Dear Zoo without the frills…

A Board Book Every Week: No. 20

 Dear Zoo Animal Shapes board book by Rod Campbell - Macmillan Childrens Books

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes by Rod Campbell

(Macmillan Children’s Books 2012)


This is a nice sturdy board book version of the famous old favourite. I like it for babies because it simplifies the original (pretty simple) text down to the name of the animal and why it isn’t right e.g.

‘Giraffe … Too tall’

‘Monkey…. Too naughty’

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes by Rod Campbell

We do lose some of the aspects that make Dear Zoo such an endearing classic – the fresh white space on the page, the exciting packages the animals come in, and the refrain of repeated ‘So they sent me a … I sent him back’. The build-up of excitement isn’t so great, but there’s a big bright animal on every page and a description to go with it that prompts exaggerated sounds, faces and gestures. For babies at the stage of flipping back and forth through the pages rather than following a story this is quite enough.

But that leads me to another plus of Dear Zoo Animal Shapes – because the words are pared back none of the animals is a ‘he’. Or a ‘she’ or an ‘it’. As has been pointed out before, every animal in the original is male for absolutely no reason whatsoever except that it’s the habit of writers and readers* to depict without thinking a default all-male world. Here you can choose, swap it about, or not bother at all.

Dear Zoo Animal Shapes board book by Rod Campbell

Of course, we end up with the perfect pet!

*I still find myself doing this, calling animals ‘he’ unless it’s dead obvious – dresses, names – that they aren’t. Yet in the real world, half of all animals are female even though they don’t wear dresses, and they tend to keep their names a secret.


Serene seasonal nostalgia with ‘I Am A Bunny’

A Board Book Every Week – my week-by-week attempt to build a stimulating and diverse library of baby books for a particular new baby.


  1. I Am A Bunny – by Ole Risom, illustrations by Richard Scarry

I Am A Bunny illustrated by Richard Scarry

A Golden Sturdy Book, first published in 1963.

I circled the table in the bookshop several times before I picked this one up. I’m retro myself so I’m not always drawn to retro – it can just remind me of teatime with aunties and embarrassing haircuts and clothing mistakes long-past. The book cover has a vintage colour palette: eye-watering yellow, scarlet, grass-green, and a yellow title font outlined in red – a queasy combo, and the reason I can’t eat cheese and tomato sandwiches.

But I saw the name Richard Scarry and I was curious. I associate Scarry with busy-busy pages crammed with small animals and vehicles and lots going on. Whereas this looked much less frenetic.

It’s taller than most board books but maybe that’s a good shape. The title page has realistic-looking violets, along with Bunny in his dungarees sniffing a flower. (We discover his name is Nicholas but actually he doesn’t need a name.) On the spring spread two kinds of daffodils look like actual daffodils – not just generic dear little flowers – followed by recognisable butterflies, which Bunny chases. So it goes on, with incredibly clear, colourful and calm seasonal spreads while the bunny does simple things like watch frogs and blow dandelion seeds in the air. The page filled with autumn leaves echoes the page filled with butterflies. There’s a rainy scene and a snowy scene. Finally Bunny goes to sleep and dreams of spring.

I love it.  Nostalgia for the simple life? Maybe, but I have the feeling it’s one of those books that will get requested again and again. It looks different from other baby books, not just because of the colour palette. I think it escapes being twee because of the accuracy of the nature images. Everything but Bunny looks super-realistic. As a plantsperson I really appreciate this, even if a baby won’t. OK, for UK readers there are raccoons as well as grey squirrels nesting in the trees, but we can cope.

And for the baby “reader”, there’s not too much going on and the language is simple and repetitive. For the adult having to read it a thousand times it may get boring, but there are few books at this level that won’t pall under that pressure – and its charm may just save it! There are animals and flowers and raindrops and pinecones to point out. And good old Bunny appears on every page, very cleverly the same size on each, so lots of opportunity to look and find.


I Am A Bunny - Richard Scarry

A Board Book Every Week

Since I last posted here I have been busy with – I’m trying not to say bogged down in – editing, illness, and family stuff.

But one lovely and exciting preoccupation has been the arrival of a brand-new person in our extended family, which gives me the perfect excuse to take a good look at board books for babies and what is out there right now. I’ve decided to build her a library one book a week (can I restrict myself just to this??) and we are kicking off with an old favourite of mine. I think this is a favourite of the whole world!


The Baby’s Catalogue by Janet and Allan Ahlberg.

The Baby's Catalogue by Janet and Allan Ahlberg


The Ahlbergs created such endearing classics as Peepo, The Jolly Postman, and Each Peach Pear Plum.

The Baby's Catalogue by Janet & Allan Ahlberg paperback cover

The cover of my original paperback version

I had the paperback version for my own kids and have now bought the sturdy board book. The only problem with this new version is that some of the pages are hard to separate and at first I feared they had left out my favourite page – Accidents! As a once undersized and very skinny small child I can painfully identify with the toddler who is slipping down inside the seat of the big loo.

Based on the way that babies love poring over the detailed pages of catalogues, the inimitable Ahlbergs created one of their own of particular interest to tinies. The pages are filled with rows or panels of familiar things – mums and dads, pets, cups, toys, prams, swings, brothers and sisters, and babies, babies, babies. It is fairly diverse and beautifully domestic. Mums breast- and bottle-feed. Dads do caring and chores. Babies laugh and cry and look perplexed and have small adventures.

There are lots of opportunities for pointing, naming, and commenting without any narrative line so it’s great for babies who aren’t ready for a story yet. But it has the Ahlbergs’ gentle humour and fine observation throughout to keep adults going.

Babies page of the Baby's Catalogue by Janet & Allan Ahlberg

This book first came out in 1982 and I was amazed to see that the tweedy & beardy dads depicted on some pages are bang on trend again! Maybe non-traditional families were not so frequent at this time and some items (e.g. the telly and the phone and the line full of terry nappies) have dated, but there is so much that is timeless. And the general idea that life is bit different from family to family, with different choices made, but also reassuringly similar, is a lovely one. It kind of says “No pressure”.

Our old paperback got a great deal of traffic which meant the pages were bent and a bit sticky. This wipe-able board book version should hold up better. But I’m sure will be equally well-loved.

5 Important Things I have learned from Books


…and by books, I mean classic fiction, not factual books.

I’m not even sure if this learning was conscious, they were just important lessons that are now embedded in my brain.

1. If you’re in deep snow and you start to feel all warm and sleepy YOU ARE ABOUT TO DIE! So don’t succumb and lie down in it. (White Fang by Jack London)

White Fang by Jack London

2. If you need to make some quick money – ideally to save your family – you could cut off your hair and sell it. (Little Women by Louisa May Alcott)

3. Turkish Delight is the most delicious, enticing sweet in the world. This is TRUE. (The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis.)

4. If you keep very still and try to look as if you are grass and trees, you will be able to tame wild animals. (The…

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The Complete Borrowers

Look what I just found in our delightful local secondhand bookshop:

The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton Puffin edition

More Borrowers than I even knew existed! The first tale – The Borrowers – was published in 1952, followed by The Borrowers Afield (1955), Afloat (1959), Aloft (1961). No wonder I never caught up with The Borrowers Avenged (sounds a bit violent?!) as it did not surface until 1982. By then I was more into Virago Modern Classics than classic children’s literature. There is also a Borrowers fragment called Poor Stainless, only a few pages long.

The Complete Borrowers by Mary Norton (Puffin) back cover

The introduction is a letter from Mary Norton herself, describing how the Borrowers came to be.

There are lots of lovely atmospheric black-and-white illustrations by Diana Stanley.

Diana Stanley illustration for The Borrowers

Illustration by Diana Stanley

Those accompanying The Borrowers remind me of Maurice Sendak’s style: chunky figures and normal, non-beautiful faces. And they remind me a bit of gargoyles and other faces carved around old churches, based on the stone-carvers themselves or people in the local community which were probably quite recognisable to those in the know.

Diana Stanley died in 1975 and the final book is illustrated by Pauline Baynes, whose work is inseparable in my mind from C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books.

I blogged about the perennial attraction of Borrower-sized people and other tiny things here at Girls Heart Books.

‘The Dark Is Rising’ by Susan Cooper

I loved Susan Cooper’s Over Sea, Under Stone (1965) when I was a child. At the time it was a stand-alone story. The rest of the books in the sequence weren’t written, or even conceived, until long after this first one was published. So I came to its sequel, The Dark Is Rising (1973), only this year, as an adult reader. I’ve forgotten all but the bare bones of the first book, except that it rapidly drew me in and introduced me to the legend of Arthur and the Grail quest.

I identified with Over Sea, Under Stone partly because it was set on the south coast of Cornwall in a landscape very familiar to me from summer holidays: my mother’s family live in that part of the world. The Drew children visit their great uncle Merriman Lyon for a holiday and stumble on a local mystery. So far, so children’s adventure…But then it gets deeper, turning very satisfactorily into a battle between the ancient powers of Light and Darkness.

I featured The Dark Is Rising on my recent wintry reads post and can’t imagine tackling it on a hot summer holiday. The action this time takes place over and around the winter solstice. Cooper grew up in Buckinghamshire, England – vividly depicted in The Dark Is Rising – but conceived the book while cross-country skiing through woods in Massachusetts, where she has lived for many years; and I think those surroundings make their mark on the novel, too.

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper Vintage Classics 2013


I do like this cover on my recent Vintage Classics edition, even with the slightly worrying South Park vibe of that orange-coated figure in the snow! It’s suitably chilly and the rearing horse and rider plus the sinister rooks hint at all the right story elements.


This time the family is the Stantons, with their rather unlikely ten children, partly because Will has to be the seventh son of a seventh son, a rare and chosen person. On the eve of his 11th birthday strange things begin to happen and Will’s ordinary, busy family preparations for Christmas turn so much murkier. The walls between his familiar world and a much older one grow thin and permeable. Shapes shift, Will travels in time and place, and meets The Old Ones who show him things and grant him knowledge almost overpowering to such a young boy. He discovers he has a key role – whether he wants it or not – in the endless fight between the forces of good and evil, light and dark. Merriman Lyon is again a vital figure, striding through the landscape full of ancient wisdom. Other Old Ones are strange versions of Will’s own neighbours, their own powers fiercely tested by the fight. Elements of British myth, like Herne the Hunter, are skilfully woven into the story to give it a wild, weird texture.

I know this is a very admired story, but coming to it now I found two problems with it, one large, one small.

Will is the kind of protagonist writers are warned against creating – he is very passive. (Passive protagonists can be annoying to identify with; the reader may just want to give them a kick up the pants.) The role of the Old Ones is to educate Will and, if they can, protect him. He is given visions. He is shown things, told things; when he’s unsure what to do next he’s told to wait and he will know, instinctively, or creatures will come out of the dark and the snow to lead him. And they do. He’s handed about like a parcel. Sure, sometimes he has to battle his utmost, but I never felt in doubt that he wouldn’t overcome, or have the right vision, or be saved by outward influence – even in the climactic fight. He doesn’t ever have to solve a problem himself, by his own ingenuity. Call me a cynical old adult, but I just didn’t engage with him enough as an active character to really worry for him. Perhaps if I’d read this book as a child I would have been swept along with Will’s journey and not felt the loss of narrative tension.

The only time he has any real agency, where I felt a charge of tension, is early on. Will has been shown he has to power to make fire, and like a typical young boy decides to test it out on a walk home down an out-of-the-way alley. His totally understandable experiment draws the attention of wicked forces, confusingly disguised as a local farm girl. This isn’t just wafting and drifting and going with the mythic flow. It’s Will making a unilateral decision and finding it’s a mistake. But then Merriman appears to save him and tell him a bit more useful stuff! And vanish again.

The other problem is a lesser one but niggling. It’s the girls.

Will has five brothers (another died as a baby) and three sisters, a big jolly household where dad works as a jeweller and mum keeps things going at home in their country cottage. Ten kids is pretty unusual for the early 1970s, and a non-Catholic family, but hey ho. The eldest, Stephen, Will’s hero, is away in the navy and sadly never does show up, though a significant gift arrives from him. All the boys, from adult Stephen down to Will as youngest, are lovingly drawn. They are talented: Paul plays the flute beautifully, James and Will are good singers, Robin’s mechanically-minded and ‘an excellent footballer’, Max fixes things. They willingly help with fetching the logs and the Christmas tree and sweeping snow. There’s jolly banter and sibling goodwill. They are described in a way that makes you think they’d look a rather attractive bunch to outsiders, and they’re unfailingly cheerful, charming and communicative.

Now, anyone who’s raised – or been – an adolescent boy – would you say that particularly those last three words are the first you’d pull out of the descriptive bag? Teenage boys can be charming, cheerful, helpful, and communicative, of course. But that’s truly not the default setting.

On to the girls. My feeling is that Cooper chucked in three girls just so that there weren’t only the seven necessary boy siblings – oh, and to give someone for Will to rescue. I found it hard to distinguish Gwen, Barbara and Mary. I found it hard to recall their names. We first meet them just before a noisy family mealtime, and how are they described? First sight of Gwen: patiently setting the table. Mary is ‘plump’, and listening to blasting pop music on the radio. She pouts when told to turn it off. Barbara is ‘sixteen and superior’ and tells someone to shut up. We learn that Gwen cooks whole meals for the family. Mary sniffs, and tosses her long hair. (She does this a lot, once described as being smug about it!) Already my resentment is building up. I don’t know about Will time-travelling, I feel as if I have time-travelled into the 1950s or some era when young women’s typical range of behaviour was seen as pouty, peevish, sulky, bossy, and shallow. The eldest’s natural role seems to be kitchen doormat. I’m really disappointed to find such lazy stereotyping from a woman author, writing this in the early 1970s. I was a teenager by then and I find this depiction very old-fashioned. Why can’t they be as skilful and talented as their glowing brothers?

I feel there is a real discrepancy in the way the boy and girl characters are treated. Even when they’re thinly drawn the boys are more positive. Big Max is ‘muscular’, practical, has an actual girlfriend in Southampton whom he writes to (basically he’s full of testosterone). Gwen, also interested in the opposite sex, rejects the carol singing trip to stay in and wash her hair, just in case she’ll see a certain boy the next day. We learn this from a catty remark of Mary’s. (It might be meant to be friendly teasing rather than catty, but since all that’s gone before is couched in terms of flouncy pouts and sniffs, I’m cued to think badly of her.) So poor Gwen, unlike manly Max, seems a bit vain and silly, and Mary’s always stirring it.

The girls don’t have much to do in the book, and little time to redeem (for me) those first slyly negative impressions. But Mary resurfaces to be put in jeopardy by the forces of darkness and Will’s tough task is to fight them for his sister’s life. Since he doesn’t seem to have a particularly significant relationship with her – he and Paul share much more page time and sympathies and some dramatic and lyrical scenes – I found this quite arbitrary. She’s a cipher Damsel in Distress. Is it because she’s female that Will feels even more the pressure to be heroic?? After her rescue she doesn’t recall a thing, is dismissively offhand about events, and is made to giggle twice in the space of a page. Great.

Which takes me back to Will’s passivity in the face of all the strange learning and ancient rites and battles. I just know he will triumph somehow. I didn’t worry about Will and I couldn’t bring myself to care about Mary, at all.

And yet in other children’s books, in the face of far less elemental pressures, I have worried in agony, holding my breath and clenching my hands, for characters who have to be brave and go that huge extra step to rescue a friend, or an animal, or even their enemy. I’ve fully engaged with their challenges and dilemmas. Why not with Will Stanton? Maybe Cooper’s mythic elements are too big for my tastes, and Will just washes along with it all like a branch in the thaw-flooded River Thames.

I have to say I did really enjoy the wonderful scene-setting, the dramatic weather and geography of the Thames Valley that Cooper obviously knows so well. Visually it works well. Some of my favourite scenes involved Will trekking through the brutish winter weather, harried by sinister birds or vague but looming threat; and, in contrast, those indoors in the firelight and candlelight with mysterious old Miss Greythorne at Huntercombe Manor. I like the layers of myth in the landscape and when we see how modern names and routes hark back to ancient ways and knowledge; because I love learning this sort of thing about little patches of English countryside and cityscape and it’s nice to see that detail in a children’s book.

But overall I was disappointed at not meeting Will Stanton as a convincing hero I could totally cheer for.

Looking after The Books

If you have ever wondered what goes into looking after a famous writer’s literary estate – apart from nice liquid literary lunches and denying access to anyone you think might write an unflattering biography (or is it just me who got that impression??) – read Lizza Aiken’s account of reading, and wrangling, every single thing her mother ever wrote:

Joan Aiken

The Books

Looking after a Literary Estate sounds like a dream job, especially if you are a reading addict…the danger is that you may never leave your room again, or in my case, the shed…  I had the unbelievable good fortune to be Joan Aiken’s daughter, and was brought up in her world of stories, but did for many years escape to travel the other world, and trained and worked as a mime – probably to avoid endlessly being asked when I was going to write a book myself!  But eventually Joan’s world caught up with me again; as she said when she was getting older, ‘Someone is going to have to look after the books when I go, and it will have to be you!’

I now realise what a tremendous compliment this was, but it has taken me all of ten years and more since her death to understand why. …

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Wintry reads from classic children’s books

We’ve finally had some wintry weather. Nights are still long, evenings quickly dark.  It’s time to keep warm with the slipper-boots/duvet/sleeping furry animal of your choice, and sink into a good book.

In winter I like to read wintry books. I might enjoy sunshine and luxuriant leafiness on screen – it serves the same uplifting function as going for a walk in bright winter sunshine – but I really don’t want escapist summery books at this time of year.

So here are some recommended reads from classic children’s books. Snow definitely included:

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper (1973)

The Dark Is Rising by Susan Cooper, Vintage paperbackWill Stanton is the seventh son of a seventh son and turns eleven on Midwinter Day. He always hopes for snow on his birthday. He gets his wish, along with a whole lot of strange and sometimes terrifying experiences, as this is time of the year when The Dark is very strong and the Old Ones who protect the world have to work hard to resist its evil forces. The setting in the rural Thames Valley that Cooper knows so well is stunning – snow, floods, Very Bad Stuff, all taking place over Christmas and New Year.

The Children of Green Knowe by Lucy M Boston (1951)

More snow, more floods, more magic, and dollops of heart-warming love, when amazingly-only-seven-years-old Tolly goes to stay with his grandmother for the Christmas holidays in her ancient haunted house. Magical illustrations, too, by the author’s son.

The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis (1950)

Snow is the default weather for Narnia as far as I’m concerned. Because how do we enter Narnia for the first time, in one of the most striking fictional openings ever? Pushing through a wardrobe stuffed, not with any old clothes but fur coats, and then into the wintry wood (snow-laden fir trees in Pauline Baynes’ iconic illustration) to find a faun in a red woollen muffler.The lamp post in Narnia, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by C S Lewis, illustrated by Pauline Baynes

‘What with the parcels and the snow it looked just as if he had been doing his Christmas shopping.’

Since in Narnia it’s always winter but never Christmas until the Pevensie children get involved, this makes a perfect winter read.



The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett (1911)

The opening pages establish what a disagreeable, spoilt and emotionally-neglected child Mary Lennox is, full of colonial snobbery and certainties. She arrives at gloomy Misselthwaite Manor in a rainstorm. It’s the season for fires in the bedroom and porridge for breakfast but there doesn’t seem much room for hope. The moor stretches bare and dreary beyond the window. Mary ventures into the garden only to find it wintry and bleak. But gradually ‘the Magic’ unfreezes everyone. Spring follows winter. A thoroughly warming tale.The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

For a very quick wintry read, there’s always Pooh Builds A House, the first chapter in The House At Pooh Corner by A A Milne (1928). In which Eeyore is very polite – or is that passive-aggressive? – about mislaying one house and Pooh and Piglet try to do a good deed by building another. Eeyore sinking under the increasing weight of his coating of snow is a sight to behold. I think he should be beatified as the patron saint of sufferers of Seasonal Affective Disorder.


Summer Reading 3: Islands of adventure…and growing up.

seaweed and limpets, Cornish beach

Recently I’ve been thinking, and blogging, about what kind of reading fits with summer days and I’ve finally got round to some children’s books. There’s still time! The weather may not be so summery right now but there are still weeks to go until…but let’s not think about that.

I’ve never been to the Scilly Isles but have long wanted to visit. Even more so now, after reading Breathing Underwater by Julia Green (2009), based on a fictionalised version of this archipelago off the tip of Cornwall. 14-year-old Freya returns for the first time in a year to the tiny island where her grandparents live and where her big brother drowned the summer before. It’s sad, but story and setting are beautifully evoked, as are the things that have changed and those which stay the same. I hate that lazy phrase ‘coming to terms with’, but I guess this is what the book is all about, and yet much more. Freya is growing up and stretching her wings. It also sums up wonderfully the way a holiday place can be somewhere you think of as your very own, more you than where you live most of your life – even when that’s painful, too.

Cornish cove

Cornish cove


Somewhere I have spent a lot of summertime in is mainland Cornwall, since my grandparents lived there and my mum grew up there. Also beautifully evoked, Helen Dunmore’s Ingo series (2006 onwards) mixes very convincing rocky coves, sandy beaches, caves, sun and sea-fog of the real Cornwall with a more mythical underwater strand which begins with a carved mermaid in Zennor church. Ingo is also about loss and longing; a little, too, about the economic difficulties of living in a remote, rural and seasonal county – but I expect grown-up readers will pick up more on this.  I’ve only read the first volume but have the second – The Tide Knot – lined up and can’t wait. Dunmore writes amazing novels for adults and is a poet, too – it shows.

In both these books children and young teens are testing their independence, and I love reading about their freedom to take risks and weigh up consequences.

For less nuanced reading, here are a couple of other ideas.

islands of adventure

More islands, swimming, sailing, picnics, camping out and building fires feature in my next suggestion. A much more traditional one: Swallows & Amazons by Arthur Ransome (1929). I confess I haven’t reread this since childhood and there may be some very uncomfortable attitudes lurking in it for modern-day readers. I know one of the characters has an embarrassing name that has not really stood the test of time. But there are ‘pirates’, intrepid and skilful girls, and plenty of adventures. It was in this book that I first came across a reference to pemmican – some kind of convenience-meal canned meat that, as a squeamish eater, I felt very nervous about – and because of my very literal young mind I just made the connection: pelican in a can. Obviously!

I’ve written elsewhere that I never read much Enid Blyton as a child, but I did enjoy a couple of the titles in the

The Island of Adventure by Enid BlytonAdventure’ seriesThe Island of Adventure being the only one I remember anything about! But Blyton is never short of picnics, boats, beaches and islands, and the kind of adventures that can only be had when responsible adults are right out of the picture and only the wicked, but easily outwitted by a handful of kids and a dog (or, in this instance, a parrot) type, are left.


Happy holidays (if only inside the pages of a book)!

Summer Reading: Part 1



I once tried to read Orhan Pamuk’s Snow on holiday in Southern Italy. In August. It was too hot to move. All I could do was lie in the shade and, when that got too much, cool off by jumping into the swimming pool. Yet my holiday reading was set in a Turkish city in the grip of a mighty blizzard.

I now know better. The best summer reading needs some kind of seasonal link. Here are a few of my tried and tested favourite summer fictions, each read several times. Not for children, these are strictly grown-up fare. I don’t really do ‘lite’, even in the highest temperatures.


Godf On The Rocks by Jane GardamGod On The Rocks – Jane Gardam (1978)

An English seaside town between the wars. Love and lust and religion, duty and – quite frankly – madness all boil over, fuelled by the endless summer heat. Inimitable Gardam.



Prodigal Summer – Barbara Kingsolver (2000)

A familiar Kingsolver theme – humans’ interactions with nature and each other, positive or destructive, always complicated. Moths, coyotes, apples, bees, love and death, all observed throughout a lush season.


The Go-Between – L P Hartley (1953)Julie Christie in The Go-Between

Hot hot hot. Tension ratchets up as the temperature keeps rising in Hartley’s classic story of a child caught up in adult manoeuvres.

A Room With A View – E M Forster (1908)

This awkward love story never fails me. And for once the film version did not spoil my imaginings, but added pictures and a Puccini sound track. There’s also a wicked lady novelist!


Part 2 of Summer Reading will look at novels which look at people on their summer holidays. Reader, know thyself.