This has been Children’s Book Week. Apart from two slight grouches – one, that every week is children’s book week, surely, and second, that The Book Trust (or booktrust as they rather disappointingly seem to want to be known – you know, illiterate but approachably chummy) have produced a list of must-reads sponsored by Kindle – make that sponsored by Kindle so you can hear the ‘you see?’ tone of voice in which I’m saying that – apart, as I say, from these two very trifling objections, anything that celebrates reading and enjoying books has to be applauded. And their lists are all sensible choices, even if they do fall into the usual elephant trap (perhaps we should say Heffalump Trap in honour of the occasion) of listing everything they’ve read recently as Best Thing Since the Dawn of Time. Really? Who knows, or, of course, cares? We’re not reading books as a competitive event. I hope.
Anyway, three cheers for their list because it includes the official Northern Reader Best Book Ever Written for Small Children: Where the Wild Things Are, written and, somewhat crucially, illustrated, by the sadly late Maurice Sendak. Like all right-thinking parents, I find to my great joy that I can still recite the text by heart, and like all people with a pulse, can still be exhilarated by the wonderful, magical, hypnotically thrilling pictures. I tell you, it knocks spots off The Ladybird Baby’s First Book which I loved as a small person but can now see, in the cold light of experience, was a bit mealy-mouthed on the doling out of visual enchantment. Still, it gave me some of life’s essential vocabulary:
The pictures are a great deal of what matters in children’s books – the smaller the child, the more important the pictures, although the deserved success of Folio Books proves that adults should be allowed to look at the pictures too. Newer readers than me of Dorothy Edwards’My Naughty Little Sister may well miss out on the touching little portraits of our heroine in my old battered paperback, which were by the great Shirley Hughes. I hope it goes without saying among the discerning NorthernReadership that to contemplate Winnie The Pooh without E H Shepherd is Just Plain Wrong. I would say the same about Mole, Ratty, Badger and Toad, but I am happy to award an honourable mention to Inga Moore. Arthur Rackham, for The Wind in the Willows and, while I’m at it, just about everything else, is far too sinister and mimsy for my liking.
The pictures mattered in fairy stories, too, but not as much. Were you an Andrew Lang, a Charles Perrault or a Grimm household? We were definitely of the Grimm persuasion: a huge heavy brown book with what I now know to be the later, gorier, versions of the stories the brothers pottered about collecting. Ugly sisters hacking off their heels, Rumpelstiltskin tearing himself in half, that sort of thing. Peculiar, the insouciance with which children tend to absorb these horrors: it is the parents who quake as the witch reaches through the bars to see if Hansel is fat enough to eat. And we had – someone reassure me that ours was not an especially odd childhood – Struwwelpeter, given by our (well, come to think of it, decidedly odd) grandfather to discourage persistent thumb-suckers. To this day, ‘The door flew open, In he came, The long red-legged scissor-man’ can have me feeling quite faint. But I don’t suck my thumb.
So, what books do I hope the little poppets have on their first shelves? Boxed sets of the Beatrix Potter stories – detailed pictures to explore for hours and lovely words like ‘soporific’ – and the Winnie The Pooh stories and poems are the perfect present from godparents (if you are about to be a godparent, and want to give a religiously-inclined gift, my choice would be the ‘original spelling’ Tyndale New Testament published by the British Library. It’s not facsimile, which would cost thousands, but it is the same size as the original; just the right size to hide up your 16th century sleeve if you hear someone coming. Buy it and hold the traces of dangerous revolution in your hand). Dear Zoo, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and Mog the Forgetful Cat need to be there from the start. And poetry. Any poetry, really: your new very small audience is not critical and will enjoy the rhythms and repetitions, whether you read nursery rhymes or Ezra Pound.
Above all, keep reading. When Moses came down the mountain with those rocks under his arm, they did not stipulate a cut-off age after which it is not permissible to sit and listen to a story. The BBC knows that, of course: hence Book at Bedtime, the Classic Serial and Book of the Week. And the makers of story CDs know it too. The child without Alan Bennett’s sublime reading of Winnie the Pooh and The Wind in the Willows is a deprived child. There is not much wrong with having been put on this planet to give definitive voice to Eeyore and Badger: there are Nobel Laureates with less to boast about. And it’s better to let Bennett, or Martin Jarvis (the embodiment of William Brown), or Miriam Margolyes (fabulous reader of The Worst Witch stories), or dear Bernard Cribbins (the lovely Sophie stories by Dick King-Smith) read to your darlings than do it yourself when, like Calvin’s dad, you long to rip the chosen favourite book into tiny, tiny slips and feed them to the flames. Sweet dreams, everybody.