take me on such an adventure.

This collection could be much larger. Along the way I Want to see the Moon, Mog and the Baby and Burglar Bill have been lost to time or passed into younger hands like countless others. All In One Piece has disappeared too. The Very Hungry Caterpillar likely fell apart; Crummy Mummy and Me, once beloved, yellowed and curled until the pages fell out. I consider the loss of Roald Dahl’s The Vicar of Nibbleswicke a great tragedy.

There were others of course.  I’ve loved countless books over the years, but few have me completely under their thrall. Those that do might not be called great literature. Some of them might not even be called good literature, but they each affected me by their stories or associations.

This collection of kidlit favourites is dominated by a handful of authors. Jill Murphy and Janet and Allen Ahlberg provide both picture and chapter books, as does Judith Kerr. This is not by design, though perhaps it goes some way to dispelling the myth that anyone can write a successful picture book. There are too notable exceptions. Dr. Seuss does not feature, nor does the Mr Men and Little Miss series. For one reason or another these books were not a part of my childhood. Dr Seuss was perhaps (and this is entirely conjecture) not that well-known in the UK in the early 1980s. Robert Hargreaves’ Mr Men collection is both dull and badly written; whether their omission from my early literary diet was a matter of taste or accident I do not know but they were not missed. My library was by no means understocked.

More recently I’ve discovered new favourites – My Cat Likes to Hide in Boxes, The Graveyard Book and  The Pig in the Pond to name but a few – but they will never mean quite so much to me as these early favourites. These are the kidlit books I simply can’t bear to part with.

*Victoria Wood once joked that brushing past a keyboard with a large bottom could end in trouble: ‘Terribly sorry; I seem to have written a Mr Men book on your computer’.

2 responses »

  1. The Mr Men books are neither dull nor, if we’re talking about the ones Roger Hargreaves wrote himself, badly written – though he plays with punctuation for effect in a way many schoolteachers of my youth disapproved of.
    The ‘Little Misses’, where his wife started helping, and the later Mr Men ones written by Mrs Hargreaves and their son, are abominations.
    I read them every time I went to the doctor as a child (Dr Hargreaves was Roger’s brother), but now they’re some of the most enjoyable books to read to the offsprings.

  2. *sniff* DOGGER.

    SO many of these were formatives for me!


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