When We Were Very Young and loved jumping in puddles

Winnie-the-Pooh Day is celebrated today, on the birthday of his creator, A A Milne.

Teddy Bear, from When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

I think if you grew up with a book since babyhood and know it inside out, it’s almost impossible to look at it objectively. I’m like that with Pooh books, both the stories – The House At Pooh Corner, and Winnie The Pooh – and the little books of poems, When We Were Very Young and Now We Are Six, which I am revisiting for this post.

Yes, there are twee aspects to them, and a distinct lack of female characters in the stories – though not so much in the poems. Mary Jane and Emmeline appear alongside boys who – often in curls and loose smocks over shorts in the distinctive drawings by E H Shepard – I’m sure I thought were girls, anyway. Yes, the poems feature children in buttoned gaiters, with nannies, and nurseries, and all that privileged pre-war clutter. But there are also plenty of animals – wild and domestic – and a good dose of imaginative transformation. It didn’t jar when I looked back at the books when I had small children to read to. Of course, I was selective, and I left out the sillier or rather aimless bucolic poems, but I suspect they got left out when the books were read to me too!

What I still really like about the strongest poems are their rhythms, which are so well-suited to being read – or recited – aloud. A poem that sticks in your mind is sure sign of a good bouncy rhythm (though I suppose that’s true of some doggerel, too – er, theory confounded, then.)  There are plenty of natural-feeling and satisfying rhyming words. But best of all – despite the buttoned gaiters – is that many of the situations are very simple and very child-centred, and are about gently defying adult expectations. The joy of just running madly around, of stepping in puddles, the pleasure and terror involved in avoiding the cracks in the pavement, and the hatred of being cajoled to be polite or eat up or hold hands.

Lines and Squares, Whene We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

There is the assumption that tiny children will understand when the opposite of what’s being said is true – always fun: they’re in on the joke. We know exactly what’s the matter with Mary Jane, even if the grown-ups are too dim to spot that’s it something to do with ‘lovely rice pudding’. Bullying Sir Brian Botany really isn’t ‘as bold as a lion’ and we love it when he gets his come-uppance,

‘They took him by the breeches and they hurled him into ditches’

and then we love it again when he has a change of heart. King John is ‘not a bad man, but he has his little ways’ – doesn’t he just? James James Morrison’s glamorous but wafty-looking mother is ‘LAST SEEN WANDERING VAGUELY’ – no wonder he has to pedal off on his trike and fetch her. All these grown-ups are being gently lampooned, just like the flawed and foolish adults in Richmal Crompton’s Just William books.

It’s a world that was very real to me when I was little, a world of small daily activities and large imaginary ones. Looking at them again, I realise how much I like the space in some of the poems – how ordinary things like chairs, long curtains, and the famous ‘halfway down the stairs is the stair where I sit’ – are places where the imagination can roam free.

‘Where am I going? I don’t quite know…

Anywhere, anywhere. I don’t know…’

Halfway down the stairs, When We Were Very Young poems by A A Milne

Make every week a children’s book week with 100 Best Books For Children

This was really last week’s news, but why not extend Children’s Book Week a little longer? Make every week a children’s book week?

Booktrust published its list of 100 Best Books for Children. The books had to be published in the last 100 years and the selection panel chose to concentrate on fiction. There are certainly many familiar books and many of my own family favourites here, particularly in the youngest section.

eachpeach

In the 0-5 age range, special mention to Each Peach Pear Plum, which I think I could still recite – at a pinch. We loved looking for the witty details in the pictures, and I really do admire the way all those fairytale characters managed to appear most naturally together. Hairy Maclary From Donaldson’s Dairy has a similar zingy rhythm to it and an inventiveness that makes it such fun to read aloud. And then John Burningham’s Would You Rather? which mixes cringy, scary and funny and gives lots to talk about. There are just one or two in this section which are new to me. Only the other week – coincidentally just before this list came out – I came across I Want My Hat Back by Jon Klassen for the first time and enjoyed its poignant deadpan humour.

stanley

Fewer real favourites in the 6-8 age group, though I loved being reminded of Flat Stanley by Jeff Brown. Mister Magnolia and Winnie The Pooh are in there too, but I think my kids enjoyed these at a much younger age – probably because I enjoyed them so much. This section seems to show that around now individual reading tastes begin to develop and diverge.

But 9-11s has a really strong field and so many beloved books in it. I’m so pleased to see The Wolves of Willoughby Chase made it, alongside Skellig, Ballet Shoes and Journey to The River Sea.

Interesting that in the 12-14s there are several books I only read as an adult and bought as adult books: Watership Down, I Capture The Castle, The Curious Incident of the Dog In castle The Night-time. Some wonderful reads here, new and old. At this age I didn’t know where to look for interesting and challenging books and, outgrowing the children’s section of the local public library, I launched on a random assault of the adult shelves. (The word ‘adult’ as an adjective always sounds rather dodgy these days!) I waded through some very strange stuff before settling into science fiction and rather macho thrillers. I couldn’t seem to manage the classics then and nothing I read at school – except Lord of the Flies – engaged me at all. If only today’s range and quality of reading for teens had been available when I was that age.

Shock horror! All animals are boys!!

After I’d chosen my Top 10 Animals in Children’s Books I realised that all of them – every single animal I loved and sometimes heavily identified with – were male. And I hadn’t noticed, not at the time of reading the books they appear in (and sometimes reading them over and over) nor when I chose them for my blogpost.

But although I’m embarrassed to find that I’ve totally ignored and left out female animals, I discover it’s easily done. It seems that male is the default setting for animals in literature everywhere, and male characters not only dominate the cast-lists in children’s fiction but usually take the biggest and most exciting parts too. This was true not only in my childhood, and long before (Beatrix Potter* and Kenneth Grahame were first published around 1900 and A. A. Milne’s children’s books in the 1920s) but right through the 20th century. And now we’re in the 21st apparently it’s not much better.

Here is some lovely low-tech research carried out this year by Rhino Reads in response to the question “Why are crocodiles only boys?” April | 2013 | Rhino Reads

In another post Rhino Reads talks of reading Dear Zoo many times before spotting that the zoo has nothing but male animals. (And a very unsuccessful breeding programme, I imagine!) And I’ve done just the same, even though I credit myself with being fairly aware and usually not letting people get away with sloppy gender stereotyping.

Around the same time Alison Flood wrote an article about recent research from Florida State University here Study finds huge gender imbalace in children’s literature | Books | theguardian.com

And some detailed research from 2007 – Gender Stereotyping and Under-representation of Female Characters in 200 Popular Children’s Picture Books: A 21st Century Update – is here http://www.centre.edu/web/news/2007/2/gender.html

So I’d have had to search far and wide to find key and beloved female animals. What seems odd to me is that

  1. I didn’t notice, so used am I to males being given the lead roles, those the reader expects to identify with, and to all-male cohorts of characters.
  2. I had no problem identifying with all these boys as a young girl reader.

*To be fair to Beatrix Potter, she did give us Jemima Puddleduck and Mrs Tiggie-Winkle and more, but her male characters by far outnumber her female ones.

My Top 10 Animals in Children’s Books

Animals always manage to creep (bound, gallop, flutter) into my own writing. Dogs, cats and horses have all featured, and my next book even includes some hens. Here are my ten favourite animals in children’s books, not including horses – they deserve a list of their own!
In no particular order, then…

Jumble in Just William et al by Richmal Crompton. Jumble is like the dogs of my childhood: 1. A mongrel, of course. 2. Lives a charmed life. 3. Doesn’t do ‘walkies’. 4. Any rigorous training is devoted to learning tricks, not behaving himself in public. 5. Never sees a vet. 6. Just one of the gang.

Fred, the eponymous hero of Posy Simmonds’ picture book. Enormous, snoozy, boring Fred turns out to lead a secret double life. When he dies (yes, the difficult topic that a pet might not be immortal is raised) the neighbourhood cats come together to celebrate his legendary night-time persona in a glorious wake. A lesson for complacent cats and cat-owners everywhere.

Mole in The Wind In The Willows by Kenneth Grahame. Ratty knows his way about, but Mole is rather new to things, so as a child I indentified with him. I don’t think I was particularly amused by Mr Toad until I was older and met a few real-life Toad-alikes; possibly still not amused.

Squirrel Nutkin by Beatrix Potter. I’ve only seen a real red squirrel once, at Cawdor Castle in the Highlands. They are increasingly rare, reduced mainly to Scotland – and Brownsea Island in Poole Harbour. They have been pushed out by their imported cousins, the grey squirrels. Of all Potter’s immaculately-drawn animals, handsome Squirrel Nutkin remains my favourite.

Hare in the Little Grey Rabbit books by Alison Uttley, illustrated by Margaret Tempest. While Grey Rabbit keeps calm and carries on, effortlessly making bandages, soup and cowslip balls, dear old Hare is an enthusiastic, somewhat galumphing fool, full of hare-brained schemes. He also gets marks for being an elegant dresser – those coats!

Owl in Winnie The Pooh and The House At Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne. Lots of animals to choose from in the Hundred Acre Wood but most of them are made of cloth! Owl is a real bird, lives up a tree, and is the go-to creature for dispensing wisdom. “Able to read and write and spell his own name WOL, yet somehow [he] went all to pieces over delicate words like MEASLES and BUTTEREDTOAST.” Know the feeling.

Pantalaimon in His Dark Materials trilogy by Phillip Pullman. I so, so wish daemons were real and not just a brilliant fictional idea. Pan has all the great qualities of a companion-animal, a loyal familiar, and then some. What would my daemon be (once it had stopped shape-shifting)?

Buck in Call of The Wild by Jack London. I don’t know why I enjoyed such sad stories as a child (and this isn’t really for children), but I do love a good book told from an animal’s point of view. This one doesn’t spare the reader’s feelings as we follow Buck’s brutal path through the harsh conditions of the Klondike Gold Rush. Read and weep.

The Caterpillar in The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carl. (Can’t leave out the invertebrates.) He’s a caterpillar. He’s hungry. Some of those food choices might not be mine, but he’s got to build up his strength to transform into a beautiful butterfly. I once spent some happy hours making that butterfly for a story-bag, and was rather proud of the result. I wish I still had it.

The Monster in Not Now, Bernard by David McKee. I’ve snuck him in because I read about him to my children over and over and over again, and he still makes me laugh and I still feel sorry for him. He might have – sorry, SPOILER ALERT ! – eaten Bernard but my heart goes out to him. And I think he qualifies as an animal, doesn’t he?

Now I’m sure that – just like forgetting a friend’s birthday – I’ve unforgivably overlooked some old favourites.

Do let me know who you would choose.