Anna Harrison holds an MEd in Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature from Cambridge, and is a Senior English Lecturer at the School of Education at Roehampton University.
I love the direct missive from Penguin’s strap line: ‘Read More’. So I thought in casting around for a blog subject that I would muse on a rather eclectic mix of books I have read in the past week taking into account that I have three children, mixed feisty twins and a newly double-digit ten-year-old boy plus 60 undergraduates in a London university to inspire with the joy of children’s literature.
Home-wise, amidst a craze for all things Asterix, it was the timeless antics of Paddington Bear, (Bond, 2014) (first edition 1962), which got my vote – unfortunately I think I enjoyed it more than my seven-year-old. He started checking how many pages the long chapter had! The Paddington books have been a discovery due to their intended universal audience…so although Paddington Bear looks like a preschool commercial character symbol, notes in the back of the book suggest otherwise. Michael Bond simply wrote because he was inspired to transfer imaginative ideas to paper, being driven by the presence of a real bear toy on his mantelpiece, which he had bought for his wife as a present. He explicitly suggests that he did not write with an intended child audience in mind. So as I was reading to my son, I realised that these books (with longish chapters) were working on a number of levels. There were adult nuances to keep me interested as well as the loveable qualities of a hapless bear.
If you are new to these books, you need to know about Mr Curry, who is the rather nasty neighbour! Mr Curry sets up Paddington for a bit of gardening, which the reader just knows is going to go delightfully wrong.
He leaves Paddington to saw his overgrown tree, pick ripe pears and cut his immaculate lawn while he skips off to do his errands. A few pages later, Paddington’s use of rope has somehow managed to hoister a motor mower up into a tree and then proceeded to whizz Paddington himself through a garden fence, onto the Portabello Road towards busy London market stalls. Oh joy!
Previous to reading about Paddington, anyone who knows me knows that I am quite drawn to anything in Potter’s world – and no, not Harry, but a Victorian woman who was even mentioned in tweets on International Women’s Day last Wednesday as someone who has made a lasting impact as both author and conservationist – Beatrix Potter. And so it was with interest that I noted that the latest Easter cards in a well-known British supermarket featured Peter Rabbit and Jemina Puddleduck. It struck me that there might be a PhD to be done on how book characters become interwoven within a national psyche. Here they appear to represent the spring association (loosely linked) to a major Christian festival.
Re-reading Linda Lear’s (2008) intricately researched biography of Beatrix Potter, the idea for a bonneted duck may well has originated in a sketch by her father, Rupert Potter. One of his sketchbooks dated 1853 included “precise pen-and-ink sketches of animals, including a bear in an overcoat smoking a pipe, a dog at a spinning wheel and most curiously, a flight of ducks over a marsh including one wearing a bonnet, an image which later stuck the imagination of his daughter and was the precursor of another more elaborately bonneted duck she would one day make famous” (Lear, 2008, p. 18).
It is quite extraordinary how ideas transmute through bloodlines! Lear also suggests in her early chapters that Beatrix Potter was blessed with an extraordinary memory. In one of her journals dated 28 March 1884, she recalls ‘vividly sensory’ memories of Gorse Hall, the home of her Grandmamma Leech, ‘the pattern of the door-mat, the pictures on the old music-box, the sound of the rocking horse as it swung, the engravings on the stair, the smell of Indian corn’ (Lear, 2008, p. 15). The quality of these memories perhaps provides us with clues about how this underpinned everything she did as an artist-author.
And my final plug is for The Cool Web The Pattern of Children’s Readings (Meek, Warlow, Barton, 1977) where despite it being a seminal textbook of 40 years, nevertheless offers a wealth of interesting chapters. I cannot do it justice to it here but in research for a ‘traditional tales’ seminar, I was drawn to Elizabeth Cook’s comparison of seven different versions of Cinderella (pp. 272-282). Immediately, Cook dismisses a general view that Cinderella might be about ‘wishes come true’ instead arguing that it is a story ‘about Trial, Recognition and Judgement’ (p. 276). I think she makes a useful point about at least knowing about the original versions, which she esteems as being more literary, in particular Perrault (1697-1719) and Grimm’s (1823) than other modern versions (My Book of Cinderella Odhams All Colour Book series, 1960, no writer name given). I liked Perrault’s style and details about the dresses, ‘This was a new trouble to Cinderilla; for it was she who ironed her sisters’ linen, and plaited their ruffles’ (p. 272).
I believe that my ‘new trouble’ is simply finding plus-24 hours to ‘read more’ as there are so many delights to be constantly found. However, it is a trouble I am most happy to accept! I hope that my eclectic musings will add a smile, especially if you are deep into writing an essay or thesis!