Tag Archives: children’s books

#bookaday (10): Reminds me of someone I love


‘Reminds me of someone I love’ suggests long-term separation: you love them, but they’re not around and you need a reminder.  Fortunately that’s not the case for me. Or only in the special sense that when you have a small child, they’re developing so quickly that every week or at least every month, something of their old self is being left behind and a new one coming to replace it.  As the new one is mostly more articulate and more adept, better at understanding temporal relations and better at remembering what it did yesterday, better at using a toilet rather than nappies, that change is very much welcome; but there’s still a slight undercurrent of sadness. In theory that ought to be true for adults, but in practice it’s only small children who change with such speed.  As a neighbour who was a GP said with doctorly sententiousness (she herself had small children), ‘The days go slowly but the years go quickly.’

So, Julia Donaldson’s The Snail and the Whale.   I wish I could remember when we first started reading this to my son at bedtime. We’d started with The Gruffalo, which I was soon able to recite from memory, and we soon had A Squash and a Squeeze, which R. didn’t like very much.  I like reading verse stories at bedtime: I like reading something rhythmical, with all the possibilities for intonational melodies over the phrases.  I even enjoyed Dr Seuss’s Scrambled Eggs Super, though I read it every night for about six months in the middle of last year, and though the narrative is an episodic structure in which any episode could be swapped with any other.

The Snail and the Whale came some time before that; we have it as a board book, so maybe we bought it when our son was one.  As verse, Julia Donaldson’s books are very inconsistent. Several of them began as children’s songs, and so when they’re read as verse they scan unevenly and need a degree of rehearsal; but The Snail and the Whale is lyrical and smooth.  It isn’t my favourite Julia Donaldson: that might be Cave Baby, both for its celebration of creativity and for Emily Gravett’s beautiful illustrations, or it might be The Gruffalo, for its astonishing economy and inevitability. But The Snail and the Whale reduced me to tears several times when I first read it. Not just because of sleep deprivation: the story is very evocative of the world being huge and wonderful, and the narrative depends on the idea that the small and powerless creature might save the life of the big one.  Perhaps the idea of adventuring far and wide is particularly poignant when you have a small child; some people do travel, but we stayed firmly within Oxfordshire for the first 20 months.  And the idea that the large powerful creature might one day need to depend on the wit of the small and vulnerable creature is a moving one.  And the verse brings something to it as well, in its lyricism, and in the way the verses sometimes close up into the formulation ‘The tiny snail / On the tail / Of the whale.’  Our son is now four and a half, and evening story-time is a mixture of Spiderman stories and Roald Dahl, but The Snail and the Whale will always remind me of that earlier time.


#bookaday (1): Favourite Book from Childhood

Normally I write formal academic essays, and my main opportunity to speak less formally comes in lectures: the #bookaday hashtag will be an interesting opportunity to write in a less formal way.  It’s a way to review my reading, to ask what matters about the books I read, and hopefully to share a few books. I don’t know if I’ll find a book for some of these categories, but the blog’s a way of reflecting on why they don’t fit my experience.


‘Childhood’ covers a pretty broad period, and I was being read to from an early age: on what criteria does one choose?  When does reading stop being childhood reading? On my dad’s account, I very nearly drove him insane by repeatedly demanding to be read Lois Lenski’s The Little Farm. I also liked being read Frank Dickens’s Fly Away Peter (with illustrations by Ralph Steadman): the range of animals allowed my mum great scope for putting on different voices.


Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners (1975) made a big impression on me, somewhere around the end of primary school; I wrote an essay about it in my first year at secondary school.  (I also liked Stig of the Dump at primary school and in my first year at secondary was taken aback that we were being asked to study it.  It seemed like kids’ stuff.  My reading ground to a halt for a few years at secondary.)  I liked the dialogue in The Machine Gunners: people who actually said “bloody”. This wasn’t the fantastic and cushioned world of Narnia and that kind of children’s book.  And I liked the adult character (a Polish man?) who spoke scathingly about English bourgeois respectability and its neat privet hedges.  There may also have a been a kind of northern-ness to the dialogue that I connected with, as the son of northern parents living in southern England.  Not having the same vowels as everyone else was something I was constantly aware of.

Which brings me to The Iron Man by Ted Hughes.



On my mum’s account of things, I’d learned to read when I came to this, but with it my reading and my interest in reading took a huge leap forward.  Most of that’s no doubt due to it being an exciting and mysterious and very hyperbolic narrative, but I can’t help wondering whether there’s  some kind of northern speech in the rhythms, or something in the manner of expression, that connected with me. That sort of blunt gruffness that Hughes also deploys in ‘View of a Pig.’ A performance of northernness, maybe, but still real.  Were my parents also reading it to me, and was there something in the prose that allowed them to give a performance more enthusiastic than normal?

The other reason for singling out The Iron Man is that when I came to Hughes’s poetry during A-level (in George Macbeth’s Longman anthology), I realised that it was the same writer I’d read ten or more years previously; and the great thing about The Iron Man is that it comes from the same imaginative world as Hughes’s adult poems.  (A little bit later I discovered that we also had Meet my Folks, which is so different that it could be another writer.)  So if we treat the ‘from’ with pedantic precision — it’s not the same as your favourite book ‘in’ childhood — this one wins because it made the journey.  I wrote about Hughes for the optional thesis in the final year of my English degree, and was writing about him and other poets of the 1950s and 1960s when I began my doctoral studies.  So for all that I would now acknowledge faults in his poetry and his worldview, I owe him one.