A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The start of a new series: Favourite Books From the Cradle to the Grave explores books that we loved at different stages of life. We make no pretence – this is not about dispassionate judgement, about analysis, about how works fit with genre, whether their messages are honorable, whether they are edifying to read. This is simply about love.
So, kicking off the series is Picture Books. The first books we encountered as toddlers and, of those, the ones that stayed in our minds and (for one of us) a precious hidden bottom drawer – and still think of fondly today.
What was striking about putting these books together was how many of them were about animals, or involved animal protagonists. What is it about children and animals? Is it the fact that animals can’t talk? Or that they, similar to small children, are powerless and dependent in the world of adults? Or do children dream of a greater freedom of movement, whilst getting rid of the parents (as is so often the case with books for slightly older children.)
Other books we loved book involve complex illustrations that allow us, as children – even before we can read – to take a bit more control over the story and interact with the reader by filling in the gaps of the story, adding some jokes, or just pointing out details.
Rhyming featured heavily in our list, yet – again – does not feature in adult narratives. Perhaps because these books are more about sharing and reciting and joining in rather than reading in solitude. (Interesting how recited narratives from the past – ancient epics – were often in poetic form.)
Lastly, humour, is one of the key ingredients that allow these books to be loved by the child and the parent.
Anyway, here is our – very personal – selection of books we have known and loved. We would be delighted if you like to join in and tell us yours.
Winnie the Pooh and The House at Pooh Corner by A.A.Milne.
Rosy: Well, as I’m the one putting together this article, I’m going to take the liberty of getting my favourite in there first. Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne is definitely my top children’s book ever. When I was three or four I could recite it off by heart. Witty writing, characters that any small child can relate to and beautiful pictures and songs like “Tiddly Pom” that I could chant to take my mind off any tedious walk. It is such a classic now that we forget to consider the way this book so successfully creates a completely safe yet exciting ordinary yet fantastical adult-free world. The themes of animals, toys and the importance of food (honey) are themes that all small children relate to everywhere – I certainly did.
Rosie’s Walk. by Pat Hutchins
Ariadne: This is a hilarious story about a hen that goes out for a walk, followed all the way by a fox that never manages to catch her, because he’s always getting into Tom & Jerry style accidents (stepping on rakes, etc). Rosie the hen is blissfully ignorant (or is she??) all the way through, and the text never once mentions the fox – you have to ‘read’ the pictures to get the whole story. It’s a classic.
Richard Scarry Books
Leena: My favourite picture books bar none were Richard Scarry’s wordbooks and Busy World books. I loved asking my parents or grandparents what this or that word was. But most of all I loved Scarry’s pictures. I would have studied them all day; I still could. I’ve always loved busy, panoramic pictures – and now, I love busy, panoramic novels. Some things never change.
Mary: “Lowly Worm” was my favourite. I always wondered how his clothes stayed on.
Dogger by Shirley Hughes.
More than any other book, I think this books gets to the heart of a child’s point of view. For me, as a youngster, I would be in torment identifying with the emotional trauma of losing your favourite toy. Hughes is also a wonderful illustrator, with picture full of extra detail and observations that allow you, as a child, to feel more in control of the story and with character details and domestic details that you could both relate to and would reveal more on each reading.
Lisa: Miffy kicks ass!
Gilbert the Great by Jane Clarke
Ariadne: Gilbert the Great White Shark has always been the best of friends with his remora (a sucker fish that clings onto sharks) but one day he’s not there any more. Gilbert’s grief is so sensitively and powerfully conveyed, but there is loads of humour in here too – Jane Clarke is a very witty writer. When you know the author has had more than her fair share of loss herself, it makes the whole thing even more heart-breaking. It is a fantastic book on any level; it would be a great choice to give to a child who has lost a relative, but even a child who had simply had a loved friend move away would feel the emotions involved.
Mary: One book from when I was about 6 marked me for life. Our neighbour went to Australia and brought me back a book about a red kangaroo. I read the book and was enjoying it but in the end the kangaroo died!? This shocked me immensely because it was the first book I ever read that had a sad ending. I’m still not over it, I think.
The Four Little Kittens
Leena: When I was a little younger my favourites were a tiny book called Four Little Kittens, with Victorian pictures, and two Little Golden Books, Martha’s House by Edith Kunhardt (one with busy pictures again) and Katie the Kitten by Kathryn and Byron Jackson. As a little girl I kept them with me all the time, but whenever I see them now I get hopelessly teary-eyed. Because of this I must keep them out of the way, in a bottom drawer.
Another book I liked a lot was about a mouse who lived in a teapot and was harassed (predictably) by a wicked, wily cat. If I remember correctly, it ended happily with the cat and mouse reconciled – or at least I like to think so.
[Note: If any of our readers can name this book for us, Leena would be most grateful!]
Mary: I really liked funny rhyming books like The Cat in the Hat. Are rhyming books gone out of fashion?
A Child’s Garden of Verses by Robert Louis Stevenson
Jackie: We had A Child’s Garden of Verses I was really into nursery rhymes before I could read, all the black sheep and cows jumping the moon etc. Even then I sensed the history behind them, which I learned about later, i.e… London Bridge is falling down is about the plague…
Leila: I loved A Child’s Garden of Verses too. And no, rhyming books aren’t gone out of fashion at all. The Gruffalo, probably the most famous modern children’s picture book in the UK, is rhyming, along with lots of others by the same author. Rhyming picture books should become more prevalent now that phonics are so much in fashion.
The Gruffalo by Julia Donaldson, illustrations by Alex Sheffler
The story of a mouse who invents the terrible beast The Grufalo, telling more and more stories – only to come face-to-face with the real one.
The Snowy Day, by Ezra Jack Keats
Trilby: reading this as a sprog in the 80s, I think I was already aware of its retro quality (first published in 1962, the tale features a little black kid wandering an urban American landscape that has been transformed by snow). Enchanting…
The Tin Forest by Wayne Anderson.
Ariadne: His dream-like, moon-lit illustrations are perfect for this modern fairy-tale, full of a sense of wistful sorrow. It’s just beautiful.
Funny Bones and Burglar Bill by Janet and Allan Ahlberg
Ariadne: The colours in this are just splendid – a family of jolly skeletons are white against a black background throughout. It’s funny and just scary enough to have a child hiding their head under the covers but not nightmare-inducing scary. Putting the skeleton dog back together after he takes a tumble – brilliant!
Rosy: Another Ahlberg I loved was Burglar Bill, which always had me in stitches. I think the fact it was also a little bit bad was very appealing to a small child!
The Duchess Bakes a Cake by Virginia Kahl
Rosy: The story of a Duchess who tries to bake a cake and puts rather too much raising agent into the mix…A rhyming story in a medieval context. Funny, great characters and acknowledges the profound truth of cake at the centre of all our lives. (Or is that just me again?)
And for older children: The Church Mice Books by Graham Oakley
Rosy: Little children love the pictures, older children love the characters. Cat, Sampson and mice, Arthur and Humphrey are a comic triumvirate up there with the best of British sitcoms. Full of humour and detail – the incredible illustrations are full of visual jokes to add to the pleasure. I loved them as a child, but they are like the best kids films in that they also contain a lot for the adults, making them a real shared experience. When I found myself in hospital a few years ago, these were the only books I had the energy or concentration to read. Love em!
Eloise, by Kay Thompson
Trilby: When I was little, my mum said that I sometimes reminded her of Eloise. I’m also a fan of Eloise’s descendants: most notably, Olivia, and Lauren Child’s Lola.
A Hole Is To Dig, by Ruth Krauss
Trilby: A classic. Say no more.