It was 1963, and I was terrified on my first day at school (primary!). I sat on the hard grey mat and the teacher read Horton Hatches the Egg to the class. I became so engrossed I didn’t even notice my mother slip out. That loyal elephant helped me get through that watershed day without too many waterworks. My other favourite Seuss characters were the Pale Green Pants and the Zizzer Zazzer Zuzz. Seuss pushed the English language to the limit. Ever wonder why Green Eggs and Ham is so repetitive? Seuss only had a 50 word vocabulary list to work with, but he created a classic. By the way writers, his first book was rejected 27 times.
Archive for the ‘Children’s Books’ Category
Everything in the tales appears to happen by chance – and this has the strange effect of making it appear that nothing happens by chance, that everything is fated. – A. S. Byatt
One of the appeals of the 200 year old tales of the Brothers’ Grimm is how random events seem connected; as A. S. Byatt says in her excellent essay (online here). They are stories of generic princesses, simpletons, brothers and sisters who meet with good or bad ‘luck’ on their quest, yet are bound by the rules of the fairy tale world – a kind of guided randomness, but usually with a happy ending. Perhaps this is the way children see the world: capricious, a little scary, but ultimately, a hopeful place.
When I was a child I loved how the Grimm’s characters met the forces of their fickle, often gruesome, world with kindness and cunning. I’d lay in bed and listen to Danny Kaye’s brilliant reading of Clever Gretel on Sunday morning radio. The illustration above is by the great Arthur Rackham (more Grimm illustrations here).
Fairy tales are more than true; not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.– G.K. Chesterton
The classic picture book Calico the Wonder Horse — The Saga of Stewy Stinker by Virgina Lee Burton was published in 1941. I adored this comic-book style cowboy adventure as a child mainly because of the bad guy. Stewy Stinker is so low he steals Christmas presents from children but in the end he repents. This picture of him crying out his rottenness always made me feel sorry for him:
The word ‘Stinker’ was censored from the book in the 1940s as it was considered inappropriate for children. Burton was one of the great illustrators and the idea for Calico from seeing her sons engrossed with comic books. The wonderful design, cartoon framing and action scenes of Calico are worthy of a modern graphic comic: the flash flood and stagecoach crash are gripping highlights. But it’s that haunting image of Stewy that will stay with me.
I loved science fiction when I was a young teen – especially short stories about time travel, which usually had surprise endings. In Arthur C Clarke’s All the Time in the World, a man freezes time a second before a nuclear blast; in A Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury, the death of an insect changes the course of history. I still have my old copy of Bradbury’s Golden Apples of the Sun; the Corgi paperback cost me 65 cents new in 1970 (about the hourly rate for raspberry picking in my summer holidays). A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle was a novel ahead of its time in 1960 (it was rejected 26 times by publishers). Its plot combines wormholes and angels and has a classic ending: a giant disembodied alien brain is defeated by love. L’Engle liked to tackle grand themes, as she said:
You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.
Hergé was a master of evoking atmosphere. Think of the house of Professor Tarragon in The Seven Crystal Balls: the building of the storm, the heat leading to the burst tyre, the gust of wind as depicted by a slender tree against a slate grey sky, the sinister mummy in his cabinet, the ball lightning, Tintin’s nightmare (image below) – such a feeling of supernatural dread evoked by a confluence of natural events.
Despite the cinematic quality of Hergé’s stories, Tintin’s true home is in the comic book medium. He occupies a space at a perfect level of abstraction, real enough to evoke our world, pared back enough to activate the imagination. – Hugh Todd
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig was banned in 1969 in many states because it depicted police as pigs (even though they were kind pigs). The brilliantly absurd plot has Sylvester the young donkey trapped inside a boulder while his parents search frantically for him. It’s about a child’s fear of separation – Steig’s version of his favourite book, Pinocchio, about a boy trapped in a piece of wood. The ending is typical Steig: the child reunited with loved ones in with hugs and tears. When he was 15 years old, young William ran away to sea after an argument with his father:
When I finally got home, my mom and dad hugged and kissed me and we all cried. We were a very emotional family.
Books are sensory objects – they have a pleasing look, a comforting smell, a grainy feeling, a reassuring weight. The best-loved ones are battered, dog-eared, coffee-stained, inscribed. You can lend a book, read it everywhere, stow it anywhere, hide treasures in it. A book carries memories with it, locked into untold brain networks by all the experiences you had when reading it:
And forever after you have only to open that book to be back where you first read it. It will all come into your mind with the very first words: the sights you saw in that place, what it smelled like, the ice cream you ate while you were reading it.― Cornelia Funke (Inkheart)
A book works at my speed, comfortable and slow, faster when I want it to be, then slow again. Many of my books are old friends.– Jack Lasenby (interview here).
When you read a great book, you don’t escape from life, you plunge deeper into it. Reading and life are not separate but symbiotic. And for this serious task of imaginative discovery and self-discovery, there is and remains one perfect symbol: the printed book.– Julian Barnes
Old Tibet was once the essence of the mystical in Western eyes: with tales of mysterious Shangri-La and the yeti; the remote Himalayas; the serenity of Buddhism and its Dalai Lama. This essence has influenced many comic stories, such as wartime hero, Green Lama (1945), who got his strength by reciting a peaceful Buddhist mantra. Tintin (1958) experienced the power of Tibet when led by a vision to find a lost friend – even the Dalai Lama praised Tintin in Tibet.
Old Tibet was no paradise but, sadly, the culture is fading fast. China invaded in 1950 and destroyed 6,000 Buddhist monasteries; and in 1959 the Tibetans rose up and thousands died. There’s since been a long struggle against the occupation – some Tibetans want independence, others (like the Dalai Lama) would settle for religious freedom and some autonomy.
Iona and Peter Opie were the Brothers’ Grimm of the 1900s. Their great contribution to English cultural history was the fabulous book The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren; an epic collection of children’s rhymes, riddles, superstitions, jeers, tricks and customs, garnered from interviews with thousands of children in the 1950s. Today’s children are perhaps not the ‘savage tribe’ they were then but many of these rhymes persist in the playground today. Here are some subversive gems from the Opie’s collection.
Pinch-me, Punch-me, and Steponmytoes,
Went down to the river to swim,
Two of the three were drowned,
Who do you think was saved?
Old Mr Kelly,
Had a pimple on his belly;
His wife cut it off,
It tasted like jelly.
When the war is over Hitler will be dead,
He hopes to go to heaven with a crown upon his head.
But the Lord said, No! You’ll have to go below,
There’s only room for Churchill, so cheery, cheery oh.
Same to you with knobs on,
Cabbages with clogs on…
God made the bees
The bees make the honey;
We do the work,
The teacher gets the money.
Scab and matter custard,
Green snot pies,
Dead dog’s giblets
Dead cat’s eyes.
Hard boiled snails, Spread it thick
Wash it down with a cup of cold sick.
1. Have lots of books available.
Access to books is the key – children in homes with books stay at school 3 years longer than those without (books help children learn). Love your local library!
2. Read aloud.
- start a book together and let the child finish it,
- read to a pet,
- have a family readathon.
The amount of time the child spends listening to parents and other loved ones read continues to be one of the best predictors of later reading. – Maryanne Wolf
3. Find the best books.
Use guides such as The Reading Bug by Paul Jennings, or best books lists.
Few children can resist books such as
- Millions of Cats by Wanda G’ag,
- Who Sank the Boat by Pamela Allen,
- Shrek by William Steig,
- Moomin books by Tove Jansson,
4. Match books to children’s interests.
Whatever they want to read – comic books, science, or ghosts – they probably need it. Librarians love to help you find the right book.
You need a top story. You need a subject that interests a child. And you need something that they can read. – Paul Jennings
5. Interact with books.
- write to the author,
- dress up as characters,
- create book artwork,
- write a book.
It’s really, really heartbreaking. But for some reason you want to read it again and again. It’s an extraordinary love story. It really is exquisitely written.– Michael Morpurgo
Almost every Sunday morning as a child I’d listen to Oscar Wilde’s short story, The Happy Prince (1888), on the radio and cry into my pillow so my brother nearby wouldn’t hear. A statue being stripped of his gold to feed the poor seems an unlikely plot for children. I didn’t understand all of the lyrical language back then but I suspect the story shaped my attitudes to compassion and authority figures. Today I can see it’s also a touching story about two needy characters; and I like Wilde’s ideas about true happiness:
The living always think that gold can make them happy.
Listen to that original radio version read by the mellifluous Robert Morley. Still makes me cry.
Perhaps it is only in childhood that books have any deep influence on our lives. – Graham Greene
In a world that offers children so many digital delights, why bother with books?
1. Books help children understand the world
Books expose children to new ideas and help shape their world view – reading is a meeting of minds.
While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture – Maryanne Wolf
2. Books help children understand themselves
Stories give a frame of reference by which they can measure their experiences and feelings.
We read books to find out who we are. – Ursula K Le Guin
3. Books develop children’s imagination
Reading is imagination, and imagination enriches the real world.
Children do not despise real woods because they have read of enchanted woods; the reading makes all woods a little enchanted. – C.S. Lewis
4. Books develop children’s brains
Books boost a child’s intellectual development. The brain changes when children learn to read: it creates new neural pathways which are the basis for innovative thinking. Reading and thinking enhance each other.
5. Books are enjoyable.
Ultimately a child must want to read. The child who reads for pleasure is forming a wonderful habit – and there’s also pleasure for parents in reading aloud.
E.B. White wrote only three children’s books and two are America’s top books (Charlotte’s Web and Stuart Little). What was his secret? Imagination and style, yes, but he also took his time and revised a lot. (Impatience has been my biggest weakness as a writer). Charlotte is short but it took two years to write the first draft, then another year to rewrite it. It has the best opening line of any children’s book – “Where’s Papa going with that axe?”; and perhaps the finest ending (certainly the most heart-rending). And love those rustic Garth Williams illustrations.
The ending is as beautiful, bold and full of integrity as Charlotte herself.– Guardian
In a Paris Review interview, White puts a witty spin on the need to wait a little:
Delay is natural to a writer. He is like a surfer—he bides his time, waits for the perfect wave on which to ride in. He waits for the surge (of emotion? of strength? of courage?) that will carry him along. I am apt to let something simmer for a while in my mind before trying to put it into words. I walk around, straightening pictures on the wall, rugs on the floor—as though not until everything in the world was lined up and perfectly true could anybody reasonably expect me to set a word down on paper.
Never open a book with weather.– Elmore Leonard
…such as the famous, “It was a dark and stormy night” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The best opening sentences in children’s novels take the reader captive immediately. They introduce character, setting and problem; they fire the imagination; and are clear about what is happening:
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on … that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.– Kurt Vonnegut
(Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions begins, “This is a tale of a meeting of two lonesome, skinny, fairly old white men on a planet which was dying fast.”)
My favourite children’s opening is from Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White, deftly introducing the 3Ps (person, place and problem) all in a single sentence:
“Where’s Papa going with that axe?’ said Fern to her mother as they were setting the table for breakfast.
Match these classic openings from children’s novels to the titles below.
1. All children, except one, grow up.
2. There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.
3.The Iron Man came to the top of the cliff.
4. Here I am, Ralph William Mountfield, banished to my bedroom on Christmas Day.
5. Keith the boy in the rumpled shorts and shirt, did not know he was being watched as he entered Room 215 of the Mountain View Inn.
6. My father is put in the stocks again! Oh! the injustice of it!
7. When Old Tip lost his bark, Uncle Trev had to teach his horse to bark and chase the cows up to the shed for milking.
8. It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.
9. I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.
Titles: The Iron Man, I Capture The Castle, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Mouse and the Motorcycle, Devil-in-the-Fog, Matilda, The More the Merrier, Uncle Trev, Peter Pan
This is a wonderful collection for children aged 8-12… Museums are hives of story, both real and imagined. These 22 authors have created new stories surrounding some intriguing objects from Te Papa Museum… Raymond Huber writes one of the most memorable stories in the collection, of a unique breed of humans who mature into insects (a highly original allegory). – Sarah Forster
Research shows that far being being a means to escape the social world, reading stories can actually improve your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings. – Keith Oatley (The Psychology of Fiction)
Likewise, Tolkien believed that fantasy “offers not an escape away from reality, but an escape to a heightened reality”. When we read fiction we enter an imagined world, perhaps far from reality, but it’s the characters that we attach to. It’s this emotional connection with characters that provides an understanding of real life interactions. Children begin to develop true empathy for others from four years old and onwards – hearing and reading fiction enables them to walk in another’s shoes. An example for older children is Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred Taylor which shows the young reader something of what it was like to be a black child growing up in the 1930s; an incredibly moving story of hope despite hardship.
While reading, we can leave our own consciousness, and pass over into the consciousness of another person, another age, another culture. – Maryanne Wolf
That touch of reality in a child’s life is a child’s comfort. The child gets the sense that this person who wrote this book knows about me and knows the world can be a troubling, incomprehensible place. Maurice Sendak
Outside Over There is my favourite Maurice Sendak picture book (and his) – haunting, comforting, uncompromising – nobody else combined the real and the unreal so brilliantly. In his last interview, Maurice Sendak talked about how his stories reflected his childhood (but what a curmudgeon he’d become). Outside Over There is a tale of separation and siblings that features a creepy ice baby (pictured).
Sendak’s books can also be exuberant (In the Night Kitchen), spiritual (Dear Mili), and funny (Pierre, a cautionary tale). I like his vision of atoms dancing to form molecules from the first book he illustrated (when 19 years old), Atomics for the Millions:
Comics were banned in WW2 occupied France but Edmond-François Calvo secretly produced a powerful satirical comic that became a French icon after the Germans retretaed in 1944. La Bete Est Morte! is the story of the bloody European war told with Disney-style animal characters: with the French as rabbits; British bulldogs; and German wolves (Goebbels is a weasel, Himmler a skunk). La Bete Est Morte! is a forerunner of the brilliant graphic novel, Maus, with its Nazi cats and Jewish mice. Here’s an extract:
My dear little children, never forget this: these Wolves who perpetrated these horrors were ordinary Wolves … They were not in the heat of battle excited by the smell of powder. They were not tormented by hunger. They did not have to defend themselves, nor to take vengeance for a victim of their own. They had simply received the order to kill.
Max and Moritz (1865) by William Busch is one of the world’s first comic books (actually, the Egyptians began the style in the pyramids). Two naughty boys create mayhem with booby-traps that torment animals and authority figures until the boys are finally punished (by ducks!) in keeping with the morals of the times. The exaggerated wickedness follows the style of Shock-headed Peter (1845).
Through the chimney now, with pleasure
They behold the tempting treasure.
Busch was the first comic artist to use motion lines to show rapid movements, such as his eye-popping piano virtuoso playing furioso:
Quadratino (1911), ‘Square Head’, is an Italian comic strip by Antonio Rubino. In each story, Quadratino’s mischief is punished by an ‘accident’ in which his head is squeezed into a new geometric shape – he rolls downstairs and it becomes a circle; a biscuit tin squashes it into a rectangle – and Mother Geometry must ‘redraw’ his square. Maths has never been such fun! According to 1001 Comics You Must Read Before You Die Quadratino is “the best conceptual homage to comics” because he’s a living comic strip frame. I love his cat (click image to enlarge).
Alice Walker’s picture book Why War Is Never a Good Idea begins with the bright, comforting colours of a book for young children, but as War devastates the land the images become grim. It’s a scary message and parents will have to judge if it suits their children. The illustrations by Stefano Vitale are evocative and Walker’s words are true:
Though War is old
It has not become wise.
Though War has a mind of its own
War never knows who it is going to hit.
Walker comments: ‘War attacks not just people, “the other,” or “enemy,” it attacks Life itself … It doesn’t matter what the politics are, because though politics might divide us, the air and the water do not … Our only hope of maintaining a livable planet lies in teaching our children to honor nonviolence, especially when it comes to caring for Nature, which keeps us going with such grace and faithfulness.’
The classic Ferdinand by Munro Leaf (1936) remains one of the most influential children’s books (it’s never gone out of print) because of its simple but powerful theme. The tale of a bull who likes to smell flowers instead of fighting was seen as a pacifist text at the time of the Spanish Civil War. Ferdinand is a reflective, laid-back character who bravely chooses to be himself instead of following the aggressive crowd.
No wonder the book was
- banned by Franco
- burned by Hitler
- used by Stalin to name a gun
- a favourite of Gandhi
- made into an Oscar-winning movie by Disney
In contrast, Munro Leaf also wrote books which reflected the strict child-raising style of the time. His 3 and 30 Watchbirds (1941) condemns behaviours such as shoe-scuffing, primping, mumbling, moaning, fidgeting, sassing and wasting food. Some of it is in the spirit of war-time frugality, some is just a tad excessive:
Grammar Can Be Fun is slightly more tongue-in-cheek and warns children against slack language such as “gimme, wanna, gonna, and ain’t”.
Tintin in Tibet, the forgotten occupation, by comics artist, Cosey:
The King of the Golden River (1841) by John Ruskin is a children’s morality tale that still speaks loudly. It’s unique among fairy tales in having a punchy environmental and social message as well as being highly atmospheric. It’s about two brothers who exploit their farmland and have no compassion for their workers:
They shot the blackbirds, because they pecked the fruit; and killed the hedgehogs, lest they should suck the cows; they poisoned the crickets for eating the crumbs in the kitchen; and smothered the cicadas, which used to sing all summer in the lime-trees.
Their fertile valley in Austria becomes a wasteland and is cursed by the Southwest Wind (illustration below by Richard Doyle). To break the curse the brothers must take holy water up a mountain to the Golden River, but they fail to help the people they meet on the journey. But a third, younger, brother gives the holy water away to needy people and as a result is saved from the fate of his brothers.
Dae they no ken that Tintin’s in danger?
The Derk Isle is the first Tintin book to be translated into the Scots language (which is over 1000 years old and is still spoken) and it works a treat. Familiarity with the original book, The Black Island (1938), adds to the fun but most readers will easily interpret the Scots (it’s best read aloud). There are many delightful phrases such as ‘dinna fash’ (don’t worry), ‘whit a scunner’ (what a nuisance) and ‘blackbelickit’ (drat). Snowy becomes Tarrie (terrier) and the Thompsons are Nesbit and Nesbit. The first Asterix comic is also now in Scots.
He’s a fair wunner, is wee Tarrie. There’s no a dug like him for snowkin efter crooks!
Oot ye get! An nae joukery-pawkery, mind!
Not another pirate picture book! Yes, but a beauty. Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor (1939) is a masterpiece of illustration by the cult novelist Mervyn Peake (author of the Gormenghast trilogy). His pirate Captain has a mid-life crisis on a weird pink island where he discovers ‘a creature as bright as butter’ who inspires him to ‘drop out’ ( NY Times says the creature looks ‘like Bob Dylan with cocker-spaniel ears’.) Peake’s son, Fabian, says his father always wanted to live on an island ‘living a bohemian life free from the pressures of modern society’. See Peake’s incredible illustrations here.
The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas, is my favourite Christmas book. The pictures bring warmth and humanity to the story by showing the love between Mary and Joseph, the pregnancy and the rustic setting. Oddly, it sits well with the poetic language of the 17th century King James bible version. Vivas also illustrated the wonderful book for babies, I Went Walking.
Would it be possible to find a more ungrateful boy, or one with less heart than I have! – Pinocchio
Pinocchio by Carlo Collodi (1882) is a rare thing: an archetypal story for children. The puppet-boy is every disobedient, lazy child who must face hardships, find parental love and grow up. It can also be read as a snapshot of Tuscan society, a Christian allegory or a myth. The language of this classic has barely dated. The best recent version is illustrated by Roberto Innocenti, capturing the all the pathos and drama of the tale – his iconic artwork combines painterly detail with cinematic angles. This darkly humourous adventure is far from the sanitized Disney version (one of the most beautiful animated films).
Alice in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) by Lewis Carroll were the first children’s novels to create a complete fantasy world. Before Alice, children’s books were mostly moralistic or religious, with titles such as ‘An Exact Account of the Conversion, Holy Lives and Joyful Deaths of Several Young Children’. The Alice books are infused with word play, parody of Victorian society, anarchy, and creepy characters (courtesy of Tenniel’s illustrations; the knitting sheep is my favourite). The books revolutionized children’s literature.
Best Alice versions:
- Lovely hardback version with Zadie Smith’s intro and Mervyn Peake’s pictures.
- The Annotated Alice by Martin Gardner is the definitive geek’s guide.
- Salvador Dali’s illustrated Alice is a collaboration of two of the ‘ultimate explorers of dreams and imagination’. View the paintings here.
- The weird 1966 movie version captures the dreamy torpor of the fantasy.
Children’s fiction about honey bees is rare and this gem from 1957 is hard to find. A Swarm in June by Rosemary Garland is a charming junior novel that beautifully combines bee lore with childhood wonder. Seven year old Jonathan finds a wild swarm in June (‘worth a silver spoon’) but a visiting cousin is scared of bees. It takes an attack by a stoat to unite the cousins in the end. It’s an innocent tale and the bee wisdom is timeless: beating a gong to attract a swarm; tracking bees with thistledown; and ‘telling the bees’ about important events in our lives. Best of all is the way the boy is so comfortable around the bees.